Articles

OIL TOWN MAYOR

When the boom struck Redwater (pop. 160) what the town needed most was everything. And all it had in the bank was $732. Here’s how Mayor Len Walker and his council coped while the population jumped 20 times and the problems spurted like gushers

EARLE BEATTIE November 1 1950
Articles

OIL TOWN MAYOR

When the boom struck Redwater (pop. 160) what the town needed most was everything. And all it had in the bank was $732. Here’s how Mayor Len Walker and his council coped while the population jumped 20 times and the problems spurted like gushers

EARLE BEATTIE November 1 1950

OIL TOWN MAYOR

When the boom struck Redwater (pop. 160) what the town needed most was everything. And all it had in the bank was $732. Here’s how Mayor Len Walker and his council coped while the population jumped 20 times and the problems spurted like gushers

EARLE BEATTIE

THE 65-year-old mayor of the village of Redwater, Alta., a Cockney farmer by the name of Len Walker, abruptly danced a jig behind the desk of the Redwater Hotel. His Worship, who is also desk clerk at the hotel, had just answered the phone.

“That was Imperial Oil,” he announced to the small group in the lobby. “They’re going to drill five more wells and put a battery on my land. Wait till my wife hears of this!” (Battery: oil tanks and separators.)

The wiry little mayor of Canada’s newest boom town had been married only three months and after a frontier-spirit honeymoon the bride had gone to visit her folks in Michigan. The day after she left, Walker’s home had been gutted by fire, so the good news from Imperial would pleasantly offset news of the fire.

“This is my lucky day,” Walker said. He leaned across the counter and his neat circular bald spot came into view.

Someone asked Len how much the company would pay him for drilling. Walker pulled a few excited puffs on a dangling cigarette and chewed on his upper lip so that the full-length fag almost disappeared inside his mouth.

“Five wells and a battery,” he said, “that’s the same as six wells at $1,200 each. Comes to $7,200 and they’ll be around with a cheque tomorrow.” Len Walker already had one well on his land, so his down payments and rentals over the 20-year lease period would come to about $35,000.

The mayor was briefly interrupted by a customer in oily overalls who got up from his stool in the hotel restaurant, came over to the desk and presented his meal check. His Worship rang the money expertly into the cash register, handed back 15 cents change from a dollar with a polite “Yes, sir. Thank you.” Then he turned back to the lobby crowd.

“I’m going down to the garage and tell Walter I’ll take that 1950 Pontiac,” Len said. “And maybe I’ll buy the house next to mine.”

The puckish features of Red water’s mayor creased up into a gleeful picture, his nimble eyeballs darting quick points of happy light as he chewed on his cigarette. His strong sinewed arms were brown below the short sleeves of his T-shirt.

The Redwater Hotel’s chief proprietor, big Steve Malowany, loomed up from a corridor and Len told him the good news. Steve grinned, “I suppose we won’t see you now for a couple of days.”

“That’s for sure!” Len cracked back and the oilmen, farmers, truck drivers, salesmen standing in the lobby broke in with a chorus of laughter.

“I said I’d have three parties when they found oil,” Len went on. “The first is beer, the second Scotch and the third champagne!”

A champagne celebration by the mayor of Redwater would celebrate more than his monetary good fortune. Few of those in the lobby, laughing heartily with the little man at the desk, knew that for him the oil boom had been like a second birth. Only three years ago, following the death of his first wife, Len Walker had left his farm and wandered aimlessly about Edmonton, feeling old and lost. Then when the cry of oil went up in Redwater his life-long friend, Steve Malowany, got Len to come back and help him run the new 25-room hotel he was building.

“If I hadn’t met Steve that day in Edmonton,” Walker says, “I might have been there still. Just drifting, doing nothing. But Steve stopped his car on the street when he saw me and said, ‘Len, come on back to Redwater.’ I went right to my room, packed my bag and came to Redwater that very same day.”

