A Thousand Years
It was too late for the 5:00am opening at Charlie’s Lunch when I got up. I ambled in around 6:00am, and the first shift of the coffee klatch was in full swing. A second shift arrives around 9:00am, and a third at 3:00pm. In between and after, there also are a few actual paying customers.
Coffee at Charlie’s, or perhaps on one of the benches outside the café, is one of the rhythms of life in Eastend, Saskatchewan. Suzzanne and I were privileged to share in those rhythms during our recent stint as writers in residence at the Wallace Stegner House, guests of the Eastend Arts Council.
Eastend is a town of five or six hundred population in the Frenchman River valley of southwest Saskatchewan. It perches on the east end of the Cypress Hills, hence its name, which was that of the Northwest Mounted Police outpost which preceded the town’s founding in 1914.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author spent his boyhood here and later wrote about it in his memoir, Wolf Willow. Stegner considered Eastend a good place to grow up, but said he couldn’t live there as an adult—it would be stultifying. In the famous finale to Wolf Willow, entitled “False Front Athens,” he concluded, “Give it a thousand years.”
Our sense of the place is a little more positive than Stegner’s. Heck, we applied to come here! And we find the town populated with more than its share of readers, writers, painters, scientists, thinkers, and just plain thoughtful citizens.
Certainly the town punches above its weight, too, in concrete ways. It has a grocery, a drugstore, a hotel, a motel, even multiple dining options—and I mean that in all seriousness. The anchor establishment for dining is Jack’s Café, which has been operated by a succession of first-generation Greek immigrants since 1914.
What keeps this town vital, even as the local petroleum industry slacks off a bit? Well, it isn’t random chance. The members of the local arts council, despite Stegner’s sometimes harsh pronouncements about life in Eastend, realized that little Wally’s home was a resource. Their hopes were modest when they refurbished it into a home for visiting artists. Since then, however, seven visiting artists have bought houses and settled in Eastend.
This means there are painters and potters and galleries in town, which attract visitors. Perhaps a bit more could be done to appeal directly to pilgrims wishing to explore Stegner’s boyhood environment; we had to get used to people parking on the street and walking around the Stegner House, sometimes peering in curiously.
Up the hill, too, there is a provincial museum of paleontology. This comes directly from the work of a local eccentric, Corky Jones, a pioneering amateur paleontologist, and from the insistence by local people that when professionals made finds where Corky had shown the way, the fruits should be kept and exhibited locally.
Every community has its own capitals. Some communities do better than others at building upon them. You can wait a thousand years, like Stegner said, but a thousand ideas will get things done faster.