Discovering Manitoba

Volunteer for some Hard Time

The village of Saint-Claude, 60 miles west of Winnipeg, Manitoba, on Highway 2, is sending its volunteers to prison. A couple of years ago, an old, run-down eyesore of a shed in the middle of St. Claude seemed destined for demolition. Before it could be knocked flat, however, town council changed its mind, as members began to recognize true value in the old shack and decided to preserve it.

The building in question began its life in 1912, when it was constructed to serve as the village lock-up. In its heyday, it housed the local inhabitants who over celebrated the end of their working week by getting into physical altercations and who needed time behind bars to cool off. In its time, an assortment of other miscreants also spent time in the jail – thieves, and small-time criminals, as well as the odd fellow accused of greater misdeeds.

The jail’s original custodian was also St. Claude’s first constable, a big guy called Paul Lacroix. In addition to acting as constable and public nuisance officer, he was also the village butcher. Under his watch, you could expect to be served meals prepared by his wife and delivered to the jail by one of his children.

When the jail closed in the 1940s, the building was extended and became the first village firehall. However, in the 1970s, the fire department needed bigger premises and moved to a new fire hall on Main Street. The building then became a general storage shed for the village equipment. In the 1990s, it enjoyed a brief stint as a recycling shed before it was again left derelict.

Around that time, the tourism and marketing committee of St. Claude saw a chance of restore the village – albeit as a tourist attraction – and to transform the extension into a tourist information office, a move widely supported in the community. Subsequently, in July and August of 2005, a group of resourceful and dedicated volunteers spent six weeks refitting the prison.

The original gaol had two cells and a constable’s office. Some of the older members of the community who once played in it as children aided in the restoration. Nowadays, visitors can don a striped prisoner’s uniform to have their picture taken behind bars, resting on the bunks or gazing out the window. In recognition of the jail’s significance to the history and character of the town and region, the building has been designated a National Historic site.

During summer hours, the building is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is overseen by a group of about 50 volunteers also who take turns as prisoners. The Gaol Museum is now an extra attraction to a village with already plenty to see. It complements the St. Claude Museum site, the home of four buildings: a one room country school; a chapel museum; the village museum which is housed in the old railway station; and the Manitoba Dairy Museum, which chronicles the dairy industry in the region from the early 1900s to the present day.

If you’re looking to see how cows used to be milked or want to put your kids/husband/wife in jail for a few minutes, come to St. Claude.

No bail money is required.

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