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.