By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman
NEEPAWA, Man. — It was a bustling Saturday night, the shops were open until 9 p.m., the restaurants were full and it was hard to find a parking spot on the main drag. This isn’t a scene from modern Toronto, London or New York. This was Neepawa on a Saturday night in the 1950s.
It’s hard to believe.
I was doing some research last week and I came across a 2014 article by Rick Sparling that recounted his memories of Saturday nights growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in Neepawa. Sparling now lives in Winnipeg, but he has written many articles about the town during the middle half of the last century — the Neepawa of his youth. He’s also written a book called the History of Public School Hockey in Neepawa and is working on another book, this one about amateur hockey in Neepawa.
On Saturdays in the 1950s, the Roxy Theatre showed three movies and not only were the hardware, grocery and department stores open late, so too were the car dealerships. The streets were full with farm families from across the area, from Plumas to Franklin, who came to Neepawa for their entertainment and some shopping.
I found the story so fascinating, if only because it’s such a contrast to a Saturday in town today. Never mind open until 9 p.m., many of the stores in Neepawa that are open at all on Saturday close within a few hours of noon. In the 1950s, not only were there restaurants and the Roxy Theatre, there were also pool halls, dance halls and bowling alleys to keep residents and visitors entertained. Today, the options for some Saturday night fun are far more limited.
I would love to see such a bustling atmosphere and I suspect a lot of factors have combined to create today’s drearier reality.
Sparling opens by mentioning that without television, people had to leave their homes to find entertainment. Today, from our couches, we can watch almost every TV show or movie ever created. Not only can we watch these at home, we don’t even have to leave the house to get them, much to the disappointment of corner stores and video rental shops.
The changes do reflect a seismic shift in how rural Canadians live and work. Sixty years ago, Saturday was generally the only time farm families from Plumas, or Riding Mountain, or Franklin came to town. Today, between work and school, a family member is probably in town close to every day. People don’t have to get all their building supplies or weekly groceries on Saturday evening, because they picked them up on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday when they were in town.
Have Brandon and Winnipeg become what our towns were, the bustling Saturday hot spot? Is that because of novelty or necessity? Did the people stop shopping late and the stores stopped staying open? Or was it the other way around? Have increasing levels of regulation made it too expensive to stay open late on a Saturday? As people become increasingly busy with jobs and family commitments, I wonder just how many area residents would appreciate the opportunity to shop late on a Saturday. Or a Friday. Could we see a similar scene today? Or have the times changed too much?
While Sparling painted his scene of Neepawa, I suspect similar scenes played out in other towns across our coverage area. While I don’t long for the days of isolation, hardship and only weekly trips to town, I do envy the sense of community that must have existed on those Saturday nights. As we step back and look at where our towns are, and what we would like them to become, I can’t help but think that we could all benefit from these shared experiences and the stronger sense of community they create.