The happy and hap­pen­ing town of Goven­lock

Prairie Post (East Edition) - - Viewpoints - BY CRAIG BAIRD

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.

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