In 1985, the going rate for a dead gopher was a quarter. Purportedly fed up with crop damage, farmers in my prairie hometown solicited children armed with pellet guns and old pillowcases to take on the role of Grim Reaper. Though I opted for a paper route instead, scores of tiny hitmen made enough to keep themselves in Big League Chew and sparkly jelly bracelets well into the fall. While this blood money was a small fortune to a child, it’s a fraction of the value currently attributed to these furry varmints in the hamlet of Torrington, Alberta.
Facing the reality of dwindling industry and a shrinking population, the people of Torrington took advantage of a provincial grant in order to fuel a plan to develop tourism to the area. After much debate, the Gopher Hole Museum was born in 1996, incorporating animals snared by local farmers, the taxidermy work of Dale Henkel and Dale Heinz, along with concepts and clothing created by the members of the Torrington Tourism Action Society, which owns and runs the museum. After fervent protests by PETA, and a wave of subsequent media coverage, the museum now sees over 6,000 visitors a year from all over the world.
Pulling off of Highway 27, roughly an hour north of Calgary, I feel a sense of home in the expansive skies and weather-beaten grain elevators. Being that the museum is open from June to September, I had called to arrange an off-season visit. Dianne Kurta, the Museum Director, and the only remaining original member, is waiting at the door of the little white museum that used to serve as the local schoolhouse. Her husband Otto waits outside in a running truck while she walks me through the 47 custom dioramas, containing a total of 77 stuffed gophers.
The montages are arranged around the room, in stacked wooden boxes with windows that give the appearance of a series of vintage television screens. I peer into one scene after another, witness to the typical follies of small town living. Sports games rally alongside church services, while farmers, hairdressers and blacksmiths work away, and young lovers embrace under the moonlight. Somewhere, in another dimension, Walter Potter rubs his icy palms together in gleeful praise.
I pass on my two-dollar entry fee to Dianne as she smiles over the frames of her glasses and zips up her winter coat. While the museum hasn’t resulted in a surge of income to the hamlet, the ongoing interest of visitors, film crews, and various media outlets have definitely put Torrington on the map. The museum is also one of the few in Alberta that is entirely self-sustaining and receives no outside support.
Those who participated in the Ravishing Beasts exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver likely remember a gopher dressed in winter gear, patiently waiting on a train – Olympics or bust. After being approached for a donation, the society decided that rather than disrupt the order of the Gopher Hole Museum, a new diorama would be created specifically for the Vancouver show. The piece has since been returned and can now be found in the museum gift shop, along with random knickknacks and a giant fiberglass gopher head used for photos.
The protests from the animal rights groups have mostly tapered off, however the museum still receives correspondence of this nature. John Graham, Media Coordinator for the Torrington Tourism Action Society references a recent email in which the writer suggests that the museum may as well stuff cats and dogs (sarcasm intended). Graham notes, “I replied in the same vein that we would consider her suggestion, and would be grateful for any pets that she would care to donate.” He also mentions that since the retirement of taxidermists Henkel and Heinz, the society has been unable to find someone who produces work at their level.
And with this, the pillowcases are lowered, and dreams of jelly bracelets squashed (modern day equivalent: Rainbow Loom), as the gophers lower themselves into their burrows, with a collective sigh of relief.
Words and photos ©Ehren Seeland