This Al­berta town is dy­ing. Ex­cept for the par­ties

The once-boom­ing Al­berta com­mu­nity of Row­ley has nine res­i­dents — and two want to move. Can tourists and mu­sic nights save it?

Toronto Star - - INSIGHT - KEVIN MAIMANN

ROW­LEY, ALTA.— The keep­ers of Row­ley march across its gravel main street in an early Oc­to­ber snow­storm to un­lock an Old West-style sa­loon.

Step­ping in from the storm, Doug Hamp­ton flicks on a dim light to re­veal a bar that can hold 225 peo­ple — many times Row­ley’s en­tire pop­u­la­tion.

This group of six rep­re­sents most of the tiny com­mu­nity, and they’re fight­ing to keep their home alive. Tonight they’ve come to the sa­loon to un­wind af­ter their monthly re­view of the ham­let’s mea­gre fi­nances.

The floors are brushed with saw­dust, and the walls and ceil­ings are hid­den by crude posters col­lected over decades. A toi­let seat hangs on the wall with “A-hole of the Month Club” writ­ten in felt.

It’s still cold, and the group of six keep their jack­ets on as they dis­trib­ute cans of beer from a fridge be­hind the bar. One lights up a smoke at the ta­ble.

Any­thing goes in Row­ley, a ru­ral South­ern Al­berta com­mu­nity with no wa­ter or sewer ser­vice that swings be­tween bustling tourism hot spot and near ghost town.

“Tourists seem to find the place no mat­ter where they’re from,” said Hamp­ton, a 67-year-old re­tired oil­field worker who holds a key to open all eight pub­lic build­ings in town.

“They read about it on the in­ter­net or some­thing: ‘tourist at­trac­tion’ or ‘ghost town.’ (They say), ‘Peo­ple live here?’ ”

Once an agri­cul­tural “boom town” of 500, Row­ley’s pop­u­la­tion has shrunk to nine. There’s Doug, his older brother Terry who lives on main street with his wife, a fam­ily with two kids and a new cou­ple in a tucked-away home that’s now up for sale.

This is a com­mu­nity that, for all the prac­ti­cal rea­sons that towns usu­ally ex­ist, should no longer be. The in­dus­try is long gone, and there are no civil ser­vices. But be­cause the keep­ers of Row­ley see value in th­ese build­ings and the his­tory they rep­re­sent, the place has a chance to keep on liv­ing.

Their best shot for fight­ing the rav­ages of time: par­ties.

The com­mu­nity as­so­ci­a­tion, made up of res­i­dents and peo­ple from nearby com­mu­ni­ties, runs pizza and beer fundrais­ers on the last Satur­day of ev­ery month to main­tain the ham­let’s most prom­i­nent ag­ing build­ings.

In July, a record-set­ting 700 peo­ple packed into Row­ley, in­clud­ing tourists from across North Amer­ica and Europe. The main street was roped off so vis­i­tors could carry their drinks out­side be­tween the com­mu­nity hall, sa­loon and pool hall while a live band per­formed.

“We do have a lot of fun. Other­wise it would just be a job and we’d prob­a­bly all lose in­ter­est,” Hamp­ton said.

As crit­i­cal as the par­ties are, they aren’t the mu­nic­i­pal­ity’s only source of in­come.

Row­ley falls un­der the ju­ris­dic­tion of Star­land County. In 2017, the Row­ley Com­mu­nity Hall As­so­ci­a­tion re­ceived just over $6,000 to­ward util­ity costs and an­other $4,500 to help with main­te­nance and hir­ing sum­mer stu­dents.

Mean­while, the prov­ince has pro­vided close to $600,000 through nine grants since 2007 for tourism prod­ucts, ac­cord­ing to mu­nic­i­pal af­fairs spokesper­son Lau­ren Arscott.

To­day the ham­let of Row­ley is known for its kitschy store­fronts, aban­doned houses and barns that have fallen to ruin and two tall grain el­e­va­tors that house flocks of pi­geons. The first sign of life upon en­ter­ing is a gang of about 15 feral cats oc­cu­py­ing a wooden “cat condo” built by Doug’s brother Terry.

The old train sta­tion, school house and store are pop­u­lated by haunt­ing white man­nequins dressed in pe­riod cloth­ing, po­si­tioned to em­u­late scenes that might have oc­curred in the1920s when Row­ley was “boom­ing.”

“Peo­ple would bring in their pro­duce and their milk and their cream and their eggs and ship it on the train, and grain was be­ing hauled out of the el­e­va­tors. In Row­ley then there was two or three lum­ber yards and a cou­ple of garages and pool halls and bar­ber shops, the ho­tel, a cou­ple of stores,” Hamp­ton said.

When the Great De­pres­sion hit, food stopped grow­ing and the boom turned to bust.

“We never got the rain, just wind all the time. So peo­ple started mov­ing away, and the odd fire would sweep up main street there and take away a few of the build­ings, and then no­body would re­build it.”

Row­ley once had a daily con­nec­tion to Ed­mon­ton via the Day­liner pas­sen­ger car, but it stopped run­ning in the 1970s. The near­est place with any real ameni­ties is Drumheller, a 38-km drive away.

When the train dis­ap­peared, Hamp­ton’s par­ents helped form the Row­ley Com­mu­nity As­so­ci­a­tion and started restor­ing the few build­ings left on main street.

They re-shin­gled the United church and turned the train sta­tion into a mu­seum with ar­ti­facts dat­ing back to the 1800s, “just to keep the build­ings alive.” Aformer gro­cery store and meat mar­ket owned by Chi­nese im­mi­grant Sam Le­ung, who passed away in 1972, was ren­o­vated as Sam’s Sa­loon in 1980.

