No more drinking at the Quinte Hotel

The sad ruins of the landmark Quinte Hotel in downtown Belleville, Ont. (Photo from the Belleville Intelligencer)

The sad ruins of the landmark Quinte Hotel in downtown Belleville, Ont. (Photo from the Belleville Intelligencer)

Hello people, and welcome to 2013! My apologies for being so absent lately. It has been a combination of weariness/illness (the aftermath of The Dreaded Christmas Flu), and being on the road with no reliable internet access. But tonight I am feeling better than I have in quite a while, energized and (thanks largely to a great note I got today from my friend and indefatigable Queensborough-booster Elaine) all revved up about what this year is going to bring for Queensborough, and for Raymond and me and our life at the Manse. It is going to be a good year!

But first, some news from Hastings County that won’t be news to those of you who live there or keep tabs on it, but will perhaps be to others. It’s rather sad news, because it involves the end of not one but two historic buildings that have a certain place in the Canadian literary canon, thanks to poet Al Purdy. These places are none other than the Quinte Hotel – or should I say, the Quinte Hotels. One is – or rather, was – in Trenton, a small city in the southwestern corner of Hastings County (and for some unknown reason sometimes more associated with neighbouring Northumberland County); the other, currently in ruins and semi-demolished, is in Belleville, the Hastings County seat about 45 minutes due south of Queensborough. Both experienced devastating fires over the course of the past couple of months – first the Trenton Quinte (which in recent years has been a strip joint called the Sherwood Forest Inn; details on that fire here and here) and then, just before Christmas, the historic landmark building that was the Quinte Hotel (or, in more recent times, the “Hotel Quinte”) in the heart of Belleville; you can read about that one here and here and here.

If you know anything at all about Al Purdy you probably know At the Quinte Hotel, one of his most famous poems. “I am drinking/I am drinking beer with yellow flowers/in underground sunlight/and you can see that I am a sensitive man/And I notice that the bartender is a sensitive man too…” Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip did a video based on it and here it is (though I recommend fast-forwarding through the first couple of minutes and getting straight to the voice of Al reading the poem):

It kind of gets all gauzy in retrospect now, but if you grew up in rural Ontario in the middle part of the 20th century, you will probably have a good idea of what places like the Quinte Hotel were like in the days Al was drinking in them. In a small town or city, “the hotel” was a synonym for “the bar,” or better yet, to use a classic Canadian phrase, “the beer parlour.” These were generally three- or four-storey brick buildings that once had been real hotels, with respectable rooms for rent, and restaurants with fine meals served as well as bar service. But once there was no longer much call for hotel rooms or fine dining in Ontario’s small towns and cities, the proprietors of these establishments had to make ends meet any way they could, and that tended to be turning the ground floor into a large bar serving primarily draft beer (generally purchased in sets of two glasses, salt shaker on the side) primarily (especially in the unenlightened days before the late 1970s/early 1980s, when women were finally allowed in, for better or for worse) to men. (There would in the olden days be a separate room for “ladies and escorts” that was never particularly populated.) The food served in these beer parlours was mostly from giant jars of pickled eggs and preserved sausages on the counter; there would be a cigarette machine doling out Mark Tens and whatnot in exchange for a whole bunch of quarters in the corner of the room; and on Friday and Saturday nights, as likely as not, there would be live entertainment in the form of a band that might be half-decent and, then again, might not. The room would be always a haze of cigarette smoke, fights would be common, and if you happened to be there past closing time (when the lights went up, a ghastly – though eminently predictable – event immortalized in Leonard Cohen’s Closing Time) it was always entertaining to watch and listen as people outside the locked door tried to wheedle their way in for one last late-night drink.

Gee, I sound like I know what I’m talking about, don’t I?

Well, let me assure you that my experiences in old-fashioned Ontario beer parlours have nothing whatsoever to do with my growing-up-in-Queensborough years. They came when I was older and much less wise. But suffice to say that while I never darkened the door of the Quinte Hotel in Trenton or the Quinte Hotel in Belleville, I am perfectly aware of what those places were like. And since Al Purdy was very fond of beer, and of shooting the breeze, I am equally sure that many of his afternoons and maybe evenings were spent drinking beer at the Quinte Hotel, in whichever town he happened to be in.

