Story and photos by Chris & Connie. Additional images by Allan Arconada.
We’ve photographed and written about hundreds of abandoned places before, and many ghost towns too (browse BIGDoer.com and see). The report we’ll be presenting here will be a wee bit different from the norm however. We’ll not only talk about our subject and its history, Bents Saskatchewan, but we’ll touch on the struggles the land owner is experiencing due to the rise in “Ghost Town Tourism”; specifically the ugly side of that activity.
This is shortened (REALLY?!) and editorialized version of an internal document produced for the Saskatchewan Government. They’ve started noticing what’s been happening and wanted to know more.
Bents, a lonely and remote place on the vast central Saskatchewan plains, born and died in a generation. As communities go, it’s was late-comer, springing to life in the late 1920s (listed as January 1st 1930 in official documents), when the railway came through the area. Never amounting to much, and I don’t mean this in a disrespectful way, but simply in terms of size, only a handful of people ever lived here. It was a tiny little dot on the map that lasted only a short time.
There are a couple houses here, a small train station, now gone, two grain elevators, one gone, a hall, famous for it’s rip-roaring parties, a general store that sold everything, and a single street.
The town was located in the CPR’s Rosetown Subdivision, a line built on the eve of the Great Depression. Bents was reached in 1929-ish – more southern sections were not completed until 1931. This stretch of track was one of the last laid down during the crazy railway building boom of the 1910s and 1920s. On the prairies, lines were being built in every direction of the compass, often without thought of their long term viability. They’d built into an undeveloped area (and for a time there were a lot of these on the great plains) in hopes that a population would soon follow.
This could be seen as a “cart before the horse” mindset, but it seemed to work. For a time anyway.
The track traveled south from a connecting line at a place called Purdue, passed through Bents on it’s way to Rosetown and points beyond. Old CPR records mention it was conceived as a conduit for Drumheller (Alberta) sourced “domestic” coal destined for the city of Saskatoon, a plan that never really materialized, and to allow farmers in the region easier access to grain markets.
In the end, traffic was never that great and while it struggled on for many decades, the line was doomed. The southernmost section was pulled up in the early 1960s, while the one through Bents lasted until the late 1970s. One of the last built, it was one of the first closed – regulations at the time made abandoning a line hugely difficult, and for permission to be granted for this one to be pulled up meant traffic must have been something just short of abysmal.
Passenger service, while it was offered, was infrequent, one run in each direction per week, and lasted only a couple decades as best we can determine. It was provided by a coach tacked on to the end of a passing freight train (a slow train to anywhere). It’s not known when the station was torn down, but was probably just after that service ended.
There is one grain elevator standing in town today. It was built in 1928 for the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool and was closed around 1977, roughly concurrent with the end of the railway line. The “Pool” was farmer owned and was the largest grain handling firm in the entire country and remained in business until fairly recently.
The second elevator was also built in 1928, for the United Grain Growers, a long time and good sized player in the industry. That firm sold the building to the Pool in the late 1960s. It was not odd for these types of transactions to occur or for a firm to have more than one outlet at any one loading point. It closed and was torn down in the 1970s. Why the other survived, when this one didn’t, is not completely clear.
On the town’s main (and only) street, was Longworth’s General Store. The economic heart of the area they sold damn near anything one could think of, food, hardware, housewares and what ever else a settler in the area might need. In one corner was a post office and in back a small cove used a cold room. Fuel was also sold and some globe pumps used to stand out front. In the hungry 30s much credit was dispensed here. I bet a few of those accounts are still open.
Upstairs was a residence. The family that live here, the Longworths, raised a great many children in this small space. Not only was it cramped, clearly it was not all that well insulated. The norm: freeze all winter and cook all summer.
Need to do your business? The biffy’s down the stairs and out the back door. So much fun in a Saskatchewan snow storm!
This false front building has been exposed to the elements for a time and has settled but still seems quite solid. Birds have found their way inside, leaving their calling cards everywhere. Humans have even made an even bigger mess. More on this soon enough.
The store/post office operated from the late 1920s until the early 1960s.
There are two houses in Bents. One, the smallest example, belonged to a huge family. How did settler’s stuff so many kids into such small dwellings? The other belonged to an auctioneer. No one seemed exactly certain when the last person in town moved out but looking at stuff left behind, old papers and the like, we could guess the early 1980s or perhaps somewhat later (the town “officially” dissolved earlier, when Longworth’s closed).
Between the dwellings is a rather interesting building, a hall used for meetings, socials events and dances. Lots of dances. It may seem strange for a tiny town like Bents to have this sort of facility but there were a good number of farmers in the immediate area. On the weekends the place would be packed, the booze flowing and the fun lasting well into the night. Or till the following morning. Or all weekend. Those hardcore party animals!
The Longworth Family was the house band and the stage where they once performed is still in place. The structure dates from the early 1930s.
This building was later used as a grainery. It clearly very solidly built and looks pretty straight and true even after all these years. Of course there is bird crap everywhere.
Prior to the town being founded the general region was known as Piche. Bents took its name from an area in Scotland.
