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Ghosts get elbowed aside on Pizza Night in Rowley

Whenever Rowley has faced oblivion, locals have always come up with a plan — sometimes mischievous ones — to save their dusty locale on the central Alberta prairie.

The hamlet, located 38 kilometres north of Drumheller, was fading away in the mid-1970s, when a group of men staged the now famous break-and-enter party into a boarded-up Sam’s Cafe. They symbolically stapled dollar bills to the ceiling to initiate a Save Rowley campaign.

Twenty years later, following a rebirth — that included the town being used in 1988 for the filming of “Bye Bye Blues” (a rare Canadian hit movie) — the boys brainstormed once again.

Rowley was about to lose a private railway tourism operation that delivered thousands of tourists and their badly needed dollars since 1990. But then came another inspiration.

“I think the boys were looking for something to eat and somehow they ended up with a pizza crust. They made up a pizza and thought, ‘Maybe we should start selling these things, eh?” said local Doug Hampton, official caretaker of the hamlet whose family has lived in the Rowley area for more than a century.

It worked and one night a month, Rowley is the busiest ghost town on the Prairies. On the last Saturday evening of every month, it hosts Pizza Night. Up to 150 Rowley lovers from across the region and as far away as Calgary pack Sam’s, now lovingly restored into an old-fashioned saloon on Main Street.

“In the summertime we get more people than can fit in here,” said Leroy Avramento, the saloon’s grizzled bartender for more than 15 years. “It’s Rowleywood. It’s history.”

Volunteers Shirley Bremer and Christopher Foesier make pizza for the crowd that will pack Sam’s Saloon.

Volunteers Shirley Bremer and Christopher Foesier make pizza for the crowd that will pack Sam’s Saloon.
photo: Johnnie Bachusky

By 5 p.m. on Oct. 29, the hooting and hollering had already started. It’s two days before Halloween, and many are dressed for the special spooky occasion. The beer is flowing. Dancing has started. Thanks to the granting of a special licence, children are free to roam the saloon. Early arrivals order their pizzas, homemade creations prepared by volunteers in the nearby community hall.

“My heart is in Rowley. I want to see the little town stay alive,” said volunteer Shirley Bremer, who was born and raised in Rowley, adding the resilient ghost town offers an opportunity to “step back in time.”

“You can’t find this kind of socializing and atmosphere just anywhere. You come out here and it’s special.”

That’s especially so for American Emily Overes, who moved permanently to Canada just over a year ago to be with husband Dan. They live in Cochrane and the couple has already attended three pizza nights.

“I just love the spirit of the community, no pun intended,” said Overes, who just secured a copy of “Bye Bye Blues.” “They love putting it on. The money goes to a great cause to keep the town looking good. I love to see the local folks dancing, having fun, and just enjoying themselves.”

Emily and Dan Overes from Cochrane have come to Pizza Night in Rowley three times since they were married a year ago.

Emily and Dan Overes from Cochrane have come to Pizza Night in Rowley three times since they were married a year ago.
photo: Supplied

Most importantly for out-of-towners, Pizza Night in Rowley is a unique experience that can’t be replicated anywhere else.

“It’s a bit of an adventure,” said Calgarian Harry Brugmans, who discovered Rowley by accident five years ago while geocaching. “It’s different, rustic. You don’t have to put on any airs to come here, that is for sure.”

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