It turns out it was the Quinte Hotel in Trenton he was referring to in his famous poem, though I’d be shocked if he hadn’t enjoyed the hospitality of the Belleville establishment as well. I remember that place (the Belleville one) in the 1960s and 1970s, when my family would visit Belleville (usually because my dad, the minister, was making pastoral calls on parishioners who were in the hospital there) because of the oval rotating red and white and blue sign proclaiming “Quinte Hotel” that was something of a landmark in the downtown (though damned if I can find a photo of it on Google – anybody?).

Anyway, these are fond memories, stinky tobacco-hazy beer parlours and all. But here is some news you need! The Al Purdy A-Frame Trust people, the good folks working to restore the humble A-frame house that Al and his hardy wife, Eurithe, built by hand in Prince Edward County and that was a home away from home for generations of Canadian writers, are holding a celebration and fundraising night this coming Feb. 6 (that’s a Wednesday) in Toronto. Details here, and you can order tickets here. Gord Downie will be there, as will Margaret Atwood, Gordon Pinsent and many others. Awesome things – like, say, books from Al’s own library – will be up for auction. And all for a good cause: remembering and celebrating and carrying on the legacy of your friend and mine, Al Purdy.

A sometime drinker at the Quinte Hotel.

16 thoughts on “No more drinking at the Quinte Hotel

  1. Glad you’re feeling better, Katherine. I grew up in rural Ontario in the middle of the 20th century, and vividly recall what places like the Quinte Hotel were like. The main drag of Penetanguishene, where I went to high school, is a steep hill leading to the town dock. At the top of the hill was the Hotel Brûlé, named after Etienne Brûlé, the French teen that Champlain sent to the area to learn the language and ways of the Hurons. It had the requisite pickled eggs, boisterous male behaviour and smell of draft beer found in such establishments, as did the Commodore, at the bottom of Penetang’s big, slippery-in-winter hill. Poet Purdy would have felt at home in either one, I’m pretty sure. In university, I worked as a bartender and waiter at the ironically named Grand Hotel, just outside Waterloo, Ont. Afternoons I slung beer in the “Ladies & Escorts” section, and in evening I moved over to the fancier part of the hotel, where there was a band, a dance floor, and the occasional brawl. The place went down hill in the decades after I left, and in its last incarnation was a strip joint (so I’m told). I’m sure I shortened my life by breathing in all that cigarette smoke back in my Grand Hotel days, but the memories of that place still bring a smile. Here’s to all the Quinte Hotels, the Brûlés and the Grands!

    • Hear hear, Jim! Those old hotels are a dying breed. It actually seems weird that people can’t smoke in them – cigarette smoke seems so inherently entwined with the smell of stale draft beer …

  2. In Peterborough, we had a choice: the American House, The Queen’s and the Montreal House (which, I believe, was that last men’s-only tavern in Ontario; they now call it the MoHo for God’s sake). The American seemed to be the choice of our high school crowd. If you were bold, you would ask the waiter to “fill the table,” and he, dressed in his little white apron, would obligingly put enough 6-ounce draft glasses on the small round table to fill it. How old you were didn’t seem to matter, when the legal age was 21. I was only carded after they lowered it to 18, and I passed – just. The draft was often sour – hence the salt, I think – and the air was thick with smoke, swearing and sniggering from the under-agers who stuck out like sore thumbs. Ah, thanks for the memories, Katherine. Glad you’re over the flu. It was a nasty bugger that caught me, too.

    • You brought back some memories, Doug! In my early feminist days I once insisted on being served at the Montreal House in Peterborough – which, as you say, was the last bastion of men-only establishments. They were none too pleased with me, let me tell you!

