For Vauxhall and Retlaw, six miles made all the difference

The beautifully restored Retlaw United Church in 2004, one of the last remaining structures in the once bustling village of Retlaw.

Vauxhall is on the comeback trail.

This prairie outpost, 20 miles north of Taber, has bounced back from a calamitous period during the ‘90s and early 2000’s when the town lost its rail line, elevators and an alfalfa dehydration plant.

Successive misfortunes plunged the community into an existential crisis, prompting the mayor to tell an Edmonton reporter in 2006: “I love Vauxhall, but geographically, some days it feels like we’re in the middle of the wrong place.”

Six years on, Vauxhall enjoys a renewed lease on life.  These are prosperous days for a town buoyed by irrigation, oil and gas exploration and high school baseball, a fact reflected by a 20 per cent growth in the town’s population since ’06.

Vauxhall’s road to redemption hasn’t been without a few ruts. The town suffered a relapse in 2010, following an unsuccessful campaign by some ratepayers to dissolve the town into the surrounding M.D. of Taber.

However, in this dry and desolate corner of the West, where town and country are at the mercy of volatile weather and commodity markets, it’s never a good idea to get too comfortable.

This is a lesson the former residents of Retlaw, a dusty drive six miles west of Vauxhall, learned all too well during the drought-ridden ‘20s and ‘30s.

Famously named for C.P.R. official, Walter Baker (“Walter” spelled backwards), Retlaw was to be adjacent to the proposed Bow River irrigation project.

With the arrival of the rails in 1913, the post office formerly known as Barney sprouted into a village on the barren plains.

Within months the community swelled to 150 residents and would soon boast several elevators and businesses, a hotel, a fire hall, but curiously, no water. With its designation as a division point by the C.P.R., Retlaw’s future seemed assured.

That was until world war cancelled the boom.  Almost overnight the irrigation consortium declared bankruptcy. For those hoping to make a fortune from farming in the desert, this was bad news indeed.

When work on the irrigation project picked up a few years later, the reorganized corporation chose the siding at Vauxhall as its base of operations, not Retlaw.

Although Retlaw would remain the region’s principle centre for another decade, its fortunes steadily declined. Vauxhall’s proximity to the growing Bow River irrigation project meant its star would continue to rise, largely at the expense of its western neighbour.

By 1931, following a decade of drought and dwindling rail traffic, the C.P.R. pulled its operations out of Retlaw, leaving the village’s substantial tax burden on the backs of the few remaining ratepayers.

There would be no comeback for Retlaw. Over the next decade, accusations of corruption, conflict-of-interest, abuse of municipal relief and tax delinquency were leveled at both councillors and ratepayers, while the fate of the incredible shrinking village hung in the balance.

With its business community having left for greener pastures, and unable to uphold its municipal obligations, the province disorganized the village in March 1939.

Vauxhall continued to grow through the drought years and beyond, its fortunes forever tied to irrigation. Becoming a town in 1960, the capitol of the Bow River Irrigation District registered over 1000 residents by 1974. Meanwhile down the road, only the elevator agent and his dog remained in Retlaw.

Today, Retlaw is home to a few structures, some abandoned but in good condition, thanks to the dedication of local residents.

Standing at the intersection of 1st Avenue and Centre Street, you can’t help but feel for old Retlaw. Unlike Vauxhall, it truly had the misfortune of being stuck in the middle of the wrong place, at the wrong time.

This article first appeared in the September 21, 2012 edition of the Prairie Post East.

11 thoughts on “For Vauxhall and Retlaw, six miles made all the difference”

  1. The prairie post forgot to mention the CIBC that was in retlaw. And eventually moved brick by brick to Lethbridge and today it is still part of the main branch downtown across from the post office

  2. Vauxhall was a kind of boom town when PFRA were there in the 50’s and early 60’s, developing the Hays district. Of course the railway was there, elevators, and the alfalfa dehy plant. An exciting place in those days. I remember attending a brand new school at Hays, and later going to high school at Vauxhall, a one hour bus trip from home each way…morning and afternoon.

  3. NIce Little town in its time from what i hear. The church is really nice inside. A friends family is from the area. And they got Married in the church last year.

  4. Hi Hugh, I appreciate your comments. The church is beautiful, and in excellent condition. Retlaw was a little more spruced up the last time I was through, definitely worth a visit again. Happy Holidays!

  5. I grew up to the south of Retlaw, within sight of Taber, with the glow of the lights of Lethbridge on the horizon, and took all of my schooling in Vauxhall. As a place in the middle of nowhere, on the contrary, it’s a place from which you can go anywhere. The memories are vivid.

  6. I grew up right between Vauxhall and Retlaw and have seen the changes to today from the late 50’s as a kid. My dad went to school there for 11 years until they closed it. Vauxhall became the hub with the PFRA headquarters there developing the irrigation base that is the mainstay of the agricultural viability in the region. Fond memories of the old town and it is a credit to local groups and residents to restore and document what is a historical resource in Southern Alberta. We went to a 100 year reunion a few years back and that was a great event.

  7. I love it out there I miss having our family Easter gathering here! My cousin is getting married here next summer!!

  8. I spent many years celebrating Christmas and Easter in Retlaw with my family. My son was baptized in the Retlaw Church in 2004. My family was heavily involved in the restoration of the church. I have memories of painting while my dad and uncles put in the heavy work and my mom and aunts worked equally as hard along side many friends that have strong roots to Retlaw. It is a beautiful piece of history and remains very close to my heart. I visited recently with my children and truly enjoy hearing stories from the past when Retlaw once was a growing community.

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