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by Dave Yanko

It all started with a curious rock discovered by four men building a road near Harris, Saskatchewan.

It was early July, 1914. In Europe, Archduke Francis Ferdinand was still counted among the living and the first war to end all wars had not begun dragging North American sons to their death. Saskatchewan, in the middle of Canada's prairie provinces, was bristling with new immigrants attracted by a government settlement policy offering good land at low prices.

The economy flourished with this wave of pioneers and the "new" land was just beginning to reveal her treasures. It was a time, shall we say, of opportunity. . . .

- Photos courtesy Elaine Kowpak
Alkali Pete guarded the ruby rock for the Gordon boys.

Alex McCarthy had a bit of mining experience under his belt - the details are hazy since the story went unspoken until a few years ago. McCarthy told his working chums he was sure the big rock contained rubies. He used a pick to break off a chunk and sped 20 miles back to town to visit the Gordon boys.

The seven Gordon boys of Harris were a presence beyond their number, which would not be noteworthy at the turn of the century if it weren't for the fact they had no sisters and one of them had to be a seventh son. Be that as it may, the Gordon boys were adroit at commerce -- they farmed and operated hotels in Harris and a nearby community. They also ran the Harris bar and managed the local poker table, situated in a small black building out back.

"Harris was a pretty wild little town back then," recalls former resident Ivy Page, now 90. "And the Gordons, well, they were a pretty big part of it."

In addition to their business savvy, several of the brothers worked in the mines in the United States before the family moved to Canada. McCarthy sought their ranging expertise.

"We'll look after it," he was told when he showed them a piece of the rock. And with that, the Gordon boys scurried off to Saskatoon to stake their claim.

"Quartz discovered at Valley Centre, 20 miles northwest of Harris, contains diamonds, rubies and gold", reported the region's daily newspaper.

The Ruby Rush was on.

Harris was hoppin' during the Ruby Rush.

Within three days, 2,000 to 3,000 "prospectors" descended upon the tiny town, some no doubt motivated by the famous tales of instant wealth that grew out of the Klondike Gold Rush 16 years earlier. Accompanying these men of chance was the predictable assortment of scalawags, n'er-do-wells and painted ladies.

While the Gordons were the prime beneficiaries of the influx, other town residents heard opportunity knock and they answered the door. Supply and demand raised the price of eggs to a dollar apiece at the local grocery stores. Russ Fielding, local butcher and owner of one of three automobiles in the town, charged $2 a head for the 20-mile ride out to the claim site, and $5 return fare. A heated argument ensued when Fielding tried to double the fee for portly blacksmith Sam Burnett.

In addition to the overflow business they enjoyed when prospectors flowed into the hotel and bar, the Gordon boys capitalized on the simply curious by pitching a tent over the "ruby rock" and charging all comers 10 cents a peek. Meanwhile, the man they hired to guard their prize, a fellow who came to be known as "Alkali Pete", spent his nights collecting neighboring stakes and his days re-selling claims at highest bid.

Harris, during the ruby rush, had many of the trappings and colorful characters of a Skagway or Dawson Creek during the Klondike Rush. What it didn't have was gold, rubies or diamonds. The last prospector clip-clopped out of town, empty handed like all the rest, 10 days after the Gordon boys staked their claim.

For years afterwards, The Ruby Rush was a forbidden subject among residents of Harris, current population about 250. They were embarrassed by the incident and worried about rubbing salt into old wounds -- descendants of the main players still live in the area.

Things began to change in the mid-1980s, when compilers of a local history book were obliged to include a story about the event. More than 70 years after the fact, the ice was broken and some people in Harris began discussing aloud a subject that until then was communicated in whispers, if at all. By the time the museum opened in 1989, someone even had the audacity to suggest Harris try to capitalize on the "ruby rock". And it wasn't a Gordon.

It's a travelling road show as audience and production people prepare for one of the vignettes, staged at a series of sites throughout the town.

In 1997, Harris staged its sixth annual Ruby Rush Days, a three-day celebration of dance, song, entertainment and socializing highlighted by a seven-vignette play written, produced, directed and performed by area residents.

"Total community involvement - that's what's kept it going for six years," says Elaine Kowpak, a co-writer of the vignettes and one of the organizers of Ruby Rush Days. "People would say: "I don't act'. Well, they do now."

Included among the cast are some of the descendants and relatives of the original "players". The vignettes are performed at a series of street venues, with seating supplied by three mobile grandstands towed to each venue.

Still, not everybody was delighted with the notion of a community tourism event based on the Ruby Rush.

"Some still think we shouldn't even be featuring such things in the museum," town politician and museum curator Delores Neal says. "There's still sensitivity."

Those who object to the celebration of Ruby Rush Days are in an ever-diminishing minority. Harris has come to grips with its colorful past, and visitors to Ruby Rush Days couldn't be more pleased.

Ruby Rush Days will be staged in 2005 as part of the Harris homecoming celebration. The show gets underway on Sunday, July 31, at 11 a.m. For more information, phone the Harris village office at (306) 656-2122.

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