There’s not much in Buffalo Alberta – never was. Today, there’s a few houses, one or two appearing empty. There’s a thoroughly modern community hall, but mostly the town is made up of vacant lots. And there’s the abandoned rail line just over there. As for businesses there’s one, the post office. There, on the main drag, the only street in town in fact, it stands in service to the local populous who live on farms and ranches in the area. It’s open a couple days per week.
The old building in which its housed is being renovated. And here’s where it gets interestingly. Peeling back the layers, old siding and such, exposes signage from long ago, crisp and bright as though painted just yesterday. We’re standing in front of Woo Sam’s, general merchandise, restaurant and rooming house. Pics, get pics, for it’s all due to disappear again when a new covering is applied. It may have happened already. Anyone?
Here’s what we know of Woo Sam taken from an early 1970s history book. Originally from China, he wandered the west for many years, bouncing from here to there, sometimes returning to his home country for a time, prior to putting down roots in Buffalo around 1923. Here he opened his business first in a smaller building then later, circa 1928, the one we’re looking at today. The 1920s were a boom period on the plains and business was good.
The 1930s, that God-Awful Depression, would later test the resolve of any business person, including Woo Sam. Credit was given freely knowing very well many accounts would never being collected upon. A bit of neighbour helping neighbour. Many merchants extended themselves this way.
Fast forward and with the war on, the economy stabilized. This was a good time for Woo Sam’s store. An ad in the local school yearbook, circa 1940 reads: “Woo Sam, the biggest little store. Prompt service for everyone. Groceries, hardware, dry goods, gas & oil and rooms for rent. Here’s where your dollar goes farther.” No mention is made of the restaurant end of things, interestingly.
Woo Sam was later joined by some of his children and grandchildren, brought over from China and in the 1950s, so some three or so decades after they last saw each other, his wife. Long time no see! As a family they ran Woo Sam’s into the 1960s, when due to declining health, a son took over all responsibilities. The mother had passed earlier in that same decade. Late 1960s or thereabout the business was sold off. We have no data on when it closed completely and later became a post office only. Probably the 1970s for the former, would be a fair bet.
An old gas pump still stands out front, fuel being sold in gallons – Canada adopted the metric system in the late 1970s although the old “Imperial” form of measurement is still used stubbornly for many applications in rural Alberta to this very day. Especially by old timers. Aged farmers often give us directions, distances being mentioned in miles as though it was in every day use by everyone. Anyway, this helps corroborate that circa-1970s closing of the store of which we had a hunch.
Was Woo Sam’s also a restaurant and rooming house to the end? It’s not said. Did they keep the name? No idea. At some point some siding was put in place covering up the old sign, and protecting it and it survives in wonderful condition as a result!
Interestingly, there used to be a second grocery store in Buffalo just a couple lots down from Woo Sam’s. Old pictures show it also operated a gas station. Lots of competition in that small town! In the 1940s, the Buffalo High School used to be right next door. A marker reminds us of that.
Woo Sam is spoken of fondly in that old history book. Seems he was friend to all, a kind and benevolent person, a helping hand always extended and who said no to no one. Much beloved, a poem, written by Violet Stone, pays homage and describes his life, legacy and the impact he had on the people of Buffalo and area. Here’s his entire story, in verse, far better and with more true emotion than we could ever describe. Made our job real easy…here it is…
From the opposite side of the world came he,
to make his home here with you and me.
He was young and ambitious and full of grit,
had a cleaver philosophy spiced with wit.
His advice is worth taking we are told,
the modern Confucius from a world of old.
He left his family, friends and came,
in ’23 to find wealth and fame.
He started up with the tiny shack,
which has become a storehouse out back
He later built his present store,
with cafe and rooms on the second floor
He was followed later by son Wah Chou,
who attended our school for a year or so.
Then came Scotty and Bill Wemp too,
the McCulloughs moved in then Bill and Boo.
Each a few years with Sam did spend,
bringing lonely days to a welcome end.
Son Kai arrived to take his turn,
to keep Sam company as well as to learn.
He passed all his grades with marks so high,
and then it was time to say goodbye.
He attended Varsities far and near,
to become a first class engineer.
If Kai’s life was dull it woke with a bang,
with the arrival of nephews, Wing and Sang.
These happy faced fellows were full of life,
and they filled Woo Sam’s days with both joy and strife.
To share in all this, and as well to keep house,
Woo Sam was joined by his aging spouse.
And so Sam enjoyed for too short a while,
family life in the true Canadian style.
The boys fit in Buffalo like a hand-in-a-glove,
and hunting and school sports became their first love.
As in our community all took their parts,
we found they held likewise a place in our hearts.
Like Sam before them, who was father to all,
with free catering service after hockey or ball.
His doors never closed either Sunday or night,
Buffalo without him would never seem right.
We would miss all the extras and
as to him and Mrs Chin we would say our goodbyes.
But all good things must come to an end,
each of the Woos his own way did wend.
With the passing of wife and mother so dear,
and each boy well launched with a brand new career.
Woo Sam may decide to join with his clan,
become a real city slicker on the easy-pay plan.
Now Woo Sam has given his finest and best,
in depression and wartime in our woolly west.
We could laugh at the rations and poverty too,
for we knew that our merchant would see us right through.
I can see by your faces you’ve all stories to tell,
so let’s wish Sam our blessings and best wishes as well.”
It’s not stated when the poem was written but appears in that history book referenced. The text suggests Woo Sam was alive when it was written. The mention of him being a “city slicker” seems to hint he moved to the big city in his later years or maybe planned to. Certain verses open up a window into to his soul. He was a giver of solid advice, and further, perhaps a bit of a funny guy. All the while his love for the town he called home, and those who lived there, is clear and without question.
The McCulloughs and other names mentioned in the third verse also lived with Sam Woo. Or rather he with them. Mrs Chin could I guess be described as a family friend from China that came over with Woo Sam’s wife. The name of Woo Sam’s wife doesn’t seem to make mention anywhere, neither this poem or the rest of the history book.
It not clear when Woo Sam passed. Cemetery records in Western Canada turn up nothing solid. Perhaps he was sent back to the old country which was not uncommon.
As suggested in the prose above, and in other tidbits found by your hard working author, it’s seems Woo was his family name and Sam his given, or rather an adopted anglicized one (we suspect), although we’ve found no data confirming either. Why then is it backwards on the sign? No idea? Or maybe we’re completely off with this hunch.
Buffalo Alberta was founded when the rail line came through in the 1910s. Never was a big place and currently is that close to obtaining full-on ghost town status. Still, the post office is open. And maybe it will be for a while?
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: September, 2017.
Location: Buffalo, AB.
Article references: Book: Seventy Five Years Along The Red Deer River.
You can view the Woo Sam building from public roads.