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Published: June 12th 2011
How did you know my restaurant was here?!"
- Owner of the "Spur of the Moment Cafe", the only restaurant in Glenwood, AB
Throughout the Southern prairies, a number of towns rose from the dusty ground at the turn of the 20th century. Many were placed along the new railways to facilitate the shipment of grain, or to support mining operations. In the roaring 1920's, things began to bustle in this part of the country as restaurants, pool halls, hardware stores and grain elevators sprang up in the young towns as newcomers flooded the countryside with the promise of free land and a life of freedom.
However, as drought and economic depression began to plague the region in the latter half of the 1920's, many of these towns began to fade. Residents left for larger urban centres to find work, often taking their entire houses with them. Some simply dropped their belongings and went in search of a better life elsewhere - perhaps with the intention of returning but rarely doing so.
Every day along the Red Coat Trail, I have passed various ghost towns who have suffered from this particular fate. In some cases, the town is a mere shadow of its former self but still functioning. Others have completely vanished, marked by a few pieces of wood planking,
Hamlet of Skiff, population definitely less than 10.
a concrete foundation or two, or sometimes nothing but a memorial.
However, some lie between these two stages - fighting for their lives, yet on the verge of becoming bonafide ghost towns. Orion, a small town on the edge of civilization in the southeast corner of Alberta is one such town which finds itself on the brink of vanishing forever.
In the early 1920's, this town arose from the badlands and was named after the constellation of Orion. The town quickly prospered, boasting more than 30 businesses, including a hotel, bank, 4 grain elevators and a population of about 250 citizens. Many were homesteaders, responding to the government's offer of free land. In exchange, they were required to break and seed their claim; essentially living off the land - and many were able to do so early on. However, with a prolonged drought lasting for most of the 1920's the homesteaders began to leave in droves, accepting the Albertan government's offer of free transportation to other parts of the province.
Upon arriving to town, I met Boyd Stevens cutting his lawn. At 77, he's been a lifelong resident of Orion and owns the town hardware store. He
Red Coat Trail
also makes up half the town's population, which now stands defiantly at 2, though it was 6 only a few years ago. Along with his hardware store, the town now features a co-op (with post office) and a newly built church, though Stevens isn't sure where the congregation is going to come from.
When asked about the other resident of Orion, Stevens tells me that his neighbour is a woman who moved to town from a nearby farm after her husband died and she found it lonely living alone. Moving to a town with only one other person may not seem like a huge step, but in this part of the world it can be. She drives the local schoolbus and rents out her farmland. She has satellite television, and Stevens admits he doesn't see her often. Tonight is the Stanley Cup playoffs, so it's unlikely I'll have the opportunity to meet her.
Stevens admits he has no interest in living elsewhere. He occasionally visits the "timberland" (any place with trees) but doesn't like it because he can't see where he's going. Looking around at the stark landscape surrounding Orion, I begin to understand what he's getting at
- there certainly isn't any possibility of claustrophobia living in this part of the world.
Stevens' Hardware Store is quite a sight to behold. Beyond the mountains of clutter and complete chaos - indeed, there is merely a narrow alleyway making it possible to walk from the front door to the register - the first thing that catches your eye (or maybe it was just me) were the posters of bikini-clad calendar girls plastered on nearly every vertical surface. I complimented him on his choice of wallpaper. Stevens laughed and said, "Some people like it too, but some people don't. Those people can just go to hell."
Stevens' father owned the hardware store and apparently started the tradition of coating the walls with bikini girls (indeed, I spotted some relics hidden amongst their more contemporary peers), but his father also moonlighted as a grain buyer for 10 years. During that time, when a homesteader would arrive with grain, he would run down from the store to the elevator to tend to his second job; that is until all the dust from the grain began to complicate his health. In the meantime, Stevens was educated as a mechanic outside
of town - and when he returned, his father added a garage and gas pumps to the hardware store.
Though the gas pumps are long gone, they have a lasting legacy; the provincial government is displeased about leaks that formed in the tanks, which were left to decay under the ground. The ministry insists that they are polluting the area, but Stevens insists the damage is minimal and risk is overestimated. "The birds are still chirping and the rabbits are still here," he says, "And I've been drinking this water my whole life and I haven't dropped dead yet."
