The Prudhommes’ drive-in daydream
If a cowboy with a lasso is chasing a bear across the fields of southern Ontario, what does it mean? It means, most likely, that you’re near the fantastic motel built by two do-it-yourself fruit farmers who just can’t leave a good ($1,000,000 a year) thing alone
nfloTORISlS SCORCHING ALONG the Queen Elizabeth Way between Niagara Falls. Ontario, and Hamilton usually slacken speed at a point seventeen miles west of the Falls to gaze curiously at what could be a small town, or perhaps a mirage. It is a roadside empire known to thousands in southern Ontario and the northern United States as Prudhomme's; formally, it is called Prudhomme's Garden Centre Motor Hotel.
Prudhomme s is a do-it-yourself project that was started in 1948 as a modest fifteen-room motel and has refused to stop growing. Today the guests who occupy its hundred and eighty rooms are just a nucleus for the hundreds of daily visitors who find more to do at Prudhomme's than at a fair.
A zoo is the big attraction for the youngsters. Hawaiian-shirted golfers crowd the tricky nine-hole course nearby. Name players draw theatre-lovers on summer evenings from as far as a hundred miles away to see stock productions as good as any in North America. The 1960 season opened with lmogenc Coca in The Fourposter.
I here are horses for the blue-jean set. There's bowling, dancing, swimming (an enclosed, heated pool for the public, an open pool for hotel guests only) and shuffleboard. Indoor ice skating starts this winter. Tennis and lawn bowling are on the way.
People go to Prudhomme's in every garb, but in one mood —to have fun.
John Prudhomme, at 54 the senior member of the family, his brother George, 39, and John's son Doug, 26, believe that it is the grandest living and recreation centre in Canada. They could be right. Certainly it is the most ambitious and most successful do-it-yourself project in the country.
No architect has ever been engaged to plan anything on the property, from the original motel to the present structure with its eight dining rooms, five dance floors, and all neighboring buildings. John and George, with no training, have been their own architects.
No general contractor has ever come in. The Prudhommes have a dozen trucks and tractors, three bulldozers, a power shovel, two road graders, and a ditcher. What could a contractor do for them? Except for some hand-painted murals in the dining rooms, they finished all the interiors too, even to cold-bending and welding the ornamental ironwork for the mezzanine lounge railings.
An unexpected bonus in the way of help was offered on this particular job. A guest from Pittsburgh watched their every move for two days, then confessed that he was a welder and was itching for a torch, vacation or no vacation. A torch and overalls were quickly supplied; hosts and guest chummily finished the job together.
Prudhomme's Centre is as much a do-it-yourself job as an end table, but it took longer to build. Another difference is that it makes money. Last year's gross was well over a million dollars. John Prudhomme. who is given to understatement, says. ’’You have to be handy with tools and things. Basically we're farmers, and a farmer has to be able to do anything.”
Another asset is a capacity for work. All three Prudhommes put in a sixteen-hour day, seven-day week and fiftv-two-week year. Almost. John took a week off last winter to go to Nassau, his first holiday in six years; the other two haven't had such a spree for seven years. John's home, in the nearby town of Beamsville, is one of the finest in the Niagara peninsula, but he hasn't been in his living room for four years and for two years before that was never in it long enough to sit down. He hasn't read a book since leaving high school. “My favorite reading matter is construction and engineering journals.” John explains. “Finding out about strength of materials, stresses, and friction losses at pipe elbows is more absorbing than any story I could read.” He used to belong to two or three clubs, but withdrew his memberships years ago. Too busy building places where people can eat. sleep, and play.
I had been to the Centre twice before I found John Prudhomme for an interview. (I never did catch up CONTINUED ON PAGE 50
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The Prudhommes’ dr¡ve-¡n daydream
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It was all ready for use — but the Prudhommes had forgotten a chimney
with George.) On my third visit Doug suddenly pointed out of the window at a 1954 Pontiac rolling into the car park and said, “Here lie comes now.” Having been briefed on Prudhomme senior’s zip and energy I expected him to grab a Still son wrench and hustle through the corridors in search of a pipe or something to wrestle with while I trotted at his side, eliciting impatient grunts to my questions. Instead, he asked a passing chambermaid if there was a room we might use. We were given one of the smaller committee rooms used by conventioners, where for two hours John Prudhomme told me all about the Centre in a relaxed and altogether engaging manner. He is shy, but a good talker and friendly. He is chunky and bespectacled, and he’d look at home behind the counter of a country general store. But it wouldn't remain a country general store for long. Prudhomme would soon have an emporium rivalling Eaton’s, with customers jamming the highways for miles.
Work for the Prudhommes is not a matter of feverish compulsion. It's the thing they enjoy doing most.
