Finally! We made the trek to the Gopher Hole Museum in Torrington, Alberta. And, we weren’t disappointed.
For years, friends have been saying this quirky museum would be right up our alley. The museum has attracted lots of media attention - including Huffpost calling it “Alberta’s Most Insane Hilarious Destination” to Calgary’s Avenue Magazine proclaiming, “You must see it to believe it.”
And, we weren’t disappointed. Since 1996, this grassroots museum has been attracting 6,000+ visitors every summer (it is only open from June 1st to September 30th, when the gophers go into hibernation).
Arriving shortly after it opens at 10 am on a recent Saturday, we were the first to arrive, but by the time we left, there were several visitors and a motorcycle caravan was expected later in the day as part of a scavenger hunt.
So popular with visitors, a great unofficial website guide to the museum was created by fans as a tribute. Very professional and comprehensive, the website has lots of fun information. I loved the “Meet The Team” link.
Link: Gopher Hole Museum
Gopher Hole Museum 101
The museum is located in Torrington, Alberta on Highway 27 just 15 minutes east of the QEW II highway, about an hour’s drive north of Calgary.
Housed in an unassuming, cottage-like former house just off of Main Street, it is not an iconic building designed by a star international architect as we have become accustomed to in big city museums.
Murals on the west side of the building let you know you have found it. You can park right next to the museum at no charge. Try that in the big city.
Speaking of cost, the museum admission fee is $2 for adults and 50 cents for children under 14. How good it that?
Once inside, the friendliest person we have encountered at the front desk of a public museum or art gallery in a long, long time welcomed us.
Dianne Kurta, the museum’s curator since it first opened in 1996, greeted us. She seems as proud and enthusiastic today as if the museum had just opened.
After a hearty welcome, you are free to explore the single exhibition room that houses the 47 dioramas with 77 mounted gophers.
They look like old box televisions, with the innards replaced by miniature scenes from early 20th century rural life in a small Alberta town, the “twist” being the humans are represented by (real!) stuffed gophers.
The result is hilarious; there is a clever tongue-in-cheek sensibility to each of the scenes.
Local artist Shelley Barkman who lives on a farm west of Three Hills painted the murals for each of the dioramas. She had become well known in the community for her work painting animal portraits as well as farm scenes. When asked if she was interested in painting the murals for the Gopher Hole Museum, she jumped at the chance. Working inside a box was a bit more challenging that painting scenes of the flat surface of a canvas but she was up for the challenge. And she did a great job!
You will probably spend 20 to 30 minutes looking at the dioramas, depending on how many photos you take and there is lots of documentation on the history of the museum to read as well.
Like all good museums, you exit (you also enter) through the gift shop which is full of a wide variety of souvenirs, hand crafted by the volunteers. It has the feel of a good old-time church bazaar.
No mass-produced, made in China junk that ends up in garage sales here! They even have their own postcards.
Whether you buy or not, make sure you vote on your favourite diorama and also make sure your town or city has been identified with a pin on the world map hanging on the wall. This is truly an international tourist attraction.
Kitschy Fire Hydrants?
As you leave the museum, you are invited to tour (an easy walk) the town to check out the 12 kitschy fire hydrants, all painted to look like a gopher, each with a name and story.
Grab a copy of the Torrington Tourism Action Society’s map to guide the way. You can easily spend another 20 minutes or so wandering the town, taking selfies with the likes of Butch, Gramps, Tubby and Peggy Sue and reading their life stories.
You will also pass by the huge Clem T. GoFur statue at the entrance to town – great family selfie opportunity.
Why A Gopher Museum?
The museum idea was in response to the decline of the small agricultural towns in the late 20th century, as large-scale agricultural farms gobbled up the 100-year old family farms across Prairies, including Torrington.
Many once thriving small towns with a post office, school and a few stores became almost ghost towns. In Torrington’s case, it couldn’t compete with larger towns nearby – Olds, Trochu and Three Hills. Soon, the gophers began to take over the town and local folklore says a town council member suggested, “we should stuff them and put them on display.”
While the museum and fire hydrants are fun, there is a sadness that permeates the town as you enter and wander the hamlet of about 200 people. Many homes lack a pride of ownership and there are only a few businesses left. Gone are the school, post office, general store, bank and other businesses you would expect in a bustling community.
Like lots of towns and cities, down and out on their luck Torrington looked to tourism to rescue a declining economy. (Perhaps the most famous example being Bilbao, Spain who hired Frank Gehry, a famous international architect to create an iconic art gallery for them. It captured the world’s imagination and today, what was a dying city is a mega tourist attraction. Unfortunately, Bilbao is the exception not the rule.)
After 21 years, the Torrington Gopher Hole Museum is still going strong, but as you wander around the hamlet you have to wonder about its long-term future. Will anyone have the same passion for the museum as Kurta? While she has endless optimism and pride in the town, will there be a next generation to carry the gopher torch?
I really hope so. The world needs more kitschy fun that everybody can enjoy!