Small towns dig deep during pandemic to save their rinks and halls, one cheesecake at a time
Rural communities forced to abandon traditional fundraisers due to pandemic restrictions
As a national news reporter for CBC, I usually cover the most pressing stories from my province — and there have been plenty in the past year. From lockdowns to shutdowns to breakdowns, hundreds of stories have demanded telling.
Here, I'd like to report one close to my heart. One that may not make the national news, but certainly affects the lives of people living in rural villages and towns across Saskatchewan and beyond.
Communities are coming together in spirit, if not in person, to find creative ways to raise money desperately needed to secure the future of their rinks, pools, halls, fire trucks and more. It's never been tougher. They face shrinking populations, rising operation costs and — during the pandemic — the inability to make or raise money in traditional ways.
Steak dinners, curling bonspiels, snowmobile derbies and dances have all been cancelled due to public health restrictions on gatherings. Rink kitchens that usually sell thousands of burgers and coffees to keep the lights on have been shuttered.
Now, as the pandemic enters its second year, people in rural areas are adapting and finding different ways to generate tens of thousands of dollars to cover the bills for these important community facilities.
It doesn't surprise me, of course.
I grew up on a farm near the hamlet of Bateman, 200 kilometres southwest of Regina. It's still a community of farmers who come together in the best and worst of times, but the village itself is a ghost town.
When I was a child, there was still a dilapidated rink in Bateman, and we all had our own key. It was a second home, one where I lost my front tooth in a scrappy game of pick-up hockey.
There weren't enough kids around Bateman to form teams, so my parents drove me and my brothers to the next town over, Hodgeville, to play our sports.
It's there — at the hockey rink or baseball field — that relationships are formed, kids get to be kids, and that sense of community is built.
Our old rink in Bateman had to be closed and eventually torn down after its roof started caving in.
Before the pandemic, small towns would organize fundraising events to pay hefty power bills and make repairs. A popular one is the annual community auction.
For those who aren't familiar with the concept, people and companies make donations that can range from 10 hay bales to litres of pesticide to a dozen homemade sticky buns. Hundreds of people pack into a community hall to throw back a few whiskeys and dig into their wallets while an auctioneer eggs them on.
In Hodgeville, packages of perogies and jars of pickled eggs routinely sell for hundreds of dollars. The village's first auction was in 2009 and it has raised more than $600,000 in 10 years for the rink, pool, golf course, hall and new fire truck.
"We wouldn't have a rink if there wasn't an auction. You would never upgrade or repair anything," said David Fischer, 39, who sits on pretty much every board in town. The father of four boys is the rink treasurer and still straps on the skates for the senior hockey team.
He and other volunteers had no choice but to cancel last year's auction, slated for the end of March, due to the pandemic. The village was out $50,000 to $60,000 in fundraising. Luckily, the provincial government gave "safe reopening" grants to municipalities in the fall that filled enough of a gap to at least get the rink going.
"We wouldn't have anything [in the winter] if we didn't have the rink," said Fischer.
This year, the auction committee decided to move the event onto Facebook.
Fischer hopes one silver lining of going online may be attracting money from former residents and people who wouldn't normally drive to Hodgeville for the event.
It worked for the village of Frontier.
One cheesecake at a time
The ranching community of Frontier traditionally raises $50,000 at its annual community auction and beef bun supper in November, the same weekend as a three-on-three hockey tournament.
None of that was possible in 2020, yet the community put in its artificial ice surface — after paying a $13,000 bill to repair the ice plant — in hopes of hosting a hockey season. In the end, only one game got played all winter, but people still used the rink for physically distanced skating.
When it became clear the pandemic would continue, the minor sports committee forged ahead with an online auction of 150 items last month. It raised $56,000, with cash donations still pouring in.
The big draw was "cheesecake for a year" — one cheesecake a month for 12 months — that sold for $1,065.
A pair of brothers who farm together donated $1,000 and challenged others to do the same. Five other farms quickly matched it.
"I was quite surprised. The economy is rough," said Carla Heggestad, a mother of two girls and minor sports committee member.
Heggestad missed the friendly bidding battles and people heckling each other to "get off your wallet," but she was touched by people's generosity.
It's the same spirit that built these buildings in the first place.
In eastern Saskatchewan, 76-year-old Judy Becker was a young newlywed when she helped raise money to build the MacNutt community centre in the mid-1960s.
Local women put together a cookbook for sale. Inside the cover they wrote, "Let's put our children on ice and keep them out of trouble."
Now the building — which hosts weddings, funerals, meetings, hockey and curling — is getting a $200,000 roof repair.
One creative fundraising initiative in 2020 included 18 farmers pledging their yield from a certain number of acres. A social media campaign also elicited donations from former residents.
Becker said her sister-in-law in Calgary sent a cheque with a note that said, "I want my shingle or nail or whatever in that roof. It is good to know MacNutt still has a rink building and isn't quite on its last legs yet. I value my roots."
Committee member Kevin Popp said in that way, the pandemic may have helped.
"The pandemic got people thinking about where they came from, their roots, people around them, and in some respects, it got people to connect in a different fashion," he said.
That sentiment is echoed by the former mayor of Togo, a village of 80 people just 40 kilometres to the north of MacNutt.
Amanda Burback and a group of volunteers had to cancel their snowmobile derby and ladies night, so they're resorting to online raffles to raise $70,000 to fix rotting rafters in the rink and install a tin roof before the aging building collapses.
"It is our hub. Our school closed down. Our library closed. It's what we've got left," she said.
Burback is optimistic.
"I just have faith in the people that we're going to be able to pull this off."
I also have faith.