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Rustic reality

There’s something so very quaint about Rowley, Alberta.

It’s the rustic charm that remains in this little ghost town 20 minutes north of Drumheller.

Some of the area residents work hard to keep the buildings standing and presentable and they want to do more.

They’d like to turn Rowley into a tourism destination, a place to go and learn about the history of Alberta, a place to spend money, a place to do more than camp and drink beer and eat pizza.

Here’s my selfish side: I like it just the way it is.

Dusty. Musty. And rusty.

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It’s easier to imagine the bustling old days when the rail line brought hundreds through the town on a daily basis.

It’s easier to imagine the grain elevators spitting the little pellets into the rail cars below.

It’s easier to imagine the swish of the swinging doors as the town roughie entered the saloon and all heads turned to acknowledge him.

Places like Rowley stand in stark contrast to reconstructed ‘ghost towns’ like Fort Steele, about 20 minutes east of Fernie, B.C.

Fort Steele is a tourism destination — or a tourist trap, if you will. The buildings have been painstakingly reconstructed and renovated the buildings.

No paint is peeling off the ceilings off the homes, no Model T’s in sorry need of restoration sit in a dark, dusty garage and no Wanted: Pierre Elliott Trudeau posters hang from the walls of the saloon.

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Fort Steele is a great way to spend a family day, learning about the Gold Rush days and chatting with the staff who are educated in the area history and dressed in period costume.

But it’s also stripped of any real connection to the time it represents. It feels pretend.

Not so in Rowley.

Yesterday is still very real in Rowley. Like time stopped when the grain prices plummeted in the ’40s and the trains rolled through town less frequently.

Schools closed, fires burned the curling rink down and people left for more urban reaches.

And they left Rowley behind.

It caught some attention in the ’80s when a film crew descended to create the Canadian movie, Bye Bye Blues … a terrible production by Bo’s review.

Rowley soon was forgotten again, but for the faithful who keep coming back for visits and camping, or the ghost-town curious who think they might get spooked in one of the abandoned buildings.

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Today, Doug unlocks doors for us.

It’s my third trip out to Rowley, an annual autumn destination for this shutterbug.

Some friends have organized a group outing with our cameras. Some of us have been here before. Others are seeing it for the first time.

I’m seeing inside some buildings for the first time.

My fascination with churches is satiated for the day as Doug throws open the door to the United Church’s foyer. The church is the best-kept building in town. It gets rented out for weddings and other ceremonies — an obvious money-maker for Rowley’s heritage foundation.

We’re in the town bank, adorned with a magnificent chandelier squired from the Palliser hotel in Calgary.

The saloon … its floor covered in sawdust, the ceiling papered with one-, two- and three-dollar bills … yes, the three-dollar bill is currency in Rowley.

The rail station, a building loaded with antiques, carefully placed by the older women of the area … their wedding dresses and shoes from the 1930s donated for our amazement.

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And finally the school house.

A mannequin is posed in a stern position at the head of the class, a bell at the upper left corner of her desk.

Her students are all dolls. Three Strawberry Shortcakes are squeezed into one desk as the class sits in rapt attention, listening to their lessons from the school mistress.

Her bedroom and kitchenette are in the back of the little school house.

She lived and worked in one building … oh, how some of our employers would love to have us at their beck and call in that way today.

Doug has lived in the area for 59 years, since his birth.

There’s no way he’d leave it for the bustling metropolis of Calgary, just two hours south of here.

“It’s peaceful, quiet,” he says as we stroll along the boardwalk of the main drag.

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Doug leaves us in short time, securing all the doors behind us.

We’re left to enjoy the peacefulness on our own.

The grain elevators, the train station, the dilapidated livery, the hospital, the campground where many stay after too many beer on the monthly pizza nights used to raise funds for the town’s upkeep.

And the playground.

We’re all kids at heart.

Rowley comes alive with our laughter and chatter. We hit the swings, the maypole and the merry-go-round … play structures you wouldn’t find on a schoolyard today for the risk of danger.

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Ah yes, don’t you remember getting the wind knocked out of your lungs when you fell off the monkey bars?

I sure do.

And that’s the very beauty of Rowley.

Memories at their simplistic best.

Rustic and real.

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