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Patti Martin: A living history of the Rolla Pub

People of the Peace
Patti Martin stands behind the bar of the Rolla Pub.

When I first get in touch with Patti Martin, she thanks me for the break from cleaning. She’s wiped down the bar, the stools, the photos, the knick knacks countless times – she knows them all too well after almost 50 years, part of a life entangled for better and worse with a small but key piece of Peace Region history.

Martin was just 8 when her parents moved up from Vancouver in 1965 and bought the building.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” she says of moving from the big city to the Peace Region, which was obviously more isolated than it is now.

Of course, both Rolla and its Pub were well established, even at that point – Rolla, settled in 1912, was the home of some of the South Peace’s first immigrant homesteaders, and the Pub, once known as the Columbia Hotel, began its life in 1920.

Martin has officially managed the Pub, with its eclectic collection of historical photos and antiques on the walls, for more than 25 years. For most of that time, she’s worked on that collection, documenting the history of Rolla and the region, and preserving bits of it at a time.

The history oozing from the Rolla Pub’s walls are likely a big factor in the building being named the second “best building” in the North, after the Dawson Creek Art Gallery, in a contest organized by the Architecture Foundation of B.C.

“I've always thought that it was an important historical place ... it's nice to know other people think so too,” Martin says.

Martin attended school in Rolla, and says the pub was also the family household: “We grew up right here, in the hotel.”

When asked about memories growing up in and around the family business, Martin says everyone from aunts and uncles to her own children took part in helping run the operation.

“Nobody has ever asked me that kind of question,” she responds. “It was all about family ... even my kids helped out when they could.”

When she grew older, Martin went back to Vancouver for a time in the 1980s. She moved there with her husband, who had grown up in Vancouver, but the couple returned to Rolla in 1986, after her husband had undergone several heart surgeries for a severe heart condition.

She soon became a full partner in the Pub with her mother, who continued to help her out at the business, as Martin was raising three children on her own.

“[My husband] got really sick ... he had three open-heart surgeries in a month and I got in a car accident and realized I couldn’t be in Vancouver,” she says. “People (in Rolla) care a lot more.”

If you asked Martin to describe herself, she would tell you she's a historian, but also that she's a survivor. She talks, a bit reserved, about the loss of her husband, as well as her 17-year-old son. The circumstances of the latter’s death is a story she would rather not tell.

“I'm lucky because all (my son's) friends still come and check on me,” she says. “With me, every moment counts ... history gives strength and moments are important.”

She says she has always been drawn to history, and wanted to create a unique space in the pub that connected with visitors, many of whom aren’t aware of Rolla’s rich past. It’s a big part of her life’s work, and she’s clearly proud of it.

“I just slowly used my tips and I’d go to the antique store ... it’s taken 16 years to collect everything.”

We get interrupted by the phone. In fact, Martin is busy on and off throughout our conversation. She says she spends 12 hours a day managing and working in the Pub.

She likens the time she puts into the business to being in a TV series.

“You don't want to miss an episode, because you might not know what happens,” she explains. “It's always evolving and changing.”

Martin tells a story about a young woman who recently moved to Rolla and was surprised to find she had a connection with the area. The Pub has a collection of history books that she often references for people who return to the community. She gets a certain joy out of connecting people to their history with Rolla and the Pub.

“It's hard to explain to people,” she says. “It's just nice to know you belong somewhere.”

But the Pub isn’t simply a museum – it’s a fully active gathering point, home to live music on a fairly regular basis. Martin says this month coming up is a busy one, with seven performers from Canada and the US coming through the establishment's stage.

“I find that people from all over the world feel comfortable in here,” she says. “I wanted people to feel at home.”

She says there is a large network of performers from all over that tell one another about the Pub, making her place a must play on the circuit.

“They tell each other about the Pub,” she says. “They find me, and I think it's important (to support musicians), because I love music.”

Despite its deep connection to history, Martin also has to look to the future – especially because the Pub is a physical building, and roofs don’t last forever. She says fundraising for the building's renovations and repairs is high on the list of priorities.

Martin says right now, she is selling photos of the inside of the Pub as part of her fundraising, and she has help from her friend in Victoria who is working on applying for historical and heritage building grants aimed at preserving the building.

“The photos are going all over the world,” she says.

The hope is to restore the building so it will last another 100 years. Martin says her long-term plans are to fix the foundation, roof and siding, and she would also like to make some interior changes, such as building a stage for musicians and building accessible restrooms.

Martin says her dreams go even further – a reading nook, a recording studio, art space.

“I'd like the whole building to be activated,” she says.