Ken, a hard nosed no-nonsense kind of guy, owns Bents and lives and farms not far away. His family ran the store. Barbara, his mother and a real dear, grew up there. He will be our guide when we tour the town. Both will tell of its history, him in person and her, by phone (she was the sweetest interviewee ever).
People showing an interest in and visiting old and abandoned sites is nothing new, it’s been going on as long as there have been places like that around. Even so, on a serious level anyway, it’s somewhat of a fringe pursuit. It’s growing in popularity though, exponentially it seems, and is morphing and now has a name: Ghost Town Tourism.
Most who do it, do it right. They’ll arrange permission or simply shoot from a public spot (road or whatever), will respect the site and never do anything unsafe. They’re the good guys.
Some are not. There is an dark and nasty side: trespassing, people putting themselves in danger, theft and vandalism. It happens more than most are willing to admit. The trouble comes from a small group. As is often the case it’s a few trouble makers that do most of the damage.
This “problem” has been on our minds for quite a while now, bugging us a great deal in fact, that we arranged an interview with a fellow who owns a ghost town to see their take on it all. Finding such a person was not a huge challenge, finding one who wants to speak on the record, was however. Not many wanted to talk with us, for one reason (which was BIG on our minds too) – will the story expose a site to more visitors and hence further problems? Yikes, that’s a hornet’s nest! But it needs to be addressed.
In the early stages of this plan we were approached by an big-wheel in the Saskatchewan Government (which we can’t name), hoping we could provide some insight on the very same subject. Someone there is taking notice. Odd but very good timing.
The Field Interview:
We arranged to meet with Ken and his wife Cindy at their home then travel as a group to Bents. Interestingly they live in a old converted school located at a lonely crossroads, an abandoned gas station located nearby. That he owns a ghost town and sort of lives in another is in itself hugely interesting.
In typical BIGDoer fashion we choose to do an unstructured and impartial interview, one that was loose in form and free flowing with no prearranged questions. It also had be free of bias and agenda – WHAT WE FELT DID NOT MATTER – we made no attempt to sway the conversation nor insert our opinion into the dialogue (although we are clear with our readers what we see as a solution, as hated as it’ll be).
The only plan: we’d wander about Bents and chat. We’d talk about this and that, bouncing from subject to subject. The memories flowed out, problems were spoken of and for much of the time we’d be lost in conversation, Connie acting as scribe and our dear friend Allan, a great photographer who rushed up here with minimal notice, snapping pictures as we went (Connie and I would take a few too).
Ken spoke of his family connections to the town, recalling his elderly mom (we later interviewed her by phone) who along with a good number of other siblings, was raised in the upstairs apartment. They reared that many kids in that small a space?
He’d point out little things. Here’s the second story clothes line. That’s the car parts “warehouse” (the store literally sold everything), all the while recalling this event or that. We could have filled up an entire book with what he (and his mother) said and feel rather guilty that it’s not all included here. Editing is a part we hate.
In back we’re shown the outhouse. Who doesn’t like looking at place where people crapped? Imagine having to do your business on a blustery cold Saskatchewan winter! “Watch it, the well is open. This house is where so and so lived. They raised a butt load of kids there too. This is the dance hall, built by my grampa. The parties held here were legendary.”
At times the mood would become more serious. He’d speak of the difficulties associated with owning a ghost town. Nearly everything’s that was not nailed down has been swiped by trespassers. There used to gas pumps out front, gone one day and now on display at a local museum – they stole them then later donated them. What nerve! It broke our hearts.
If Ken’s was breaking too, he hid it well. But I can’t help think he was more moved than he let on – we saw hints of it. People with tough exteriors often hide it inside. Cindy was a bit more transparent and we could often tell what she was thinking and we’d say it wasn’t always happy thoughts. Barbara was much like Ken, tough as nails, but deep down I sensed she was saddened at what she heard what was happening too. She lives not far away but rarely drops by.
Then there is the vandalism. Most windows are gone, stuff is thrown everywhere (that stuff that hasn’t been stolen that is), things have been knocked over and broken. You get the idea. You could sense Ken’s growing frustration as we talked. Most of it’s happened in the last half dozen years or so. I guess we can blame the internet here. Word travels fast online – the place is a ghost town lover’s dream, mostly intact and amazingly picturesque – we touched on this as being a problem too. How can people resist its charms? Bents is spell binding. But it belongs to someone else, a hard fact for some to accept.
Theft, destruction and plain old trespassing, they’re some big problems. His greatest worry are the dangers people are putting themselves in. Old buildings can be unstable and it’s not getting any better, wood is rotted, bits of metal are buried in the grass. There are land mines everywhere and it’d be easy for someone to get hurt. We totally get his concern. People exploring abandoned places often don’t think and take great risks. Must…get…that…special…picture! “Ahhhh!” Splosh! “I’m stuck in a well!” How long before someone breaks an arm or leg? Or worse?