It was a triumphant homecoming for the popular Cockney, returning to the circle of Ukrainian friends he had known all his adult life. For Walker found in a short space of time that you can come home again, you can become the No. 1 citizen in your old stamping ground, get married at 65 and suddenly fall into a modest fortune giving security for the rest of your life. His homestead and the extra quarter section he’d bought later had paid off.

The eternal Canadian boomtown had done it, the legend that will not lie down, and this time it was Redwater, Alta., 36 miles away by rail northeast of Edmonton, latest of a long line of frontier excitements ranging from the sourdough trail of ’98. Like an Albertan Aladdin, Len Walker had found a magic lamp and its black-oil slave brought rich blessings.

While Len was telling his story of a personal boom, throwing it out in snatches of conversation as hotel guests asked for their room keys and restaurant diners paid their checks, he was unexpectedly projected into the role of mayor by the arrival of Redwater’s two councilors, Walter Malowany and Myroslaw Muzyka. (Walter, a nephew of big Steve, is joint owner with his brother John of a handsome new garage; Muzyka is the Redwater School principal.) Len convened a council meeting at one of the restaurant tables.

Village government and village life in general have been on that spontaneous unexpected basis ever since the discovery well blew in on Hilton Cook’s land in September, 1948. After that, Len Walker and his old friends watched their hamlet, slumbering in dusty solitude, suddenly become the target of an industrial and commercial stampede in the rush for oil and business. They found themselves the surprised centre of the greatest wildcatting drive in Canada’s oil history.

In the once-quiet countryside derricks soon towered above haystacks, drill pipes raised in clangorous cry in the oil rigs to mingle discordantly with the pealing of bells in the Ukrainian churches, while flare pits burning off gas and waste spewed crackling flame and oil-black smoke high above the wheat. In the evenings the district looked like a “target for tonight” as the flare-pit flames ringing the hamlet threw huge red glows into the prairie sky.

Up until then Redwater had been distinguishable from open prairie only by three tall obelisk-like grain elevators, two garages, four general stores, a very small hotel, a poolroom and a boxcar railway station where trains arrived once a week. There were no street lights, no no movie houses, drug stores, banks, fire department or inside plumbing.

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The old-timers watched their straggling community jump from a population of 160 to a jampacked 3,500 in two years. Undreamed-of and unpreparedfor prosperity arrived as nine restaurants, a 25-room hotel, four more general stores, three lumber yards, two banks, two movie theatres, a real estate and insurance office, clothing stores, jewelry stores, hardwares, dance hall, drugstore and new post office sprang into existence. Trains started running every day to a commodious new station where a stationmaster and staff gave 24-hour service.

Boom Amid the Rye

With the march of progress also came a Board of Trade, Youth For Christ, a radio-telephone system, regular milk delivery, a policeman, 19 street lights, two or three lengths of paved sidewalk and a mimeographed newspaper. On the three business streets—Railway, First and Main—real estate was a bedlam thing.

“Three years ago,” Len Walker said, “you could have bought the whole town for two or three hundred dollars. Who would want it?” Now, on Main Street, a dirt road with its wooden sidewalk reeling tipsily across town, lots sell for $3,000. William Skoldny found himself in the happy position of owning a farm bordering the railway tracks, part of which he quickly subdivided for home lots at $300 to $600 apiece, thereby doing a stroke of business which made many who struck oil look like poor relations. Skoldny’s field of rye became a crazy-quilted shacktown of converted chicken coops, ancient streetcars, jerrybuilt structures, tents and trailers lining un paved streets.

The beating heart of the boomtown is the Redwater Hotel where Steve Malowany, a farmer turned businessman, and his partners, the Melenka brothers, preside. It serves as an eatery and sleepery, a social centre and occasional town hall.

