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Bulwark

After 18 years it was time for Bert Ogilvie to leave Bulwark. It was 1940, and times were hard in Bulwark, a town of just under 100 citizens 20 kilometres east of Castor in east-central Alberta. Castor is about 135 kilometres east of the City of Red Deer.

Bert ran the Ogilvie General Merchant store, as well as the adjoining hardware business, since 1922. But after a decade of summer dust storms and winter blizzards, his family had enough. On one occasion the snow drifted pyramid style on the store front door nearly reaching the height of my bedroom window on the second floor, wrote Bert's daughter Lillias Waldren several years later in a community history book.

One witty townsman dug a tunnel to the front door and this caused much laughter that day. Bert went to Edmonton to look for work and his wife and Lillias moved to Camrose.
One week later, Lillias' beloved fox terrier Bing disappeared. The distraught family hunted all over for Bing. They made inquiries to neighbours. An advertisement was put in the local newspaper. Bing could not be found.

Two weeks after their pet's disappearance, the little dog was discovered on the back porch of the Ogilvie home in Bulwark. Bing had trudged 185 kilometres on his own back to his home town. He was thin, shabby, hungry and lay there licking his bleeding paws, recalled Lillias.

Sixty-five years later in 2005 the Ogilvie store is long gone from Bulwark, as well as Lillias' home. The site of the hamlets' two churches is now just barren prairie. The once popular Chinese restaurant is a distant memory as is almost everything else about Bulwark. But like little Bing, they still return.

© Johnnie Bachusky
 
© Johnnie Bachusky © Johnnie Bachusky  

In April, 2005, Red Deer‘s Joyce Williams stood forlornly on what was once the intersection of French Avenue and Main Street. She looked to the south, and then east and west, and finally to the north. All that was left was a few derelict houses. Even the town’s street grid had been wiped away by time and recent farming operations. Bulwark is now only home to phantoms - a prairie ghost town.

Joyce Williams 1955
”I’m disappointed to see that more of it is not standing. I’m a little sad,” said Joyce, her voice trailing off - barely able to hide a deep inner pain. Joyce’s visit to Bulwark in 2005 was her first visit to the town in almost 50 years ago. Joyce lived in Bulwark from 1948 to 1956. She went to the local school until the end of grade 8, and then to Castor for high school. Joyce walked past the old crumbling buildings facing French Avenue, and the memories of her youth came alive.
Joyce Williams in 1955.
“There was a hill that was just beyond the store and dance hall, before the hill down to the elevators. We called it Snake Hill,” said Joyce. “It was nothing unusual to see garter snakes curled up around the cars. I used to be able to run like mad because the boys loved to chase the girls with the snakes. There was just too many. “They finally came with bulldozers,” added Joyce. “The whole community from all around brought shovels and axes and whatever they could use to dig up and kill snakes. “They leveled the hill.”

For the past 40 years Joyce has lived in Red Deer but her grandson Matt had recently discovered information on Bulwark on the internet. He was intrigued about his family roots and wanted to know more. Matt and Joyce decided to go back to Bulwark. They first stopped in the cemetery where Joyce’s grandparents are buried. The cemetery is the last reminder a once vibrant community existed.

Bulwark was first settled shortly after the turn of the 20th century by homesteaders, enticed by the federal government with free land and the promise of a prosperous future.

When the railroad came from Coronation in 1914, it was the official birth of the Village of Bulwark. Like so many other new settlements at that time, there was great hope for a bountiful future. Bulwark never had a population over 100 citizens but it grew to be a thriving community, an important meeting place for grain farmers, a social centre to buy supplies, to attend a church function and to play sports.

At one time it had three lumberyards, two general stores, a post office, two churches, hardware store, a Bank of Commerce, garage, drug store, butcher shop, livery barn, dance hall, pool room, blacksmith shop, real estate office and five grain elevators.
Financially, Bulwark was the heart of a huge grain district. One year, the little town’s Alberta Wheat Pool elevator took in the second largest amount of grain of any elevator in Alberta.

The Olgivie store
The Olgivie store was the last business to close in Bulwark and was subsequently demolished.
During the Depression years, Ray Lundy was part of the grain industry, a member of a threshing unit working in the fall at harvest time from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. It was hard work and the boys in the unit would head to Bulwark after a grueling day’s work to unwind.

“We were all young, husky and ambitious,’ said Ray, 82 years of age in 2005 and living on his family farm about four kilometres south of the old town site. “The big thing was the turkey supper in Bulwark during the fall harvest. We would go there to fill up.” Ray said if the boys weren’t filling their dinner plates they might be found in Bulwark at the gambling den in the back of the butcher shop.

But Ray and other former citizens, including Joyce, recall the town overflowed with vibrant and enthusiastic community spirit, much of it brought about and organized by the town churches – a United and a Roman Catholic.

As well, the village was between Castor and Coronation, and Bulwark residents were divided in their loyalties amidst the fierce competitive sports rivalry from their neighbours to the east and west.

© Johnnie Bachusky
“They used to have such full things around Bulwark,” said Joyce. “At ball games the men would dress in the women’s dresses, and the women would dress in men’s ball uniforms and they would have ball games. It was so funny.”
There is no laughter in Bulwark today – only the occasional eerie wind blowing through the empty derelict buildings. The school closed in 1960, and the rail company closed its spur line a few years later. The already dwindling population read the writing on the wall and left. The Ogilvie store was the last business to close. It was later torn down. Three of the five grain elevators were demolished. Two of them were moved to nearby farms, including Ray Lundy’s where an old Pioneer Grain Company elevator still stands proud.

One of two reamining grain elevators One of two remaining grain elevators
© Johnnie Bachusky
Left and above: One of Bulwark's two remaining grain elevators.
© Johnnie Bachusky
© Johnnie Bachusky
© Johnnie Bachusky
 
“Bulwark is a ghost town now. That’s because of progress, I guess,” said Ray. “The cemetery is still there. We still have the memories.”
© Johnnie Bachusky