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Ghostly, But Still Alive And Kicking

Everyone knows that you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. But after driving past the abandoned gas station and the rows of empty, decaying houses in Lauder, a visitor may start to wonder if there isn’t a valid reason why the tiny town in southwestern Manitoba is listed on the website www.ghosttownscanada.ca.

Pull open the door to the community centre, and instead of creaking hinges and dark, musty silence, there’s the sound of merry chatter within.

No need to take fright; it’s just Lauder on a good day.

Instead of an encounter with spirits from beyond, it is in fact real, flesh-and-blood people enjoying the afternoon in the town’s only remaining coffee shop.

A dozen or so locals filled up both rooms of the centre in early October to raise money for the chemo ward at the hospital in Deloraine at the third annual “Tea for Cancer” event.

HOWLS OF LAUGHTER

Mentioning Lauder and the term “ghost town” in the same sentence, brings howls of laughter from those present. But still, it takes a few moments to round up a handful of people who still live there, ever since the population has dwindled from over 300 in the roaring 1920s to just four or five now.

Donalda Drummond, 85, remembers when the town had five grain elevators served by two railways, the CPR, which still hauls mainly grain west and coal from Estevan east, and the “Blue Flea,” which ran from Alida to Tilston, but was pulled up for salvage in the 1970s.

Community spirit is what holds the town together, she said. It’s mainly focused on Sunday services at the United Church across the street and, of course, the coffee shop, staffed by volunteers, which also doubles as the local post office.

They stopped serving meals, but it is usually filled with local farmers starting from seven o’clock in the morning each day until closing in the evening.

“We have a nice fowl supper every year, and the community gets together – even us old devils. We don’t stay on our feet too long, but we give something,” said Corinne Elliott, who makes the drive in from nearby Napinka to meet with friends.

SPIRITED AND SPRIGHTLY

Questions elicit the appearance on the table of a weighty tome, entitledThe Rise and Fall of a Prairie Town.Written by Gordon G. Phillips, the fivevolume set chronicles in painstaking detail the history of the town, which was once a big egg-grading station for the area and host to a local stockyard and livery stable. If you count the sandhills to the north, Lauder’s history goes back thousands of years – as a collection of flint arrowheads on the wall shows.

“It hasn’t fallen yet,” said Drummond, with a laugh.

The reminiscing soon conjures up an exchange over who was the naughtier teenager, and as proof, a tale of a package of cigarettes stashed away in a secret smoking sanctuary – inside a culvert under the railway tracks.

That the pictures in the hefty “bible” of Lauder feature hearty, prosperous farm families and businesses that arose out of

DRAWN AWAY

Reports that the local water supply is poor are unfounded. Instead, many locals point to the loss of the town’s school in the 1960s as sounding the town’s death knell, as it seemed to draw more business to neighbouring Hartney.

What’s the secret to keeping a community together? Having a meeting place, like the Lauder coffee shop, is the key, said Elliott.

“You have to have a gathering place. And doing this like this, and using everyone’s ability – everyone’s got some ability to contribute,” she said.

Brad Coe, CAO of the R. M. of Cameron, said that aWinnipeg Free Pressstory years ago about lots for $1 each in Lauder sparked a rush of speculative buying, mainly by locals, but since then, many of the properties have fallen back to

DANIEL WINTERS PHOTOS

LAUDER’S COMMUNITY SPIRIT: Above: An abandoned business in Lauder. Left: (l to r) Evelyn Duthie, Bonnie Clark, and Donalda Drummond, volunteers at the Lauder community centre, which is also home to the town’s only coffee shop. Below left: A stately brick house, now abandoned. Below right: A newly renovated home. Bottom: A sign advertising the now-shuttered gas station outside Lauder, indicating the centennial celebrated in 1991.

CHEAP LOTS

That price still stands, he added, but only if the buyer is genuinely interested in moving into the community.

With so many empty houses, are rowdy teenage drinking parties a policing problem?

“I’d like to see enough kids to do that,” he said. “We’re short of kids out here.”

He noted that booming oil exploration in the southwestern corner of the province has breathed life back into a number of dwindling towns, such as Carnduff and Gainsborough across the border in Saskatchewan, as oilfield workers seek local accommodations and houses to rent near the oilpatch.

It’s a long shot, but the prospect of future discoveries near Lauder may reverse the town’s fortunes. In the meantime, the loyalty of Lauder and area residents is keeping the town alive, he said. [email protected]

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Wehaveanicefowl suppereveryyear,and thecommunitygets togetherevenusold devils.Wedon’tstayon ourfeettoolong,but wegivesomething.”

– CORINNE ELLIOTT

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