Saturday in Rowley, Alta? Must be pizza night

The town parties on Pizza Night in Rowley, Alta. People come from all over and spend the weekend camping in the town site.  |  Duane McCartney photo

The ghost town comes alive on the last Saturday night of the month as part of an effort to keep the community relevant

Sam’s Saloon is packed with party goers who came for pizza night in Rowley, Alta.

The last Saturday night of each month is set aside for pizza night and people from all over the area travel to Rowley to attend. The rest of the time it is basically uninhabited because Rowley is a historical ghost town about one hour east of Olds, Alta.

Once an agricultural town in the 1920s and 1930s, Rowley had a population of 500. Now, the population has shrunk to nine.

It started back in 1793, when Peter Fiddler, one of Canada’s early explorers, came to the area. He travelled with local natives and followed the Red Deer River. In his journal, he described the country as open prairie with lush grasslands for the thousands of buffalo that roamed.

He noted that in February of 1793 there were so many buffalo that they extended for 10 miles across the landscape. Fiddler was trained as a surveyor by the Hudson’s Bay Company and was the first to sight coal and cactus in the area. Later a coal mine was established southwest of Rowley in 1916.

Doug Hampton, one of the few remaining locals, is primarily involved in keeping the history of Rowley alive.

“Rowley was incorporated in 1912 and was named after Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Walsh Rowley. The Canadian National Railway came in 1919 and a box car was the first station until the current one was built the following year. Several grain elevators were also constructed.”

Doug Hampton reminisces with Joan McCartney about the good times he had growing up in Rowley. He is one of the last remaining residences of the community and takes great pride in showing visitors around the ghost town. | Duane McCartney photo

A hospital was built along with a general store, which included a hairdressing parlor and later a movie theatre. In the early 1920s the town boasted a saloon and restaurant, a Lion’s Oil Ltd. garage and a livery stable. Sam’s Saloon was built in 1920 and Sam Leung operated the restaurant from 1943 to 1968 when it closed. The funds to build the United Church were raised from the proceeds from holding chicken suppers in the community. The church closed in 1979 but is still open for special services and events.

“A school was built in 1911 near Morrin, a nearby community, and later moved to Rowley in 1991 to become part of historical town site. In the early days, the school teacher lived in the back of the school and taught Grades 1-12, stoked the fire hauled water and did general upkeep of the building” said Hampton.

On the wall of the schoolhouse, there was a list of strict rules for the teacher. Each day they had to fill the coal oil lamps, clean the stove chimney, haul water and coal, make writing pens and whittle the nibs.

In the evenings, after 10 hours of work, the teacher could spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.

“Men teachers were allowed one evening a week for courting and were given an extra evening if they went to church” Hampton said.

“Women teachers were dismissed from their duties if they married or engaged in unseemly conduct. Teachers who performed their labour faithfully and without fault for five years would be given an increase of 25 cents per week provided the Board of Education approves. My how things have changed.”

As time passed, stores and shops closed and families moved away. In the 1980s, locals decided to spend time and money fixing up the old community homes and buildings to represent Rowley’s pioneer days in hopes of appealing to photographers and tourists interested in capturing a glimpse of a ghost town.

These prairie giants represent the good old days when Rowley was a thriving community. Now they are part of the ghost town. | Duane McCartney photo

“Rowley’s big claim to fame was being the film site for the 1988 movie Bye Bye Blues, a World War II story about a girl returning home to her small Alberta town after she and her husband were separated by the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. While waiting for the end of the war and to find out if her husband was still alive, she joined a swing band as a singer as a means of supporting her family and performed in many local community halls,” said Hampton.

Some buildings created for the movie set are still standing and with the boardwalk, creates this modern-day ghost town. Other films and commercials have been shot in the town and one American cigarette company made a commercial here because the winter scenes resembled Siberia.

However, Rowley comes alive when throngs of people come to town for the monthly pizza night.

Local volunteers host the party with live music as a fundraiser for the town.

“People will come from all over, bringing their camper trucks and RV units and camp in our town site,” says Hampton.” It’s a real party atmosphere. We open up Sam’s Café with its sawdust-covered floor and eclectic décor and the party continues long into the night.”

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