Seeking my family’s stories
When I walked into the hotel/gas station/bar/restaurant/liquor store in Rabbit Lake, Saskatchewan, I was not expecting to hear that my great-grandfather was haunting it. I had just told the woman working in the establishment that I needed gas and she, recognizing I was a stranger, had asked me why I was in her tiny community.
“I have family roots here,” I told her. “My great-grandfather was Doctor Storry.”
“Well tell Doc Storry to stop haunting the place!”
That started a chain of events that connected me to my relatives through the stories and experiences of the residents of Rabbit Lake. I could tell you many anecdotes about my great-grandfather and how he served as the town doctor (and was served at the bar many, many times) starting in 1928 but it’s the people I met in 2020 who matter most.
If it hadn’t have been for Covid19, I wouldn’t have been in Rabbit Lake, a once-thriving town northeast of North Battleford. A couple of weeks beforehand, my husband, Jason, and I had cancelled yet another trip out east. We had planned to spend Thanksgiving visiting family whom we missed after cancelling our first trip in August. Now what were we going to do?
How about a trip to Rabbit Lake?
Was that even possible?
Growing up in Nova Scotia, I had heard many stories of Rabbit Lake and for some reason, it always seemed to be a far-off place, not a place I could step foot in. But when I googled it in an attempt to see how far it was from Edmonton, I found it was a lot closer than I had imagined.
Less than a five-hour drive.
Jason and I decided on a road trip with social distancing and safety in mind. Rabbit Lake wasn’t a typical destination, by any means, but it seemed like the trip was meant to be. A couple of days before we left Edmonton, I had my hair done. My stylist was a young woman who asked me what my weekend plans were. I told her about going to Rabbit Lake. She was shocked, because her family is from there. She had never ever heard of anyone else going there, let alone anyone who knew where it was.
“There’s not much there,” she said. “Lots of big farms and fields.”
I wasn’t going for the scenery. After years of writing about other families’ history, I thought I’d find out my own. I knew my paternal grandmother, Nancy, had lived in Rabbit Lake in her late teens and met her husband, my grandfather, there. My father was born in Rabbit Lake, delivered by his grandfather, Dr. Storry – my great-grandfather who is now, apparently, a ghost.
My husband and I didn’t know what we’d find in Rabbit Lake on the blustery autumn day. It isn’t a ghost town but it has seen more robust times. Trains regularly stopped in the community in 1926. In the late 1920s, the place was well-stocked with stores, cafes and farming families. At one point in its past, there were three grain elevators. Now there was only one. Jason and I drove past it on our way into town. We stopped the car and I took pictures of the tall, grey building while Jason waved to a senior driving by in his pick-up truck.
The streets of the Rabbit Lake are gravel and there was no one on them. In the distance, dust filled the air. It was harvest time and many people were out working in the fields that spread out around the area. Jason and I expected to come into the town, tour around the place, check out the cemetery and then leave. Before we could do that, we needed gas. The only place to fill up is at the hotel.
Joan, the woman who told me about Dr. Storry, turned out to be the owner of the Rabbit Lake Hotel. She said that my great-grandfather liked to play tricks on people like turning lights off and on in rooms. He also had a kind side and checked in on guests who were feeling poorly. While they were resting in bed, he’d put his palm to their forehead to check their temperature. Joan said that Jason and I should visit the the municipal heritage property and see the old hospital where Dr. Storry worked. Being October, it was closed for the season but she made a call and soon we were meeting Alan Laughlin.
Alan is a retired teacher with deep roots in Rabbit Lake. We met him on the heritage property, which is a collection of four buildings. There’s the old CNR (Canadian National Railway) station, the restored Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, the Acton Teacherage and the Rose Gill Hospital. Every centimetre of the buildings are steeped in history. Things of the past that connected to my present were on display. (There was even a vintage porcelain plate from Peggy’s Cove sitting on one of the shelves.) I saw the room my dad was born in, some of the tools my great-grandfather used and the hallways he would have walked. Alan was knowledgeable and answered my many questions. The ones he couldn’t, he suggested I ask the older residents of the town.
“The seniors go for coffee at 3 p.m. at the seniors’ centre,” he said to Jason and me. “Drop by and they’ll be able to tell you more about your family.”
We had some time to waste so we wasted it at the hotel in Dr. Storry style: with a drink. Joan told us more Doc Storry ghost stories and more hotel history. At 3, Jason and I headed to the seniors’ centre where social distancing and masks were in effect. The first man we met was the Cornie Martens, who recognized us as the people who stopped to take pictures of the grain elevator.
Cornie had known my great-grandfather and my grandfather. He immediately showed us Dr. Storry’s framed picture hanging on a wall of the centre. Then he served us some coffee and delicious homemade treats while other people trickled in.
Ninety-five-year-old Henry Konopelski and his wife Mary arrived and Henry told us Dr. Storry had taken out his tonsils and his brother’s appendix. Jean Masset had been delivered by Dr. Storry. One couple lived in Dr. Storry’s former home. We stayed at the centre for more than an hour and a half, chatting with the people of Rabbit Lake – living links to my history. Then it was time to go.
We didn’t leave the seniors’ centre empty-handed. Cornie gave us a book, Fond Recollections, that holds the family histories of Rabbit Lake and surrounding areas. I read the book in a couple of days. When the highway was built, the train traffic into Rabbit Lake dwindled until there was only the stalwart station left. The population has dwindled too – there are around 127 people living in the town. Nevertheless, a community remains. I’m so fortunate to have been able to meet some of its residents.
The municipal heritage property is also a strong link to the past but it needs major investments of time and money. According to Alan, the buildings need major work and there are hundreds of documents and materials from the town’s over 90 years of life to be archived. It’s the same issue small communities around Canada are all facing as they race against time to keep history from disappearing.
I’m so glad I made the trip to Rabbit Lake and walked the streets as a fourth-generation Storry. I may be an East Coaster but my roots stretch all over Canada. Some of them are bound to the seas of wheat that roll over Saskatchewan.