Pioneer banner a reminder of community spirit

When you visit the Binet House Museum in Mayo, you will see some interesting artifacts. There is an iron lung, a relic from the era when the scourge of polio was much feared.

When you visit the Binet House Museum in Mayo, you will see some interesting artifacts. There is an iron lung, a relic from the era when the scourge of polio was much feared. There is a piece of floral art, created by Martha Louise Black in a style she labelled “artistic botany.”

But the artifact with an interesting story that goes back to the early era of prospecting, is one made of silk, hand embroidered with appliqued trim. It is 172 centimetres long and 88 centimetres wide.

This object is extremely fragile and has to be displayed in a horizontal position because of its poor condition. Areas of the silk have separated from the whole item. Some segments have been lost; others are detached but remain with the piece. It has faded and discoloured, and it is wrinkled and distorted, yet it represents an important part of the history of Mayo.

The object is the banner of the Yukon Order of Pioneers, Lodge Number 3.

White men first arrived in the Yukon to look for gold in 1873. Ten years later, Charles McConkey, Richard Poplin Benjamin Beach and George Marks prospected on the Stewart River as far as the McQuesten River. The following year, they returned for three months, then left the Yukon before freeze-up in the fall.

In 1885, several parties prospected on the Stewart River. Tom Boswell and John Fraser went up as far as Chapman’s Bar, 145 kilometres from the mouth, and cleaned up $6,000 that summer. Poplin returned with three others and mined Steamboat Bar, cleaning up to the tune of $35,000. Slim Jim Wynn earned $6,000, from a bar that was named after him, in less than two months.

Many of the prospectors camped at the mouth of the Stewart River that winter. The following summer, 100 men prospected along the Stewart. As a result, Jack McQuesten and his partners established a trading post at the mouth of the Stewart River that fall that they named Fort Nelson. From that time on, prospectors worked on the Stewart River and wintered at its mouth.

The nature of the Yukon valley quickly changed after the first prospectors started streaming into the Yukon basin after 1882. Gold was discovered on the Fortymile River and the town of Forty Mile was established in 1887. By 1894, the old-time prospectors felt that the valley was being invaded by newcomers who did not share the same values of collegiality that they did.

December 1, 1894, these old-timers assembled in Forty Mile and established the first fraternal organization in the Yukon, the Yukon Order of Pioneers (Y.O.O.P.). Its purpose was to promote the advancement of the Yukon Valley, and to prove to the outside world that “the Yukon Order of Pioneers are men of Truth Honour and integrity.” Membership was limited to those residing in the Yukon before 1888. Their motto was “Do as you would be done by.” Jack McQuesten was elected the first president of the society.

Many of these pioneers continued to prospect on the Stewart River and winter over at its mouth, where, during the first winter of the great Gold Rush, they regaled the cheechakos with their tales of the early days. One of these newcomers would immortalize their stories in print. His name was Jack London.

After the gold rush of 1898, gold was found at Duncan Creek, and by 1903, a settlement was established at Mayo Landing, which we know today simply as Mayo. Mayo remained a small community, ever in the shadow of the Klondike until silver was found in abundance on the slopes of Keno Hill by Louis Bouvette in 1918. Both Mayo, the shipping point, and Keno Hill, in the centre of the silver camp, boomed. In a few short years, the population swelled till the new silver camp was larger, briefly, than the population of the Klondike capital.

On January 6, 1921, roughly two dozen men assembled in the Royal Alexandra Hotel in Mayo and resolved to organize a subordinate lodge of the Y.O.O.P.. Max Landreville, the president of the Grand Lodge in Dawson, was present and immediately granted the group their charter. Thus was born Y.O.O.P. Lodge Number 3.

One month later, special committees were established to finance and build a hall for the newly formed lodge. Businessman J.E. Binet offered to donate two lots on which to construct the new building. The work of cutting and hauling the logs for the building was placed in the hands of 20 volunteers. The logs were milled on three sides at the sawmill at no charge.

A crew of 15 volunteers began building the pioneer hall. Even men who were not eligible to join the lodge volunteered their services to advance the construction and the general public donated money and material to help out. The building was completed without the burden of a mortgage hanging over the heads of the members. The first formal function in the new hall took place on Discovery Day, 1921.

It was a most impressive structure, 9 metres wide by 18 metres long, with a ceiling more than 4 metres high. The building was simple but efficient: there were two dressing and cloak rooms beneath a balcony. The hall was equipped with stove, lights, piano, dishes, and folding tables and chairs to accommodate 150. It was described as a clean and airy place that was to be used and enjoyed by Mayoites for all sorts of social functions.

A year later, Mayo proudly initiated Lord Byng, the visiting Governor–General, as an honorary member of the lodge in a reception in the new Pioneer Hall. It was used for dances and served as a movie theatre. Court was held there as well. The Pioneer Hall continued to serve the community until it burned down in 1984. During my recent visit to Mayo, Nancy Hager shared her memories of attending social events in the hall as a youngster.

All that survives to remind us of this proud building and its tradition are a Y.O.O.P. sign that was once attached to the front of the building, a pioneer sash, and this lovely, but fragile banner that once hung on the wall in the hall that was built by many generous and eager helping hands during the great silver rush of the 1920s.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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