The happy and happening town of Govenlock
Many ghost towns in Saskatchewan have unique histories, but few have a history as unique and as interesting as Govenlock. This small Saskatchewan town, located in the extreme southwest along the Alberta border, was a thriving location for many years thanks to some decisions made in the United States.
Before we get to what made Govenlock a popular place to be, let’s dive back to 1910 when it was nothing but a patch of land owned by William Govenlock. It was in 1910 that William moved his family to the area and applied for a homestead. As the first pioneers to the area, Govenlock and his family established the first post office and Bessie, William’s wife, became the first postmaster.
When the CPR decided to run the rail line through the area, they chose to have the line stop where the Govenlock homestead was located. To honour William, the CPR gave the community his name.
It did not take long for the community to begin to spring up. In 1914, Govenlock had its first hotel, a building two storeys tall with 10 rooms. The hotel was built by John Lindner, who owned it for the next three years. In 1917, an interesting tale emerged about the hotel and how it was sold. According to Edith Byran, in a story published in From Sage to Tinder, James Gaff came to town after attending a stampede in Chinook and was looking for a room to rent. Upon asking the price, he was shocked by how much it cost and he told Linder that he just wanted a room, not the entire hotel. Lindner said that he could not afford the hotel if he wanted it. Taking this as a challenge, Gaff asked how much for the hotel and then promptly wrote a cheque for that amount and bought the hotel.
As for Lindner, he would open a service station after owning the local pool hall and would operate it for 30 years until 1950.
The hotel was considered a very nice establishment for the area. Belle Lloyd, also in From Sage to Timber, said the hotel had a bathtub for the patrons to use. For 25 cents, three pails of warm water could be brought for a bath. The hotel’s dining room was also popular as a dance hall and many dances were held over the years there.
Govenlock continued to grow and would soon have a population of 151 people. In 1919, the community had grain elevators, black smith shops, a service station selling Model Ts, the hotel, a meat shop, a school and two general stores.
A pair of brothers, the Bronfman brothers out of Yorkton, opened up a liquor warehouse, as did a man by the name of Archie McCorvie and Joe Bonfadini.
Things were about to get a lot crazier for the community that year. It was in 1919 that Montana declared prohibition and that resulted in travelers coming from Montana to Govenlock to buy alcohol. It did not take long for Govenlock to latch onto this new windfall. Four liquor warehouses were built and gambling and parties became common in the community during the prohibition days.
While rare, sometimes violence could happen. In Ghost Towns Stories of the Red Coat Trail, a story is related about how one rum-runner was shot and killed making a run towards the Montana border. Sometimes, thefts would happen almost in broad daylight, with alcohol being stolen right off the back of trucks while being unloaded from trains.
During those years, Americans would come to the community in cars filled with sand bags. Once they arrived at the liquor warehouse, the sand bags were thrown out, and liquor was put into the car. At this time, Canadian beer cost 12 cents per barrel. Americans could also get a barrel with 24 four-quart bottles wrapped in straw for $24. They could then sell that in the United States for $140. Since most cars could carry 14 barrels of beer and five cases of whisky, Americans could earn a profit of $2,500 with one visit to Govenlock.
According to George Harding, a former resident, in the book Honky-Tonk Town, open-topped cars would arrive around 3 p.m., each with a licence plate from somewhere in the United States. The drivers would go to the pool hall and spend time playing pool and poker. In the evening, each car would back up to the liquor houses and be loaded, they would then go on their way to the United States.
Liquor warehouse owners also did what they could to guarantee safe travel for the Americans. Roads were improved from the border to Govenlock. The Bronfman brothers, for example, guaranteed arrival at the border for bootleggers, safe from hijackers. If the bootleggers were held up, their liquor was replaced for free. If they were arrested, the brothers paid their bond. This ‘insurance plan’ as it was known, added $12 per case to the cost, but it guaranteed a tidy profit for the brothers. Eventually, the brothers became the largest liquor exporters in Canada and had warehouses and distilleries in Yorkton and Regina.
While things could get loud during those years in Govenlock, it was a relatively safe community and the good times lasted several years. This didn’t stop some unique stories from occurring.
One such story is that of Jack Hoffman, who was a bachelor that had come up from Montana. Known as a rough and tough individual who loved step-dancing and baseball, his tale concerns a baseball game between the single men and the married men. Hoffman was playing for the bachelors during the game when his wife suddenly showed up. She had been hunting for him all the way from Montana and had arrived in Govenlock at that point and found him. A dispute occurred and the eventually the game continued with Hoffman now playing on the married team.
Everything came to an end in 1922 though, when the Saskatchewan government decided to crack down on places like Govenlock profiting from prohibition. A new law came into place that required a community to have at least 10,000 people in it before it could have a liquor warehouse.
The peak year for the community was the year before, when a lot of people were coming through and crops were good. According to Professor Roy Hansen, in a letter to FH Auld, deputy minister of agriculture for the province, there was considerable rye in the district that looked very good.
Before long, stores began to close one by one, and things got worse when The Great Depression hit. Phil Hanlon, who moved to Govenlock in 1929, began working at the local elevator. He would lose his job within two years when the elevator shut down. In the book Prairie Wool, he stated that he lost his job because of crop failure and no grain being delivered to the area.
It wasn’t an immediate decline for the community, with many residents calling it home for several decades. In the years after the prohibition heyday, Govenlock would have a hand in shaping the southwest of the province. One interesting story comes from the book Cypress Hills Country, which details that the last swift fox was caught near Govenlock in 1928. The fox would be gone from the province until 1988 when it was reintroduced.
One year later in 1929, Jack Shepard, according to his recollection in the book From Sage to Timber, would go to the Govenlock rodeo as a young boy and see competitors from across the area come out to see how was the best cowboy of them all. The Govenlock Rodeo was a very popular affair throughout the 1930s and in the 1940s, Govenlock would form a roping club that would help to legitimize the rodeo activities in the area. New calf roping chutes would also be built during that time.
In 1932, Govenlock had an important part in creating the historical attraction of Fort Walsh, according to the book West of Yesterday. In May of that year, the Canadian Club of Govenlock and the Old-Timers Association of Maple Creek began working together to find a way to mark the old site of Fort Walsh, the old NWMP post in the Cypress Hills. The landowners of the area had passed away and it was decided that the four corners of the former stockade would be marked with concrete markers. A rifle shoot was held between the two groups at a picnic with the losing group agreeing to pay for the makers. Once the picnic was over, work began to mark the stockade and create the historical site of Fort Walsh.
In 1949, Govenlock still had enough of a role to play in the area when it served as a mail hub for the southwest. From that year until 1956, mail was diverted from Maple Creek to Govenlock.
The slow decline would continue though.
In 1962, the last elevator would be demolished. By 1976, Govenlock would be a shell of what it once was and it would lose its village status.
The postmaster left in 1976, officially closing down the post office. That same year, Govenlock was deemed to be abandoned and the village lost the title of village.
In 1990, the local RM bulldozed the entire community except for the community hall.
Today, only a few cement foundations, the community hall and a few wooden sidewalks remain.