Plains Folk

Charlie and Jack


Charlie’s Lunch is an establishment pretty much unknown outside of Eastend, Saskatchewan—a town of 600 people where the Pulitzer prize-winning author, Wallace Stegner, happened to spend much of his boyhood. Stegner tells us nothing about Charles Goulet and his little café, nor will you find it in any tourist guides.


Oilfield workers have discovered Charlie’s, though, and they crowd in between the regular coffee klatches and wolf the sloppy hamburgers set out by the able woman currently in charge, Sheri Kohl. Charlie, whom I met years ago, has passed away, and is now a man of legend: people love to tell stories about his cranky disposition and his community spirit, and the annual community Christmas celebration is still known as Charlie’s Christmas.


Sometimes the reservoir of community in a prairie town pools into in an odd place, such as Charlie’s Lunch. Across the street is Jack’s Café, celebrated across the country for Greek and Canadian cuisine. Up the street is the imposing Cypress Hotel, come back to life as a dining establishment since the owners imported a crew of Filipino immigrants to provide reliable staffing. Still, if you want to meet people and take a community pulse, you go to Charlie’s.


Which is where we became acquainted, over coffee, with Bev and Sig Giverhaug. They are citizens of Eastend, and they are astronomers. This is to say, they have taken charge of the Wilkinson Memorial Observatory on the hilltop just southwest of town. There they introduce visitors young and old to the wonders of the universe.


What the heck is an observatory doing in this little prairie town? That goes back to a blacksmith named Jack Wilkinson, a handy and curious fellow who in the 1940s built himself a 10-cm refractor telescope, and after that a 15-cm reflector. I really mean he built these devices himself, right down to grinding the mirror over the winter at home.


All well and good, but maybe this guy Wilkinson was just a curious crank with a little talent. Well, no—he got the local pharmacist and the jeweler involved for coating the mirror, too. Then he got a bunch of other machinists from Eastend and surrounding villages to help out. They salvaged metal from a crashed aircraft to make a stable frame, designed and built an equatorial mount so as to track stars in line with the earth’s rotation, and brought in a new 20-cm telescope.


The frame was mounted on a set of rollers, so on promising nights for celestial observation, all these machinists would wheel the telescope out of Jack’s workshop onto the sidewalk and stay up through the night contemplating the heavens. They were just working guys in a dusty prairie village, but they sought the things which are above.


The way Wallace Stegner describes Eastend, it was a place without much sense of community and hardly any intellectual activity. Perhaps he needed to spend a little time with Charlie and Jack. There is a time to drink coffee, and a time to gaze at the stars.

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