In the basement of the main hotel there is a small room called the planning room. It contains a drawing board, draftsman's instruments, a couple of chairs, and a bewildering assortment of valves, tools, jigs, heating and plumbing fittings, decorators’ samples and the like. In this conglomeration the Prudhommes have conceived the entire Centre. With the help of neighborhood carpenters, electricians, and other tradesmen, they have built it. “1 sometimes marvel that it's turned out as it has,” John says. Their achievement is not only a set of functional and attractive buildings by engineering standards; it is the interiors that bring gasps from newcomers accustomed to run-of-the-mill motels. Any room, private or public, could be lifted from this rural caravanserai and placed in the Queen Elizabeth or Royal York hotels without appearing in the least out of place. Floor coverings in the hotel rooms, most of the lounges, and the beautiful hundred-yard-long Peacock Alley of the main building are all wool; the draperies are floor-to-ceiling fadeproof fibreglass. The foam rubber of the furniture is upholstered in silks, damasks and handblocked chintzes. The carved stone fountain in the main foyer was imported from Italy. The wallcovering in the Crystal Room in velour, an English import at twelve dollars a roll. Two hundred and sixteen rolls were used. Maple paneling covers the rotunda walls and most of the walls of the ballrooms and larger dining rooms.
Nor is anything skimped in the bedrooms. Each window is four feet high and six and a half feet long, with voluminous lined curtains. The showers are closed in by sliding opaque glass doors. AI Hixon, a professional interior decorator, is a permanent member of the Centre's staff of a hundred and seventyfive.
But even such handy handymen as the brothers Prudhomme slip once in a while. Three years ago one of their employees pointed out that there were several single men on the staff who would find a staff house on the premises more convenient than scattering each evening to their distant rooms in town. In no
time John and George had gathered up armfuls of measuring tapes, pegs and cord and had pegged out a building site. The next day excavation was started. Soon footings were in, the basement walls were up, and from there on the two-story structure was child's play. At least that’s what it appeared to be when roofing was completed. The Prudhommes had climbed down and were wondering what to build next when one of the staff asked if the house was to be used in the winter.
“Certainly,” John said.
”Then I’d feel better if I could see a chimney up there,” the staffer commented.
John muttered something unintelligible, grabbed a saw, scaled the ladder again and cut a hole for a chimney— which duly appeared, with a proper heating plant underneath it too.
No professional landscaper has touched the golf course, the (lagged terrace giving off the Starlite ballroom, the landscaping around the hotel buildings, or anything else on the grounds. It is all a Prudhomme creation, with hints from this or that magazine or book.
When Benjamin Fairless, a director and former president of U. S. Steel, had made a tour of the place he told Hixon, his guide. “The only thing more worth seeing than the Centre would be a Prudhomme. Show me one.”
“There's one,” Hixon replied, pointing to a man in working clothes crouching in the shrubbery, putting in plants. Fairless hesitated in disbelief, then walked
over and introduced himself. After congratulating John on the Centre he said, “You know, if I'd discovered you twentyfive years ago you would have been a vice-president of U. S. Steel long ago.” John Prudhomme pondered this for a moment and replied, “Maybe—and maybe I’d have been president.”
John and George are often mistaken for odd-job men. Doug stays in the office most of the time, but even there he's more comfortable in a sport shirt than the sort of attire the manager of a six-million-dollar spread might be expected to wear. The working-clothes disguise of his millionaire father fools a lot of people. One day while cutting through the rotunda John noticed that a guest who had checked out was looking around for a bellhop; John grabbed the luggage and took it out to the car. He was tipped fifty cents. He can't remember what he did with it. Another time he helped a soft-drink trucker unload a hundred cases. The trucker handed him a bottle of pop when the job was done with, ”Thanks for the help, Dad — wet your whistle.” John murmured his thanks. When the driver asked whom he should take the delivery slip to for signing, John took it out of his hand, signed it, and handed it back. The man took one look at the signature, vaulted into his cab and was away.
One summer evening in 1952 John changed from his working clothes and drove his wife to Welland to see a summer stock company perform. He may
Moe than one thing for everyone at the Centre
have regretted this reckless abandonment of honest toil, for he didn’t think much of the play, players, or theatre in general. But he could see that in a large crowd he was a minority of one. When they returned home he conferred with George, and before going to bed that night they decided to take two old barns on the property and knock them into one summer theatre. A natural for the do-it-yourself type. The improvised theatre soon became one of the most popular on the Ontario circuit. When it was destroyed by fire two years ago the Prudhommes lest no time in planning and building an eleven-hundred-seat theatre with the best of facilities for players and audience. Pat O'Brien, one of the star players there last summer, said, “I've played in many city houses where the lighting, acoustics, and dressing rooms were way below Prudhommes’ standards.” In winter, the theatri becomes a regulation six-sheet curling rink. The theatre lobby becomes a glassed-in. elevated lounge for spectators.
