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  Riskan Hope

by Dave Yanko

AYLESBURY - Midway between Regina and Saskatoon on Highway 11 lies a landmark many Saskatchewanians take for granted.
The house now stands vacant.
The house now stands vacant
Printed in bold white letters on the black roof of an old red barn, "Riskan Hope Farm" shouts out for attention from north-bound motorists headed for Saskatoon.

Few give much notice to the message about farming contained in that name. Riskan Hope is, for regular travellers, just a familiar milepost on a familiar route.

So much for the message. But what of the messenger? Who decided to broadcast to all passers by this simple truism about farm life in Saskatchewan? And why?

Her name was Myrna Luther. She was a former school teacher who actually borrowed the Riskan Hope idea from a similarly-named farm she spotted in the 1930s while teaching in the Avonlea region of southern Saskatchewan, says her son Cliff.

"Mom liked to stick out a bit if she could,'' Cliff says of his late mother. "She thought (Riskan Hope) defined farming so well. And let's face it, it was a perfect location. You gotta see that when you're driving by.''

Martin and Myrna Luther loved people.
Martin and Myrna Luther
loved people

Cliff, 44, says the Riskan Hope sign was placed on the barn roof in the 1940s, after his mother met and married his now-deceased father, Martin. Curious travellers viewed the bold sign as an invitation to stop in and chat with the locals. The gregarious Luthers were delighted to oblige.

By the 1960s, Myrna, Martin, Cliff, and his older brother David, were operating a small campground in a grove of trees on their prairie farm.

"She charged everybody a dollar for camping,'' says Cliff's wife Deb, "just to make sure they'd come in and sign the guestbook.''

"It paid for the toilet paper,'' adds Cliff.

Today, that guestbook is a treasure trove of names from around the world. Cliff says Americans were the most frequent foreign guests because Highway 11 was part of a popular route to Alaska. Many who stopped at Riskan Hope were families on their annual summer vacation.

"It was great,'' Cliff said in an interview at the nearby grain and cattle farm he operates with Deb and their four kids. "We didn't travel ourselves. So it was a way of having the world stop at our door.''

Cliff and Deb Luther
Deb and Cliff Luther

The Luther property included what today might be called a petting zoo, where visitors were encouraged to touch, feed or just admire the animals roaming the yard. Donkey cart and pony rides were available for free, as long as the Luthers weren't too busy. People who wanted to use the swings or the picnic tables, or to help themselves to some fresh water, were welcome to do so.

As Cliff got older and the campground area became busier, his role on the farm evolved to include performer. It was a period he relished.

"I had a horse, you know, and I was kind of centre stage. I'd entertain them - I'd show everybody a good time.''

His father Martin, meanwhile, loved nothing better than to regale visitors with jokes.

"Oh, he had an act going,'' Cliff says, laughing, "although towards the end there, he'd pretty much have to pay us to laugh at his jokes.''

All the while the Luthers operated a 960-acre farm as well as a small trucking business that saw Martin hauling cattle throughout the district. But Cliff says life on the farm wasn't so much of a juggling act as it might appear to have been. Visitors generally arrived well after spring seeding, and most had to be back at work or school long before harvest.

"And if we didn't have the time, it wasn't a big deal. We weren't obliged at any point to do things with these people, but it was a great part of our fun.''

It worked out well for the tourists, too. They were welcome to drop in for a chat with a Saskatchewan farm family, or to camp overnight or longer, if they wished. Some came back year after year while others, like the two school teachers from Ontario, became lifelong friends of the family.

"Mother and father even went on an Alaskan cruise with them. You get to know people when you've got the time to sit down and visit, play some cards.''

Cliff enjoys riding horses with visitors to Stillwater
Cliff enjoys riding horses with visitors to Stillwater

Riskan Hope's days as a campground came to a premature end in the 1970s when the provincial government twinned Highway 11. The new, northbound lanes brought noise and speeding vehicles too close to the camping area and the house - when the government man glanced around the Luther property and asked Cliff's father where he'd like the house moved to, Martin replied "Victoria".

In the end, the Luthers decided the house would remain precisely where it had always been. Which means that today, the north- and south-bound lanes of the divided highway are nowhere closer to each other than at Riskan Hope Farm.

The Riskan Hope experience had a profound impact on Cliff, who says he realized early on he had a special childhood. But it wasn't until he and Deb had kids of their own that they decided they'd try to give their youngsters some of the same.

With outbuildings recycled from miles around, and featuring a large and splendid country home transported 14 miles to its current location, Cliff and Deb assembled a "new" farm on land situated about half a mile southeast of the now-vacant Riskan Hope property, which is farmed by brother David. It has its own campgrounds, a picnic and play area, and a craft shop featuring the wildlife art Deb creates using a process called "scraperboard".

They named it "Stillwater Farm'' after the Minnesota town Cliff's mother's family came from. And now, it's the Stillwater guestbook that's growing with the signatures and comments of people from places like Illinois, Wisconsin, California, Michigan and Florida. Today, it's Martin and Myrna's grandchildren who are learning about the world without having to leave the farm.

A recent visitor from Switzerland camped overnight during his solo cycling trip from Florida to Alaska. In the morning, Cliff and Deb invited the muscular young "Eric" to join their family for breakfast.

"He ate six eggs!,'' says Deb, the astonishment still apparent in her voice. "The kids' eyes were like saucers just watching this guy,'' adds Cliff.

Stillwater Farm, the Riskan Hope tradition lives on
Stillwater Farm, the Riskan Hope tradition lives on

The Luthers learned from Eric that all young men in Switzerland are expected to serve time in the military but not all of them look forward to it. Weeks later, the family received a letter from Eric, who was still in the United States trying to find work as a ski instructor.

The Stillwater campground isn't making the Luthers wealthy - Cliff says he doubts they've paid for the picnic tables. But that wasn't the goal. Stillwater operates for the same reason a wise mother welcomed the world to Riskan Hope Farm.

"Money wasn't the main idea at all,'' says Cliff. "It was just a fun activity. And it made our lives so much richer.''

Keep an eye out for the Stillwater Farm sign if you're travelling on Highway 11 near Aylesbury. And if you're looking for a friendly spot to camp or park your RV for a night or two, give Cliff or Deb a call at (306) 734-2997, or just drop in.

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