West's weirdest? Quirky Alberta gopher museum celebrates 25 years

A quirky southern Alberta museum dreamt up out of desperation is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

It was the mid-1990's and a group of volunteers were trying to come up with ideas to attract people to the shrinking hamlet of Torrington, Alta., population a couple of hundred or so.

"We thought of birds and fish and everything else. One lady come up with the gopher. And we thought it was the craziest idea ever had," said Otto Kurta, the town's mayor and a co-founder of the Torrington Gopher Hole Museum.

"We thought we'd last  two or three years, eh? But here we are on our 25th! It says something about what we done," Kurta added.

The museum is housed in the old grain elevator office, and features a mural painted by a local resident with recognized world class talent.

"Wayne Schnieder lived on a farm half a mile out of town, he worked for Walt Disney, we asked him to put a mural up here," says Kurta.

The museum is open about four months of the year, drawing about 8,000 guests in normal times, including many from around the globe.

"They come from all over the world. Not only to see the gopher museum, but when family comes from Italy, Germany, Austria, wherever, they bring them out here," said Kurta.

The 49 displays hold 77 stuffed gophers, all dressed and posed in dioramas depicting life throughout Torrington's history. It's both oddball folk art and a reminder of just how vibrant so many of Alberta's farming communities once were.

"I can look in here and I can see everything I grew up with," recalled Laural Kurta, Otto's daughter. "This town had three restaurants, an arcade, a pet store, a comic book store. It was a lovely little place to grow up in."

But like so many others, the grain elevators were abandoned and torn down, the rail lines ripped up, and slowly business went elsewhere until the village became a hamlet of about 250.

The gophers are actually Richardson's Ground Squirrels, a prolific species that while cute, also packs a number of less charming attributes. The ground squirrels dig a lot of holes that can fatally injure livestock. They are also known to sometimes carry bubonic plague.

While mostly herbivore, they will also feed on insects and even roadkill - regardless of species.

"I call them cannibals, is what I call them, eh? Horses break their legs, cows break their legs and the only real predator that they got are hawks and badgers."

The gophers have another predator - upset farmers, and in the case of the museum's specimens, their kids.

"We paid kids $10 a gopher, put them in a box live, send them to the taxidermist, and he does his thing," Kurta said.

The collection had its last addition two years ago.

Learn more about The Torrington Gopher Hole Museum.