Ike feed bill is light
Although tiie theatre was a Prudhomme idea, many of the projects that sprang from the original motel have been suggested by guests. When in that first summer of 1948 a man complained that he had to drive several miles to get a cup of coffee, a coffee shop was started at once. A neighboring farmer thought the Prudhommes should have a zoo and offered a pair of raccoons as a start. It was all they needed.
Now there are more than a hundred birds and a hundred and fifty animals, including an ocelot, mountain goats, wolves and a wild boar. I he bears — there are six of them — have a habit of escaping from time to time, generally on Sunday afternoons. This always means that Chuck Aylett, the crack rodeo competitor who manages the riding stables, has to saddle up and take after them. If the mere sight of the Prudhomme layout causes highway traffic to slow down, the sight of Chuck after a bear, swinging a lariat around his head as the chase leads across roads and over fields, brings traffic to a screeching halt. And he really ropes them and brings them back. The Prudhommes have spent more than eight thousand dollars on the zoo, an amount that would have been greater if Doug hadn't discovered that a U.S. manufacturer puts out coin machines that automatically dispense animal feeds of many kinds. Hectoring children see to it that their parents do the rest. I he feed bill is fairly light.
There is no exact way of knowing how persuasive all the attractions of the Centre are in having guests prolong their intended visits. Doug Prudhomme and Tom Karey, assistant manager of the hotel, think that about one guest in ten prolongs his stay when he finds that he’s struck more than a motor hotel, that he's in a recreation centre. Hundreds of others who come for oneor two-night stops make reservations for their next year’s holidays. Last summer a loronto woman drove in, asking for a room for a week. She stayed sixty-four days and wrote a book on her recent travels in Egypt. She wasn't interested in the zoo, the theatre, or anything else; she wanted quiet, and good food.
A description of Prudhomme’s makes it sound like a Butlin vacation camp, but the buildings and hotel units are so widely separated that peace and quiet are easily found. Not long ago a group of Salvation Army officers chose Prudhommes for a weekend spiritual retreat. On the same weekend a convention of
Boy Scout leaders was meeting, complete with bugle bands, camp fires (artificial) in the middle of the floor, and any other outdoor hoopla the Scouts could bring indoors. But the Salvation Army men. off in their own wing, with their own meeting rooms and dining hall, didn't know the Scouts w'ere on the premises.
As a convention headquarters Prudhomme’s now' ranks with many big-city hotels. The yearly average is eight hundred meetings of all kinds, including twenty-five conventions of four hundred or more delegates and twenty-five banquets of five hundred or more diners. The diners are usually from southern Ontario or western New York organizations whose members return home for the night. Eleven hundred Lions were fed at a recent district banquet. And they weren't crowded. The main dining room seats two hundred and the banquet rooms more than two thousand. The Raineses Shrine and Knights of Columbus have jointly held three sports-celebrity dinners there, for the benefit of crippled children. Among the guests have been Marlene Stew'art. Rocky Marciano. Whipper Billy Watson, Red Storey, and Joe McCarthy of the Yankees.
Ford, General Motors and Chrysler all use Prudhomme’s for sales meetings and district conventions. Last year the directors of the Huron & Erie Mortgage Corporation held their annual meeting there, the first time in ninety years that it had been held outside London, Ont. Today, conventions are being booked for 1963 by firms and organizations in Ontario. Quebec. New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
The first Prudhomme came to the Niagara fruit belt from Quebec City in 1829. He set the pattern for success that future generations were to build on. He cleared and worked the ninety acres he purchased and. by ignoring the clock, soon doubled his holdings.
His sons continued the program of hard work and expansion. By the time Charles—John's father—came along, the Prudhommes were the most prosperous fruit growers in the district. Charles added to his farm income by buying the crops of other growers and shipping them by the carload to markets across Canada. Long before the Garden Centre Motor Hotel was thought of. the Prudhommes were working five hundred acres of fruit land, some of it valued at two thousand dollars an acre, and running a nursery business that employed a hundred workers. As Doug says, "My dad didn't have to build this place. He just wanted to.” The farm and four-hundred-acre nursery are still part of the Prudhomme enterprises.
And new features for the Centre are always being planned. The man who grumbled about not being able to get a cup of coffee twelve years ago might complain today that he couldn't get a haircut. But that gap too is being filled. The immediate projects are a barbershop, beauty parlor and steambaths. A basement room is to be converted into an exhibition hall where companies may display their wares to conventioners.
Before leaving the Centre I noticed Doug thumbing a catalogue put out by a New York supplier of animals. He had marked "Hippopotamus, $1,500” and "Pair of breeding chimpanzees, $1,000.” I asked if they meant to buy them. "Why not?” he replied. "We've room for them.”
Of course they have room for them. They also have room for a stadium, a planetarium and a duplicate of the Taj Mahal. It would surprise no one if eventually all these things should appear. ★