For decades, the general store in Alsike, Alberta was the centre of the surrounding rural community, a place for locals to get a snack, fill up on gas or catch up on gossip while sipping on free coffee.
So, it was no cause for celebration when, after 85 years, Alsike Corner Gas shut its doors and went out of business, leaving nothing but memories for a few long-time area residents.
For many years, the store was the only structure in the rural community at the junction of Hwy. 39 and Hwy. 20, about 40 kilometres east of Drayton Valley.
At times, it served as a post office, a drop-off for farmers’ cream and as the bus depot for travellers heading to Edmonton.
“It was a gathering spot for the community for many years,” said Allan Goddard, manager/curator of the Breton and District Historical Museum. “It was a place to catch up on what was happening.”
Tara Mueller worked on and off at the store since 1990 until it closed at the end of February. Her father, Willie Hatt, took over operation of the store in 2005, and it became known as Alsike Corner Gas, with regular jokes comparing it to the Canadian TV sitcom Corner Gas.
“A lot of the personalities that stopped there regularly were like the characters on the show,” said Mueller, noting her father had a group of regulars who stopped by two to three times a day. “It’s one thing about our store, we never, ever charged for coffee,” opting instead for a voluntary donation jar.
Times caught up with the store, Mueller said, making it less competitive, with the opening of another gas station less than a mile away and people willing to drive further to save a nickel or so on a litre of gas. Her family decided leasing the store was no longer financially feasible and put it up for sale this spring.
Goddard said the first version of the store, called the Hillview Store, was built by original owner Martin Oelkers in 1938. It was constructed on skids 1.6 kilometres west of the Alsike Corner Gas site, then moved to its final location about a year later, despite the fact the highway in front had yet to be paved.
The store went through a series of owners, including Sherman and Nellie Buffalo, who bought it from Oelkers around 1940. But it’s not clear when the name was officially changed to the Alsike general store. Goddard says the name was likely linked to the post office, which was named after Alsike clover grown in the area. The post office operated out of a farmhouse at one time but eventually ran out of the store.
Although to a city dweller the site may have seemed remote, Goddard says the junction of the two highways made it a handy stop-off for farmers and others travelling between Drayton Valley and Edmonton.
“It’s a perfect spot location-wise,” said Goddard, who recalls stopping in at the store with his family when he was a child. “And the first rule of real estate is location, location, location.”
Goddard said recalling the history of the store, and the cast of characters it drew for patrons, is bittersweet. But the store had begun to wind down in significance in recent years, so its closure didn’t come as a shock to the community.
“It was a small operation, and it’s hard to compete, especially with gas,” he lamented.
Mueller admits there is some sadness surrounding the closure, due to the store’s lengthy history and the colourful characters who frequented the place over the years. Stores like Alsike Corner Gas are becoming increasingly hard to find.
“And that’s the part that’s sad about it,” she said. “All these kind of old-fashioned type places are now few and far between.”