No trespassing signs have been posted but it’s clear they’re often ignored. Or pulled down. With them gone, I guess some visitors don’t really fathom they’re entering private land (but it still doesn’t make it right) or at best know they are…but if there’s no sign it must sort of/kind of be okay. That’s a stance even some of the good rule following people take. For the any number of reasons, a few become temporary converts to the dark side.
If someone phones up Ken asking for permission to visit Bents, it’s denied (we’re not giving his number). His reasons must be clear if you’ve read this far. Sadly, those he’s turned down have painted him as gruff, difficult to deal with and a real asshole. We spoke with many and they all said such. Or worse! “Watch out Doering, he’ll eat you alive!”
Honest moment! Based on that reputation and a somewhat uncomfortable initial phone call with him, we we’re a bit worried.
It’s all sour grapes and based on our interactions his reputation clearly unfounded. He was nothing but pleasant, likable and incredibly accommodating. But then again, we treated everyone as they wish to be treated, respect and take an interest in them and it opens all kinds of doors (oops, trade secret given away). Even if someone says “no” to a request does not make them a prick.
We had so much fun with Ken we stayed for a BBQ back at his place. All those people were right, what a bastard…
Anyway, he laughs it all off. He’s only protecting what’s his. It’s his, not mine, not yours, his. Some ghost town explorers take exception to that.
Back on topic…
He spoke of loosely organized groups arriving in buses and taking over Bents from time to time. Pictures of the town show up all over the internet. Heck, the store and elevator even appear in the opening titles of a TV show. A lot of people come here, that’s obvious. Not one was given permission. He says we’re the first.
Many assume since the place is abandoned or looks so, one can enter it freely. Food for thought: most of these places, even if it doesn’t look like it, belong to someone.
Ken’s become so frustrated with people coming he’s contemplating just leveling the place, or taking the hall back to his property and demolishing the rest. Sounds a bit drastic, but with nothing else working he feels it’s the only alternative. I don’t for a moment thinks he wants to, but he might be driven to it. After a while, with the problem unending and overwhelming, any sentiment is out the window. In one day, he can make it all go away. Sad perhaps, but the alternatives are…?
With every unauthorized visitor the dreadful possibility that it’ll be bulldozed into oblivion looms ever closer. Look up a town called Farrow Alberta and see what happened to it. Will Bents Saskatchewan follow it into history?
The BIG question:
What then, does Ken want with Bents? Easy, he’s linked to it in a special way. We all have family treasures, just his is an entire town. That he does not wish to share with everyone is his business.
Is there one? Yes, but only one, for now anyway, and no one will like it. You’ve been warned. Simple, Bents is on private property, so please don’t go. If it was ours, we’d let everyone in, escorted of course, but it’s not.
We’re fully prepared for the hate mail and the pleas (nothing new to us). “But…but…but…it’s so photogenic…we’ll be in and out and no one will know nor care…how dare he not allows us to visit…what a…!” I’m fully expecting the “can you get us/me inside Bents?” requests too. Sure, Paypal us $1000 and we’ll see what we can do.
We anticipate being called hypocrites. You’re ghost town explorers and got to go there, but tell us to stay away? What? Really? Do we sound preachy? Most definitely yes.
We went in, not to rub it anyone’s face. We hope in some way, this write up will help save the town. Maybe we can make people think. It’s better to have it, even if it’s not really all that accessible, than to NOT have it at all. As they say…”given the options”…
We spoke with Ken about having an outside group obtaining or managing the Bents town site, which he seemed receptive too. But we have to accept this is one pie-in-the-sky longshot. A pipe dream perhaps? Any benefactors out there? Anyone?
This report was a long time coming. It was written, rewritten, edited and edited again, at times a total mess before it was all abandoned and the work started over. Several times! This author spent an endless number of frustrating hours working on it and then there was day after day of a horrible debilitating writer’s block where NOTHING moved, a first for me.
The reason for the long and drawn out gestation period was sort of hinted at earlier, We know this write up will be seen by a good number of eyes and worry we’ll only encourage more people to attempt a visit to the town instead of the opposite. Our intentions are honourable and true and our goal was to do what we can to help save the place in what ever little way we can, But will it backfire? Will the problems only worsen due this very article? Will people see these photos and flock there, causing further harm?
Off the Beaten Path – with Chris & Connie: those dickheads that put out the hit on Bents Saskatchewan. This concern stalled the report for many, many weeks. I worry we may have to pull the article, and are fully prepared to do so, if it does opposite of what we hoped for.
Please show respect. Bents is on private property.
This interview was a blast, eye opening and often sad at times. A whole gamut of emotions was seen that day. Ken gave Connie and I a BIG hug when we were done. That, I hope, says we’ve done something good here. We must be the first and only ones who took the time to see his side.
Ken, Cindy and Barbara, Allan Arconada, Jon Dirks too (you know what you did), we owe you all a GIANT debt of gratitude.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: June, 2015.
Location: Middle of nowhere, Saskatchewan
Article sources: Ken P, Barbara P, Saskatchewan Wheat Pool records, CPR archives.
Bents Saskatchewan is on private property. We visited with permission.