Passing through the hotel’s double doors you get at once the full blast of the oiltown. Grouped around foaming tables are the men who man the oil rigs; roughnecks and tool-pushers in their pusher boots, peaked caps and hard hats; production men from the well sites; village merchants, some of whom landed in from distant parts of Canada to set up their shingles and ride along with the boom; engineers from Ontario, Texas and Oklahoma who have followed the smell of oil all their lives; farmers who have been in the district since the turn of the century; truck drivers in battered hats and windbreakers; salesmen, geologists and a few women (it’s a mixed tavern with a ratio of about 40 to 1). All are enveloped in a smoky hubbub where a babble of tongues runs conversation from the height of wheat to Viking gas (a gas-bearing stratum in the Leduc and Redwater fields).

Saved by Inexperience

Money finds its way into the hotel bar so fast that one of the local banks, running short of cash one day, sent over there for a $2,000 temporary loan.

With this boom right in their laps the three village fathers were faced with problems that would stagger a metropolitan city council and its sub-committees. As Walter Malowany mildly observed, “What this town needed most was everything.”

Millions of dollars were flowing to the Alberta Government from Redwater oil royalties and the lease of mineral rights, but at the start of the boom the village itself had only $732.43 in the bank. Walker, Malowany and Muzyka were saved from frenzy by philosophic calm and inexperience.

One of the first things they did was to commandeer a small building on Main Street as their office, a former granary moved out of the fields to the centre of town. They had to share this 12 by 16 foot wooden structure with insurance, real estate and notary public services.

A Chance for All

Then, with the help of the Board of Trade, Redwater’s governing trio reared back and passed legislation like crazy, their bylaws flying out of the former granary like confetti at a wedding: cars must stop at stop signs, garbage must be disposed of, taxes must be paid, 16year-olds and under must get off the streets after 9 p.m.

Bylaw No. 14 laid down zoning and building regulations. It is a fine grandiose document delineating residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural districts and conjuring up visions of a model city-of-tomorrow. With living room space prescribed at 960 cubic feet minimum, private stables relegated back 60 feet from the front of any building and backyards required to be at least 25 feet long, the residential zone, on paper, would almost do credit to Vancouver’s Shaughnessy Heights, Winnipeg’s River Heights or Toronto’s Forest Hill, except for Section 12 (e) which states, “A privy . . shall be situated not less than 100 feet from any front street and shall be enclosed in the front and sides . by a wall or a hedge.” Proclamation of the bylaw, however, would have a tornado effect in the ramshackle boomtown, lifting off about nine tenths of the structures. It’s never been enforced.

A flood of business license applications confronted the village councilors as prospective dry cleaners, door-todoor photo salesmen, truckers and sundry merchants appeared in person to state their cases. “Give every man a chance” was Mayor Walker’s wideopen policy.

To one businessman applying for an exclusive license he said, “We are not giving any man a franchise to run anything in this town. I am in favor of free enterprise.”

His Boss Appeals

One of the tougher problems facing Walker, Malowany and Muzyka was how to provide gas for cooking and heating in homes. They discussed this at great length as they sat in council above a vast reservoir of natural gas measured in billions of cubic feet. They finally signed a contract with a gas company to tap into this and pipe it out.

Preboom Redwater hadn’t been able to afford a resident doctor but by the time the three councilors got to grips with the problem they found it wasn’t a question of getting a doctor but of building a hospital.

The village’s bank balance disappeared like escaped gas, but after the first scientific assessment of property the councilors were able to borrow $30,000 from the bank which, incidentally, was located in the showroom of a garage.

Putting harness on a coltish village by way of tax assessment wasn’t easy, however, and a howl of pain arose from many property owners. About !

one third of the taxable populace appealed. One appeal came from Walker’s own boss, the Redwater Hotel. Being rather close to His Worship, one of the owners said to his chief desk clerk, “You put the appeal in for us, Len.”

“Hell,” the Mayor said, “I couldn’t do that. I’m one of the judges. I can’t appeal something to myself.”

