Frozen in time

Once a thriving town, Keeler now sits empty
                                                                                              Devin Heroux photo
By Devin R. Heroux

You can still send mail to Keeler, Sask. but there may not be anyone there to pick it up. Red faded letters can barely be made out.
            Keeler, Saskatchewan
            Post Office
            S0H 2E0

The resemblance of a village sits still, almost frozen in time, waiting for all those people that once lived there to come back home.

“To give you an exact number of people living there is tough. I think there are about 12 people picking up mail at the post office these days,” says Ken Purdy.

Purdy and his family have been farming the land around Keeler since 1911. He still lives in his 1951 house with his wife Sandra. The two make their living farming Saskatoon berries on land that was once occupied by wheat. Together they have watched the community die. On March 31, 2003 when a government-issued water advisory warned of Keeler’s water being no longer safe to drink, the end drew near.

“It’s sad. There’s nothing left of it anymore,” says Purdy. “I didn’t do enough to keep the town alive.”

Purdy still carries guilt about Keeler dying. As families left, buildings closed and the passion for his hometown diminished. He stopped caring. Today the Purdys have no one to meet at coffee row. The pace of life is slow and a car passing by on the gravel road to town is a rarity.

“There’s just nothing for people here anymore,” says Purdy. “Why would a family want to move here? That’s quite a commitment.”

The picture is bleak. Combines and seeders lie worn, rusted, and feeble in unkempt fields from years without use. An old flower-patterned chesterfield field sits dilapidated out front of an abandoned house. Ball diamonds that once played host to summer tournaments and after school pick-up games sit empty. Wood from house frames litters the ground like skeleton bones. There is an eerie silence that hovers over what once was a thriving town.

"It's sad. There's nothing left of it anymore."
                                                       - Ken Purdy

Irene Bishoff moved to a farm five miles from Keeler in 1971. She used to organize community dinners, dances, and the annual fall supper. The last fall supper was served in 2005. Now she can only reminisce about a time that seems so long ago.

“In 1981 there were 38 families in the area. They were young, mid-20s and 30s, and we just had a great community,” remembers Bishoff. “The weekends, well, it just rocked here.”

At the intersection of Elgin St.and Railway Ave.sits the Keeler hotel. It was the place to be on Friday nights. The locals would pack the undersized building. Now it resembles nothing more then a structure waiting to be blown over. Wires from the sound system drape down from the walls with nothing to plug into. The roof holding up the second floor has collapsed. And the urinals are filled with leaves. A sign attached to what was once the bar reads “Nevada Cards Available Here.”

Duncan Keeler spent many nights at the hotel. His great grandfather founded the village in 1910. Keeler, who watched the people come and then go, can be found living in the school now. It closed in 1970. The red-bricked building that was built in 1921 towers over the rest of the rundown buildings like a castle. Keeler has it all to himself. He still works as hard as ever.

“I’m busy these days. There’s always something I can be doing. It doesn’t matter if people are here or not, I’m always going to be busy,” says Keeler. “I guess I have to keep up the family name.”

The family name has fallen off the map. Keeler doesn’t even have a sign on the highway anymore. It’s a story that’s becoming all too common in rural Saskatchewan. The lure of the bigger centre is deteriorating small town life. For Purdy it was only a matter of time before he saw the last night at the Keeler hotel.

“This world has changed a lot. There’s a few of us that remember the good old days, but 20 years from now there won’t even be memories,” says Purdy.