Twelve years ago, Mortlach, population 240, seemed just another small Prairie town dying on the vine.
The downtown business section consisted of a failing store and an insurance office. There wasn’t even a place to have coffee.
No one expected new people would move to town, much less build a house. No one thought new businesses would set up shop in Mortlach.
But now they do and they’re not quite what you’d expect.
Walk up Mortlach’s main street and you’ll find some of the most unusual enterprises for a small rural Saskatchewan community.
There’s the Thunder Creek Trading Post and Rock Shop, a family-owned business operating out of a 100-year-old former general store.
On the other side of the street stands Photo Art Canada, a gallery owned by a freelance photographer forNational Geographic.
Just off to the right is the Hollyhock Market Natural Foods store offering fresh produce and specialty products, including unique blends of ice cream.
A little farther up the street, you come to the Country Garden Tea House &Cafe operated by Mike and Sue Franklin, a couple from Wales.
Next comes Nowhere: Your Confection Connection, where Tiffany Olson markets candy imported from 10 different countries.
Don’t forget to visit Crocus Ridge Gallery, a 100-year-old renovated Anglican Church where Marilyn Forbes sells Saskatchewan-made art, pottery and woodwork.
If you don’t want to spend money, you can sample free native fruits and berries at the nearby community orchard.
Such attractions seem so odd for this flyspeck on the map just off the Trans-Canada Highway west of Moose Jaw that you wonder: what kind of place is this?
The answer is simple. It’s a village that decided not to die, said Rhonda Haukaas, treasurer of the Mortlach Community Development Association and Agricultural Society.
MCDAS (or Mac-Dass, as locals call it) is a driving force behind the revitalization of a community on the bald Saskatchewan prairie that once appeared to have little future.
When small towns try to restore their business and population, they sometimes look for a silver bullet – a large manufacturer bringing jobs and economic activity.
But MCDAS used a different approach, taking advantage of its location 25 minutes outside Moose Jaw and an hour and a half west of an international airport at Regina.
Because Mortlach is on the beaten track, organizers sought small businesses dealing in arts, crafts and specialty products to act as a drawing card for tourists and other visitors, Haukaas said.
There are other attractions for the curious, too.
Eight commemorat ive plaques on old buildings help trace the town’s historical roots. Another 10 are scheduled to go up eventually.
Locals celebrate Casey Jones, a former resident and amateur archeologist whose artifacts appear in museums in Regina and Calgary.
And, of course, there are the famous Mortlach Fiddlers, recording artists advertised on a sign as you drive into town.
Not content just to provide different goods and services, Mortlach also offers year-round events to bring people to town, where they invariably leave money.
There’s the Saskatoon Berry Festival, held the first Saturday of July. It attracts over 3,000 people to partake in a pancake breakfast, watch a parade, patronize over 60 vendors and, yes, eat homemade saskatoon pie.
There’s a community garage sale in September, the Great Pumpkin Walk in October, the Youth Winter Carnival/Family Day in February, an annual Christmas gathering and monthly concerts at the local hall.
Not only do people visit Mortlach, they also come to stay. The last census recorded a population of 256. The day a bus tour of farm writers from across Canada visited, a car with a U-Haul trailer appeared on the street and it didn’t look as if it was leaving town.
Word about Mortlach gets around. Haukaas said one Alberta couple heard about it and moved here so the husband could take a job at a nearby fertilizer plant. Another family from England bought a house in town which they discovered on the Internet. The woman works in the local grocery store. An investor moved in from Calgary and runs his business by Internet.
New arrivals help keep the local K-12 school enrolment steady at 76 students.
What at tracts people to Mortlach is a sense of potential and space to grow, said Haukaas.
“Here’s a community that isn’t totally developed, there’s room for new housing, there’s room for local businesses.”
It’s a huge amount of work for a relatively small band of boosters to keep a community active. Haukaas acknowledges there’s always the risk of burnout.
But such is the community spirit in Mortlach that volunteers invariably appear when needed, she said.
“People have said, we’re proud of where we live, we like to call Mortlach home, we want to keep it vibrant. And so people do get involved.”
“Weliketocall Mortlachhome, wewanttokeep itvibrant.”
– RHONDA HAUKAAS