The loss of my Favourite Place

By Royden McCoag in Community, People, Places, Events, & History

I would like to invite everyone to come with me to visit my favourite spot in all of Wellington County, but such an invitation would be futile. The fact is that it now sits behind closed and locked doors and if those doors are ever reopened I fear it will be gone. Too few of the decision makers in the modern generation stop to put a value on the relics of the past.
We, I fear, have lost this, our last local unprotected historical site, and, no, I am not talking about the railway shunting yards with its cinder belching, black locomotives that once gave Palmerston a reason to be, for they too are gone. I am not talking about the station, which has been restored and filled, with junk—oops—memorabilia. I am not talking about any of the countless industries that have started up and failed. I am not talking about Norgan’s folly. My spot is much more focused than that. I am talking about a single wall in the men’s room in the now defunct Palmer Hotel.
If there is any site of historical significance left in Palmerston it has to be this dingy wall, in this tiny room, which, to my knowledge, has not changed since the now nameless old building bore an identification as the Hess Hotel, in the days when rail was king and men ruled the world. This wall, my favourite spot, has seen the toughest and nastiest of the rail men. It has seen town builders and town bums. Conductors and section men have stood in line just to get in to the room and face it. It has welcomed politicians and educators, the rich and the poor, but, in its entire history, not one woman; not one female has ever gazed at its bleary paint and lingering cobwebs. It has been, however, the spot for untold relief for thousands over the years. Indeed, the smells of a century linger so strongly one seldom stays long or breathes too deeply.
Sometime in the late twenties or early thirties, in an attempt to modernize, a single incandescent bulb was hung on a long cord from the high ceiling to illuminate my wailing wall. I’ve heard that this installation was deemed to be cheaper than hiring someone to wash the small high window that, before the spiders took over, admitted some light. The bulb may have been replaced when the province changed from twenty-five cycle alternate current to sixty cycle but no one can recollect it having been changed since and no one can say for certain that the present bulb still emits light. Sometime, even later, someone removed the brass spittoons originally dispersed, intermittingly, along the length of this under appreciated wall. Sometime after 1927 (the year Palmerston got sewers) two toilets bowls that could be flushed with running water replaced the slop pails behind the backs of those admiring my wall. Little else has changed. The huge porcelain sink, very close to being identical to those you see in railway museums, still sits, stained with years of dirty soap and hard-water rust just beside the once modern toilet bowls. However, since they turned off the water, the brass taps no longer drip. All these things gave or still give character to my place but it is the urinal that sets this wall apart.
More than a decade ago someone decided to open a restaurant in what used to be the bar. In an attempt to show hometown support we took our out-of-town guests there for dinner. One of them happened to be a world traveller, who, although he made his home in London England, had visited the remotest corners of the African continent. He had been to the Australian outback and he had caravanned from Cape Horn to Alaska. He thought he had seen it all. At least, he did until nature called and I directed him to the Men’s Room. He came back with an unmistakable ‘eureka!’ look on his face.
“My God!” he exclaimed, even before he sat down, “They’ve got a trough! I have never seen one before!”
The ladies in our party frowned the frown of the perplexed. They had no idea what he might be talking about.
But, I smiled, realizing the new owners had some appreciation for the past. They had not changed my favourite place. I excused myself, just to be certain. What he said was true. This plumbing facility remained intact, just as I remembered. Call it a urinal if you must but at one time I suspect it was either a length of the largest eve troughing on the market, or a miracle wrought by the hands of some long forgotten, but highly skilled, tinsmith. At least a half-century before I ever set foot in the Palmer, a practical hotel workman had screw-nailed it in a slanting fashion to the wall. It ran the entire length of the room, dropping an inch or so per foot to assure rapid drainage before ending in a four inch down-spout that disappeared somewhere beneath the floor. In the 1960s, and for decades before that, one often had to wait to get a spot at the trough. What a sight it must have been to see the tallest at the high end and the shortest at the low with everyone, standing shoulder to shoulder while concentrating on the walls imperfections. One can only imagine the gallonage of slightly used beer that has found its way into the town’s sewage system along this aqueduct. The spillage alone would have put the Suffragettes to shame.
Since we were the only customers for supper on that winter night and, since beer was not on that day’s menu for us, the trough, to all appearances, no longer served a need. Indeed, it never once came up in the early conversation. However, now I felt an overwhelming sense of relief and pleasure knowing that the new owner had left it in place. My favourite spot in all of Wellington County remained intact. As late as 2005 we still had one of its most useful links to yester years and it was right here, in Palmerston.
However, not everyone shared my nostalgia for the past. Indeed it soon became evident that I had left the door open and wafts of the glory years were drifting all the way to our table. The ladies in our company, those who had never seen, let alone benefited from the convenience, swore they would never frequent the place again. I wished I could have taken them to see my wall up close; I wished they could have had the pleasure of using it, but they could not go. The door sign clearly indicated it was for men’s eyes only.
Our ladies wanted to leave, meals unfinished.
It is my guess that other females felt the same way. The restaurant survived only a few months. Other tenants of the building were given vacating notices and, in short order, every door had been padlocked and the Palmer left to decay.
Word on the street suggests the property is now under a new, new ownership but, if so, they have been slow to move toward restoration. My favourite place has been cut off. I can no longer go there. I can no longer invite anyone to go there. All is lost, for the least naïve of us, in the fight to preserve the past, have no hope of saving the trough for the next generation. We have no hope of resurrecting the wall.
And, it is all because of segregation. Those denied can never be brought to see the insights of the privileged and woman, I sense, now rule the world.