Heritage | A Winter in the Vilna Pool Hall
For the June 2011 issue of Alberta Venture, I wrote a small piece on the historic Vilna Pool Hall & Barbershop. It’s the oldest such combo still operating in the province (apparently, these were once common). Along with Vilna’s giant roadside mushrooms, it’s one of the small northeastern Alberta town’s main tourist attractions – and a provincially designated heritage resource to boot. Inside, they’ll still welcome you for a game of snooker on an antique table – and an affordable haircut.
During the course of my research, I wound up talking to a very sweet lifelong Vilna resident named Violet Preston who, as a teenager, had lived in the residence attached to the pool hall for a winter in the 1940s. Here’s her story.
Before school buses began making regular runs on the province’s range and township roads, Alberta farm kids usually attended country schools that went as high as Grade 8. Rural students who wanted to further their educations had to do so in town, often quite a trek from their family farms.
That was how Violet Preston wound up living behind the Vilna Pool Hall and Barbershop – built in 1921 and now a provincial historic resource – during the winter of 1947.
Preston, now nearly 80, is the current secretary of the board of the Friends of the Vilna Pool Hall Society, which oversees operations of the oldest pool hall and barbershop in Alberta. In the fall of ’47, she enrolled in Grade 9 at Vilna School and made the daily 12-mile round trip to school from her family’s half-section of land where they raised pigs, sheep and cattle, and grew crops like wheat, barley and oats. But come winter, students from all over the region were vying for places to stay in town and, lucky for Preston, her mother just so happened to be first cousins with the proprietor of the pool hall, Bill Taschuk. Taschuk and his new wife, Lilly, welcomed Preston into their home, a residence attached to the back of the pool hall. The pair had taken both over from Taschuk’s father just a few months earlier.
“It was a nice place to live,” Preston recalls. “The only thing was, though, that it wasn’t insulated or anything so it was very cold in the wintertime and when you woke up in the morning, you’d find ice in the water pail and what have you.” Even so, the Taschuk home had an advantage over some of the others in town: a coal heater in the front room, combined with lingering heat from the kitchen stove, that provided some warmth through the cold Prairie nights.
The residence was cozy and well-kept, Preston says. Its four rooms included a front room, a kitchen, Bill and Lilly’s bedroom and her bedroom, which was longer, narrow and a bit on the small side. The front room had a door that led directly into the pool hall; its window was covered by a small curtain. The pool hall was officially off-limits to women and boys under 15 (Preston only ever went in to help Lilly and Bill’s sister, Marie, clean up after hours) but that didn’t mean that Preston and Lilly couldn’t sneak occasional covert glances through the glass. “Sometimes we’d go and just kind of pull the curtain back a little bit and peek in there. It’d depend if it’d gotten rowdy in there,” she says.
It did get a little rowdy in there at times, but as the pool hall was a dry establishment that sometimes held private poker games while its doors were closed (“Bill was a great poker player,” recalls Preston), its occasional disorder was nothing compared to that of the Vilna Hotel bar next door. Preston’s window faced the narrow space between the pool hall and hotel, and she often found herself kept up at night, feeling, she admits, a little afraid. “You’d just nicely get to sleep and oh, my goodness, you’d just hear this ruckus out there. It used to worry me, it did, because I’d peek out the window and here’s this fight or arguing or everything else going on out there,” she says.
In 2006, Vilna was officially home to 274 people, but historically, Preston says it had a population base of about twice that. And it swelled to even greater numbers during the school year when students like herself moved in from the countryside. Vilna’s main commercial centre, a two-block stretch known as Main Street, was still thriving in the late 1940s; Preston remembers a horse-hitching yard where people would tie up their teams while they did their shopping, and a pair of livery barns that served a similar purpose.
That Grade 9 winter in the Vilna Pool Hall still stands out in Preston’s mind, she says. She fondly recalls the way Lilly tried to make her feel at home: through her stomach. Preston was always supposed to do her own cooking (“Bill was kind of a kind of a hard-boiled egg in a sense, even though we were relatives and that,” she says) and Lilly, feeling sorry for her, cooked meals for her in secret. “That meant an awful lot that she would cook something for me, having a good cooked meal and that. That’s something that I always think about,” Preston says.
Eventually, spring came back to Vilna and Preston moved out of the pool hall and back home to the farm. It was the only season she spent there. “Like I told Mother and Dad, I said, ‘You know what, I’m not staying there again because I don’t like that bar [at the hotel] over there,’” Preston says. But she’s glad to see that the Vilna Pool Hall and Barbershop still has life in it yet. “It has a lot of meaning to me,” she says. “I think it’s fantastic, I really do.”