Saskatchewan

Wild west restaurant puts small Sask. town 'back on the map'

Less than 100 people live in Stenen, Sask., but on its busiest days a local restaurant serves hundreds of people.

Thousands of people flock to Rawhides each year

Rawhides is celebrating six years in July and the owners might explore the idea of opening up a new hotel or motel in the future. (Rawhides/Facebook)

The idle streets and vacant shops of Stenen tell a familiar tale of shrinking rural Saskatchewan communities.

Little remains in the village, save for Trudy's Salon and Rawhides — a western-influenced restaurant that is booming. More than 75,000 people flock to Rawhides each year from in and out of province. On its busiest days, 600 people pass through.

"It kind of put Stenen back on the map again after you know its heyday back in the '50s and '60s," said Bob Koroluk, who grew up on a farm north of Stenen and attended the primary school.

"It was a booming place back then."

Koroluk left Stenen for Regina four decades ago when he was 18, but still owns farmland in the area and maintains the town's website.

According to Koroluk, the community had a couple of grocery stores, gas stations, a locker plant and a jewelry store. He played hooky from grade school to hang out at the pool hall and often visited the King George Hotel.
The King George Hotel in Stenen, Sask., was a hub for the community. (www.stenensask.com)

"From a very young age, we spent a lot of time in the hotel," he said.

The kids would hang out in hotel restaurant as they waited for their parents to "finish celebrating" after baseball games. The hotel was about a century old when it was engulfed in flame in 2011.

Rawhides opened its doors not long after the hotel was destroyed. The intention was to provide people a place to socialize.

"Out in these rural areas, lot of the old hotels and meeting places were getting dilapidated and were disappearing," said Doug Will, who owns Rawhides restaurant in partnership with his son and also runs a family farming operation.
The King George hotel and bar in Stenen, Sask., was destroyed by fire in October 2011. It was a century old. (Credit: Trudy Scebenski)

Will and his wife Brenda aren't from Stenen, but they love design and thought Rawhides could be an "interesting project."

It began in the old brick school house that was shuttered in 1987. Now it employs close to 40 people from around the globe. They never fathomed its success.

"The biggest reaction we get is just 'Wow, I can't believe there's something like this in Saskatchewan — never mind in a small community like Stenen.' "

There's a game room, a loft, multiple fire pits, a stage and even a library that contains books from the old school  — children's names still printed inside.
Rawhides co-owners Frazer (right) and Doug Will sit in the restaurant on Wednesday afternoon. (Submitted by Ingrid Macachor)

Will recounted the story of a couple who browsed through the books and found a tender piece of their past. 

"They come up wondering if they can have this book. It was their son's and he had passed away with cancer when he was like 20 (decades ago)," Will said.

"They were very happy to have something with his son's name on it."

Diners often come from Melville, Swan River, Yorkton or Dauphin, but guests have from all over.

"We have a guest book and it's just amazing. Page after page of people from the states, Europe."

Koroluk said it would be a sad day if the village became a ghost town, particularly when thinking about the old days.

"How it was when it was kind of a booming town to almost non-existent," Koroluk said.

"When you get a little bit older in your 60s, when you think about growing up you think about life around school and the town you grew up in. " 

Stenen Mayor Victor Wasylenchuk was also born and raised north of Stenen. He left in his late teens are has returned 50 years later. He said it's incredible to see so many pouring into a community that used to be difficult to access.

"At that time — the horse and buggy —it took you all day to travel," he said.

"We live ten miles north and if we went with horses to town that was a whole day's adventure out for us. "

"Back in the early '40s and that, it was one of the bigger areas," he said, noting the population has steadily declined since then.

But Wasylenchuk lives across the way from Rawhides and sees the people coming on bikes, buses and even limousines.

"I don't know how they never even crossed the railroad tracks and don't get hung up there because they're so dog gone long."
Rawhides expanded its operations to add an outdoor deck and an event centre. Now, the Rawhides operation covers between 10,000 to 12, 000 square feet. (Rawhides/Facebook)

It gives him hope — hope that the success of one business could attract new ones and breathe life back into the dwindling community.

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