While the hotel bar slaked many a thirst there was still considerable demand for water, and this problem like many others, was solved for the council by an eager private enterpriser. Twenty-three-year-old Andy Moisey arrived in from Edmonton and started 1 hauling water by horse and wagon at 10 cents a pail for shacktown families and merchants. Young Moisey worked up to three trucks and six employees with a haul of 7,000 gallons of water daily. On Saturday nights he hauls 500 gallons to H. B. Payne, the barber, who operates a public shower bath.

Town Without a Jail

Redwater laired as town constable Jack Gordon, a former Army provost and Queens University man, but when Gordon arrived last June he found little crime—“only a few wife beatings.” This was perhaps fortunate as the constable found no uniform for him when he arrived, and still has no handcuffs and no jail.

Walker, Muzyka and Malowany were helped'in their civilizing efforts by a pioneering young newsman and former air force veteran, Eddie Arrol, who arrived to start mimeographing the Redwater News.

In spite of the frenzied problem of riding herd on this human stampede Len Walker thoroughly enjoys his mayoralty—not for any top-hat notions but because, as he says, “I wanted to see what we could make of the old

Len Walker, born within the sound of Bow Bells, left a clerking job in London when he was 20, emigrated to Manitoba. After seven years there he went homesteading among strangers at Redwater in 1912. There were some Anglo-Saxon families out there, such as the Cooks, Hinkleys and Smalleys, but most of the farmers were straight from the Ukraine. They bore names like Manchuk, Ziniuk, Yakimac, Chaba and Malowany. They were not strangers to Len Walker for long.

While he farmed and did odd jobs the young Cockney tried to learn the language of his neighbors, but couldn’t get his tongue around the strange syllables. “But I took the census there,” Len said, “and I learned to say, ‘What’s your name? How old are you? and where did you come from?’ in Ukrainian.”

They Danced Till Breakfast

Today he recalls the old homesteading days with relish. “I used to go to their weddings, their funerals and their parties,” he said. “All we had at those parties were three or four bottles of moonshine and a fiddle, and, we didn’t dance from 10 till 2, we danced till breakfast.” Len Walker sang at those parties—and still does—and he sang words he didn’t know the meaning of, and the people loved him for it.

An old settler in Redwater likes to tell how, in harder times, he went to Walker for a land transfer when Len was a Justice of the Peace. “I had only 25 cents in my pocket and I am scared Mr. Walker will charge me maybe one dollar. But not Mr. Walker. He sign the paper and say, ‘No charge, Stephan.’ ”

Maybe that’s why, when Len Walker determined to be mayor, the Ukrainian

voters plumped their ballots for him, put their Cockney friend at the top of the poll above candidates of their own

Money, mayoralty, a pleasant job, fine wife, new home and car haven’t changed the modest but colorful nature of the limber little farmer—“I’m the same old Len Walker.” It’s also true, he says, of his friends who got small fortunes from oil—“None of ’em have gone crazy.”

Walker’s old friend Moses Sandage, who got quite irate about the tax assessment on his new house in the

village, will receive around $90,000 before his surface rights leases run out. Mrs. Sandage said to him one day, “Oh, but we’d be millionaires if we had mineral rights.” Moses asked reprovingly, “Now what would you be doing with a million dollars?” She replied, “Why, I’d just sit here and hug my old water bottle as I’m a-doing now.”

The Alberta Government retained most of the mineral rights when land was sold to the farmers, and few have become oil millionaires overnight in the fabulous pattern of Oklahoma and

Sometimes the farmers of Redwater sigh for the individual wealth that might have been. Times like that they remember Alfred Coyne, a geologist, who 30 years ago advised the district farmers to get oil rights if they could.

But when Len Walker gets around to that champagne party there’ll be lots to celebrate. There’s the five new wells, for instance, and the fat cheques, a train every day, and the 19 street lights which blaze out on the prairie to mark the town of Redwater. In a way, each of those lamps tells a part of the story of Len Walker. •¥■