renewal With a thriving restaurant, charter school and community centre, Valhalla Centre remains a going concern
It’s named for the afterworld of Norse legend, and Alberta’s Valhalla might have passed into the Great Beyond save for the dogged efforts of a small community group.
Valhalla Centre, the tiny Norwegian community west of Grande Prairie, had been in a decades-long decline when the Valhalla Heritage Society was formed in 1988. Their efforts have since proven the wisdom of Margaret Mead’s words that a “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”
Originally founded in 1912 by a Norwegian missionary, the community’s claim to fame — aside from the Valhalla Brass Band — was its creamery, which opened in 1919 and later won first prize for its butter at Toronto’s Royal Winter Fair. But it was sold and closed in 1946.
“When the creamery was sold in 1946 is when the downturn of the community started,” said Mavis Breitkreutz, a former local resident whose parents both worked in the creamery.
Breitkreutz had moved away but was part of a committee that was first struck to hold a reunion and then decided to do more. The first move by the Valhalla Heritage Society was to have the town’s store, which dated back to 1918, declared a historic site. Funding from the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation paid for a new foundation, which was poured a few feet back from its original site close to the highway. The 1,700-square-foot structure was initially leased to a private operator of a small restaurant and eventually taken over by the society. Today, Melsness Mercantile restaurant (named after the longtime operators of the store) employs eight, attracts patrons from as far away as Grande Prairie, and showcases community artifacts and memorabilia in a room at the back.
Just down the road, the Valhalla Charter School is doing exactly what the Peace Wapiti School Division said couldn’t be done. Three years ago, the school division, citing low enrolment and high costs, announced its intent to close the local school. The community had seen it coming and a group was already working on attaining charter school approval. The Valhalla Heritage Society purchased the building, borrowing $1.3 million to make upgrades, including the roof, heating system and washrooms. The charter school opened in September 2008 with about 50 students.
Every year since, the school has added a grade as well as students and today has reached its cap, with 116 K-9 students. Only about $200,000 of loan remains.
“Too many times, a school closure is the absolute death knell for small communities like ours,” said Jolene Kochendorfer, chair of the Valhalla School Foundation. “There were a lot of people who didn’t want to see that happen here.”
The society’s latest accomplishment is a new 3,800-square-foot community centre next to the school that houses a library, meeting rooms and new change rooms for the adjoining school gymnasium.
Not bad for a community that claims to have a population of “approximately 57 people.”