Hamp­ton’s sis­ter Shirley Bre­mer said the hard work has been worth­while for the sim­ple joy of shar­ing the town’s his­tory.

“It is kind of wild, be­cause some of (the build­ings) are pretty bad. But I guess it’s the plea­sure you get,” Bre­mer said. “We’re all proud of where we grew up. It’s just kind of a unique lit­tle thing and we like it.”

Row­ley’s early re­build caught the at­ten­tion of Hol­ly­wood film pro­duc­ers, who spent sev­eral months there in 1988 shoot­ing the film Bye Bye Blues. The crew con­structed store­fronts for a bank and a fu­neral home that res­i­dents turned into a pool hall. Film crews oc­ca­sion­ally still come around to shoot movie scenes or com­mer­cials.

Bill Reimer, direc­tor of Ru­ral Pol­icy Learn­ing Com­mons and pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Mon­treal’s Con­cor­dia Univer­sity, said towns of­ten try “chas­ing smoke­stacks” by bring­ing in new in­dus­tries, but that’s rarely suc­cess­ful. The ones that get by, Reimer said, are places like Row­ley that find ways to lever­age the things that make them unique.

“In very gen­eral terms, the towns that are man­ag­ing are the ones that look around and say, ‘What have we got here that we’re par­tic­u­larly good at, and who might be in­ter­ested in it,’ ” Reimer said.

In warmer months, vis­i­tors can camp in town by do­na­tion, and the as­so­ci­a­tion hires stu­dents in July and Au­gust to give guided tours, touch up paint jobs and mow the lawns. Row­ley’s com­mu­nity hall, church and sa­loon are al­ready booked through next sum­mer with wed­dings, fam­ily re­unions and other events. But money from book­ings is not enough to cover on­go­ing main­te­nance and power costs, and the labour of re­build­ing gets tir­ing for the ag­ing pop­u­la­tion.

Sit­ting in his kitchen the af­ter­noon af- ter the snow­storm in one of Row­ley’s four in­hab­ited houses, Hamp­ton con­tem­plates the ham­let’s fu­ture. He likes the peace and quiet that comes with liv­ing in iso­la­tion but has re­cently be­come painfully aware that it can also be dan­ger­ous. “Life is good un­til you get sick,” he said. One night in Oc­to­ber, his wife Brenda, in bed at home bat­tling bone and lung can­cer, was in pain and needed an am­bu­lance. When he di­aled 911, the dis­patcher said it was not on their map.

“They didn’t know where the hell Row­ley was at,” Hamp­ton said.

“It took prob­a­bly 15-20 min­utes on the phone try­ing to ex­plain we need an am­bu­lance out of Drumheller, not Red Deer. The wife was dead by then.”

Now an­other cou­ple that moved to Row­ley a year-and-a-half ago is plan­ning to move away, which would bring the pop­u­la­tion down to seven.

Lars Hall­strom, Univer­sity of Al­berta po­lit­i­cal stud­ies pro­fes­sor and direc­tor of the Al­berta Cen­tre for Sus­tain­able Ru­ral Com­mu­ni­ties, said the trend of peo­ple leav­ing is al­most im­pos­si­ble to re­verse.

He said ru­ral pop­u­la­tions in Canada have been on a pat­tern of de­cline for more than a cen­tury. Eleven Al­berta mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have dis­solved over the past decade, and about 30 have re­viewed whether they should con­tinue to be au­tonomous, stand-alone mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

Grande Cache in Western Al­berta, with a pop­u­la­tion just over 1,000, voted to dis­solve as a town in Septem­ber af­ter a loss of pop­u­la­tion and tax rev­enue made it un­sus­tain­able.

“It’s tough. They’ve been pad­dling up­stream for years. And you have to ad­mire the peo­ple who are will­ing to stay (in Row­ley) and try to say, ‘This is our home, we do want his place to ex­ist,’ ” Hall­strom said.

“But it’s very dif­fi­cult to be op­ti­mistic in even the medium term about the like­li­hood of that com­mu­nity re­turn­ing to a pop­u­la­tion of 50, let alone 500.”

Hamp­ton said it’s get­ting harder to live in a place that lacks so many ba­sic ser­vices.

“I don’t know what’s go­ing to hap­pen,” he said. “Once I croak and my brother croaks, hope­fully some young peo­ple come into town and take in­ter­est in it and learn to be proud of the town, too.”

Win­ter is about to set­tle in, and a heavy snow­fall can ren­der the com­mu­nity in­escapable un­til a snow plow comes from out­side.

When asked if he plans to stay put, Hamp­ton takes a mo­ment to pause be­fore an­swer­ing.

“Yeah. I don’t know where in the hell else I’d move.”

CODIE MCLACH­LAN PHO­TOS STARMETRO ED­MON­TON

Doug Hamp­ton on main street in Row­ley with its kitschy store­fronts. The two grain el­e­va­tors, below, now house pi­geons.

CODIE MCLACH­LAN PHO­TOS STARMETRO ED­MON­TON

Man­nequins have been placed in stores to help “pop­u­late” Row­ley, Alta..

The hand­ful of re­main­ing lo­cals gather in Sam’s Sa­loon af­ter the Row­ley Com­mu­nity Hall As­so­ci­a­tion meet­ing.

Trains stopped com­ing to Row­ley in the 1970s. The near­est place with any real ameni­ties is Drumheller, a 38-km drive.

“Life is good un­til you get sick.” DOUG HAMP­TON ON LIV­ING IN THE GHOST TOWN; HIS WIFE DIED IN OC­TO­BER WHEN AN AM­BU­LANCE GOT LOST

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