Why people love Drumheller

 Why people dig The Ditch
Valerie Fortney | Calgary Herald | Sunday, February 24, 2008


Drumheller seniors Alvin Landon, left, and Dennis McNab say they have it better than their big-city counterparts, even if prices are going up.
CREDIT: Lorraine Hjalte, Calgary Herald
Drumheller seniors Alvin Landon, left, and Dennis McNab say they have it better than their big-city counterparts, even if prices are going up.

Walking into the Diana Restaurant is like stepping into a time warp. Flashes of bright red are everywhere in this 1950s-style diner, from the vinyl booths to the oversized Chinese dragon ornaments hanging from the ceiling.

But Alvin Landon doesn't come here for the novelty. He and his buddy Dennis McNab like it because their favourite tea-drinking spot, a window seat that gives them a view of downtown Drumheller, always seems to be free for them.

"We're here every single day," says a smiling Landon, a 78-year-old retired service station owner and native of Drumheller. "It's a busy spot here, in a quiet town."

Quiet perhaps, but no one will ever accuse Drumheller of being boring. Step outside the brightly hued Diana and you'll find a core that pulsates with a weirdness you won't find in any other Alberta town. Just about everywhere you look, there are dinosaur sculptures of all sizes, colours and eye-popping patterns dotting the main streets. You can't swing a stuffed snake without hitting a shop or museum with the word reptile in it.

But that's just their way of acknowledging the lifeblood of the town: tourism. For the past quarter century, the Drumheller Valley, known to old-timers as The Ditch, has been attracting more than 350,000 visitors each year. People from all over stop in to see the world-famous Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, the final resting place of the bones of dinosaurs once scattered throughout nearby hills.

Periodically, Hollywood comes to visit, too, using the ethereal Badlands hoodoos as a backdrop for films like Unforgiven and Shanghai Noon. This town and valley of only 8,000 hardy residents has other industry to rely upon, like agriculture, coal bed methane and the big prison on the hill, the Drumheller Institution, which employs around 600.

But in a place that truly knows the meaning of the term boom-and-bust -- in the early 20th century, the area boasted more than 30,000 residents thanks to the once-thriving coal mining industry -- it's clear that the good citizens know which side their bread is buttered on.

The differences between Drumheller and other Alberta communities don't end there. Today, while many places big and small heave from the weight of the economic boom, Drumheller seems to be in a time warp of its own. Not a single building crane dots the downtown skyline. Heck, this is a place where there still isn't even a Tim Hortons.

Ossie Sheddy acknowledges that the PC-loving Drumheller Valley -- former deputy premier Shirley McLellan owned the Drumheller-Stettler riding for 20 years and her successor, Jack Hayden, won handily in a byelection last summer -- seems to be a place the boom has passed by.

"We're not experiencing the kind of growth you're seeing in Calgary or Red Deer," says the publisher of the local daily, the Drumheller Mail. "I wish it would grow a little, but hopefully we can do it in a more steady, manageable way."  Still, Sheddy, who's lived in Drumheller most of his 51 years, says his townsfolk's concerns are a lot like those of other Albertans: education, health care, affordable housing.

"There needs to be more help with assisted living," he says, noting Drumheller is a popular retirement destination for seniors in lower income brackets. "And we have a great hospital here, but we need help attracting doctors."

Sheddy would also like to see some provincial money pumped into the prison. "They could add on another unit. We have the infrastructure," he says. "We need to keep reinvesting in that or in a few years someone in Ottawa will say, 'Let's close it down, it's old and run-down.' "

As seniors living in Drumheller, Alvin Landon and Dennis McNab reckon they have it better than their big-city counterparts. "My rent went up $50 last month, now it's $500 for a one-bedroom apartment," Landon says, "but I hear it's way worse in places like Calgary." McNab, a 68-year-old retired pipeline worker, concurs. "It's not as bad, but it does cost a lot more to live here now. Seniors need some breaks."

While The Ditch may not be showing obvious signs of a boom, its quirky character and laid-back lifestyle does still manage to draw the occasional newcomer. Shea Cook arrived from Kamloops eight years ago, hoping that getting away from a bigger centre would help her son with his health problems. "My son showed a remarkable improvement," says the 41-year-old mother of three, who is one of the owners of Five Blue Heron Emporium, a shop that sells everything from second-hand clothes to new age books and rejuvenating bath salts.

Like other Alberta entrepreneurs, she struggles with retaining staff, which she blames on a lack of good day-care options in her community. "There are a lot of moms who could come and work for me, but there's no one to look after the kids," she says. "I'd like to see the province help out more in child care."  Still, she's happy to call Drumheller home. "I came here and felt such a good energy," she says. "Do you believe in things like that?"

In this town where prehistoric beings greet you on every corner, it's hard not to be a believer.

vfortney@theherald.canwest.com   © The Calgary Herald 2008

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