When I fill my water bottle from the well located in the deep grass of the overgrown village playground, I notice the water has a distinct yellowish hue to it and has a strong plastic taste to it. I suspect the tap hasn't been used in weeks, perhaps months. Nonetheless, I treat it with my purification droplets. By the morning, the algae blooming in my bottle adds an interesting touch to my morning oatmeal - perhaps I should have doubled the dose!
Ghost towns such as Orion are not unlike museums and visitors can often wander the ruins,
Roadhouse of Orion
This shack once had neighbours on the road but they're gone. This one got hit by a truck a few years ago.
which speak a thousand stories. However, this openness leaves towns such as these at risk of being pilfered. An entire generation of antiques and collectibles could disappear forever, but at least they are no longer polluting the landscape. I'm not sure which I believe to be more important.
People come and help themselves to anything they can pry off the walls. Stevens remembers when a visitor dropped by town to learn more about its history and interviewed him in his hardware store. Afterwards, he announced that he was going to take a walk around. A while later, the visitor came back to the store, telling Stevens that while exploring an abandoned house, he found a great antique sode pop cooler and asked for his help moving it to his car. Stevens was taken aback, "That was in my house!" he replied.
After a short walk around town, Stevens asks me (for the third time) if I'd be interested in buying property. He seems to be joking, but a part of me suspects his question is partially sincere. Nobody, especially Stevens, wants to see Orion become a total ghost town though almost anyone who visits already considers it to
While setting up camp, an older Hudderite couple drove into town, eyeing me closely as they passed by. They stopped their truck at Stevens' store for a chat. Most visitors are locals, coming in from the homesteads after a hard day to catch up on the latest news and gossip. I could see them gesturing towards me as they talked, and when they turned the truck around to leave, they gave a hearty wave.
Sitting outside his store and lighting up a cigar, Stevens looked out at the fields bathed in a golden sunset and tells me that a man came through town about 10 years ago, shortly before the grain elevator was demolished and the last businesses began to shutter. The visitor advised Stevens to buy land outside the city. Once towns are considered to be ghost towns - or go officially bankrupt - they are often dismantled and bulldozed by the rural municipalities. "He told me that no matter what happens to the town, I could always move out to my land where they could never turf me out. Perhaps I should have bought land, but I didn't."
The bulldozers have already flattened towns
such as Govenlock, Senate and Vidora on the Saskatchewan side. Indeed, when I passed by these places, there was next to nothing to see but iron wrought signs listing the town name and years when the town was born and died. Orion could very well be next.
I packed up and biked out of Orion the next morning, headed southeast into the great, empty expanse of a little visited corner of Alberta. Gazing at the rolling brown and green hills in the morning sunlight, the landscape resembled an enormous quilt, laid out to the horizon and beyond. The sight made me consider that our entire country itself is a giant quilt stretching from ocean to ocean, and the stories we tell and the lives we live are the strands that hold it together. Places like Orion are indeed a part of this quilt, even if the fabric is a little torn and faded. We might think that our children - or ourselves for that matter - can only learn about our country's history from a textbook in school, but out there, in a far and forgotten corner of the quilt, the history still stands and its nooks and crannies
are waiting to be explored. I can only hope there is something left for visitors to enjoy in the future even if Stevens can't convince someone to buy property before he leaves the world.
You're not planning on camping out here, are you? You wouldn't find me camping out unless my life absolutely depended on it. Too many critters out here. Rattlers, wolves, big cats - if you know what I mean. This is one of the most remote places on Earth"
- Albertan rancher mending his fences along Highway 501, a few kilometres past Orion on the southernmost point and least inhabited section of the Red Coat Trail
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Very well written and interesting report on an aspect of America I had never thought about before. Thanks for sharing!
sorry, meant to write Canada in that last comment, not America!
"one of the most remote places on earth"
Who woulda' thunk I lived so close? You shoulda popped round for a cup of tea;-)
Great blog post, I happened by Orion earlier this week and had the pleasure of meeting Boyd, such an interesting man with quite a story to tell... My photo of him - http://www.flickr.com/photos/sherlock77/6016622664
Dorothy (Stryker) Swift
Did a lot of mental reminiscing.Went to school with Boyd and sister Sharon.Hang in there, Boyd!