We land in Retlaw on a day the streets are bustling with life.
About 20 cars are parked outside the Retlaw Hall, a community meeting place on the main drag.
It’s Easter weekend and the Culver family converges here, just as it does two or three times a year. They’re scattered — 11 children and 22 grandchildren — through southern Alberta, from Calgary to Taber to Lethbridge.
One daughter remains in Retlaw, the ghost town which reached its peak of activity in the early 1900s. She and her dog Mooch are a walk from the field where the Culver homestead stood.
Rocky Culver approaches the strangers to tell them about the weekend festivities. His silvery blue eyes light up with the opportunity to tell tales of Retlaw and beg our assistance in finding his bag of Easter goodies.
Can you see it?
The Culver grandkids run around the town, peeking behind closed doors and lifting rusty buckets. The elder Culvers amble behind, enjoying the laughter.
“Everybody has a bag with their name on it,” says Rocky. “If you find mine, you signal me, OK?”
We leave the family to enjoy their day, continuing on our journey to learn about the town of Retlaw. Someone, it seems some time ago, painstakingly wrote by hand the town’s history on wooden slats and staked them into the ground.
The signs of life in Retlaw — named for Canadian Pacific Railway official Walter R. Baker — disappeared 85 years ago when the stores started boarding up windows, according to Ghost Towns.
Wikipedia notes the provincial built an irrigation canal near Vauxhall, just six kilometres west, leaving Retlaw in a dry-land state and prompting most of its residents to move away in search of a better life.
With a population of 5,000 living in the area in the mid-1910s, the town thinned away to two families by 1957. Many of the buildings were destroyed in the 1980s and the grain elevator was set on fire.
A few shacks remain — from the Doo Wop Shop and Tumbleweed Inn to Ed Merriman’s home.
Merriman, a New Yorker, was one of the original Retlaw residents. He ran the mail and stage route from Taber to Retlaw, hauling medicine, mail, groceries and goal. The 25-mile trip took two days.
Well known throughout southern Alberta, Merriman was mayor and school board chair. He worked vigorously until his death in 1946.
Is it his duster coat that hangs in the closet of the shack? His cowboy boots that rest on the floor, next to a spade? Did he light that lantern next to the single-width cot? Flatten his wrinkles with the heavy iron?
The gem of Retlaw is the church. It stands at the north entrance to the town, its bell tower guarding the spirits that remain.
Its Victorian architecture hearkens back to the time when the strong wooden pews were filled each Sunday.
It sat empty and rotting away for decades, until folks in the area felt they should restore it. The Culvers were among them.
“It was going to get torn down, too, but it’s just so beautiful,” says Rocky, glancing over our shoulders at the bright, white building withstanding the strong prairie winds.
And now the church is home to Sunday services and Christmas, commemorating its 1918 opening for the Yule season.
But not before drama surrounded the bell which became the centre of a heated custody battle and was even stolen and then returned after a public plea.
Today, the bell hangs in its rightful spot of the bell tower of the United Church.