  3. Katherine, you have conjured such places with accuracy and a hint of nostalgia…though I hasten to add that I only knew of such dens of iniquity from wide reading (said she, tongue firmly planted in cheek). Our university days haunt was the dreadful Lafayette Hotel in Ottawa’s market; I remember the boys would tap on the ladies and escorts window, so we would go out and “escort” them into that slightly more salubrious (safer anyway) section. I recall yellow(ed) walls, yellow terry towelling on the tables – no need to wipe them that way, shudder. Denis recalls arriving from England the winter of ’70, and going directly to “the pub” with his friend who had arrived before him and was already a man of the new world. He still talks about his chagrin at entering a beer parlour across from the bus station, with formica tables, bright lights, and awful beer. Welcome, lad. Thanks for clarifying for your readers the Trenton “inspiration” for the poem. Eurithe showed me a photo of Al downstairs in the Belleville QH – ah, the ambience.

    • The ambience indeed! I hope I’ll see that photo of Al at the Belleville Quinte Hotel one of these times. But nostalgia for scruffy beer parlours aside, it really is so sad about the fire at the Quinte. The day after (as you doubtless saw) the Intelligencer had some nice old photos from its heyday. It really was a landmark of downtown Belleville.

  4. Yes, anyone in this region must have had a beer (or two) at the Quinte Hotel some time…. regarding Al Purdy, I relate to his poem ‘The Country North of Belleville’ (may have that title slightly off..)

  5. Hearing the news of the Belleville “Hotel Quinte” as it was called when the fire struck reminded me of many a nice evening in it’s premises. I recall to bars that were graced by the youth of yester year. The Gatbsey(sp) which was a piano bar. Although I was entertained one evening by dancers that were not the Walt Disney characters of Chip & Dale. It’s 15′ ceilings and marble pillars and round bar in the center of the room, black and white marble floors were breath taking. Not to mention the chandeliers. Just the beauty of the architecture would make you just sit and look around. And of course there was the famous Green Door. Which hosted live bands and very famous ones at that like Burton Cummings and Neil Young. I also recall having dinners in the dining room and breakfast rooms on special occasions like mothers day or wedding brunch. It was simply beautiful inside. All marble and mohagony wood and such tall ceilings with murals decorating the sky. The moulding was just amazing at the size of such architecture. It was a very historical building. It will be sadly missed even if it is just the space it sat on. Rumor has it they are trying to save a part that was not touched by the fire. I have fond memories of the Hotel Quinte Belleville with friends and school mates of our high school years. But we never can stand still forever. As far at the Trenton hotel I was never in its vacinity and not sure if I missed much.

    • I’m sorry to say that I was never inside the Hotel Quinte, but since the fire I’ve seen some amazing photos of its beautiful architectural details. Check out this post from the Ancestral Roofs blog to see the photos of the lovely moasics that adorned the floors.

      • Thanks for sharing the post link Katherine. It really is such a loss, even if the decor in some cases was a bit kitschy for our taste today. The floors were indeed special. The old Corby library (once the Merchant Bank) on Pinnacle Street was associated with Senator Corby, and has the same sort of mosaic marble floors on the main floor. I’ve heard it said that he had those floors done by the same artisan. The dates would seem to fit.

  6. That’s not the Quinte hotel of the poem. The one from the poem was in Trenton, which somewhat ironically also burned down.

    • Hi Jesse – yeah, I know that the Quinte Hotel in Trenton is generally considered (including by Al’s widow, Eurithe) to be the setting for At the Quinte Hotel. But I know I am not alone in associating that great old bar in downtown Belleville – now, sadly, lost to fire and demolition – with his wondrous poem. And there is little doubt in my mind that Al darkened the door of that Quinte Hotel at least once or twice!

  7. Katherine, for the life of me I can’t remember who was looking for a picture of the Quinte Hotel with the revolving oval-shaped sign, but I was able to find one. if you would email me your address, I’ll send it to you along with the picture of the Sun Valley Motor Inn (whose link that I posted over there now comes up 404) and a matchbook cover of the Sun Valley.
    -Steve
    aloha27@seasidehighspeed.com

    • Steve, a thousand thanks for this! I will contact you backchannel by email right away. I remember that revolving oval sign at the Quinte Hotel so well from way back in my childhood, and would treasure (and happily share) a photo of it! And it would be good to be reminded of what the Sun Valley looked like – that was a long time ago… Again, thank you so much!

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