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Restoring destroyed historic landmark brings rural Alberta community together

A fire shattered the Bentley, Alta., community after it destroyed a historic landmark — but its restoration could bring the town closer together.

Seven months after the picturesque Monkey Top Saloon burned down, a new group of owners is hoping to return the historic building to its former glory. They’re also hoping to heal the community by involving the town in the rebuilding process.

Kjeryn Dakin bought the burned down bar in June after she heard that there was a possibility it wouldn’t come back. Family friends Randy and Rosie Lunn joined as co-owners after a late night at Dakin’s sister’s birthday party.

“I said, ‘No, that can’t happen, that’s not an option,'” Dakin said in an interview. “For it to not come back to Bentley, even driving there now, it just feels like there’s a hole in the community.”

Kjeryn and Kevin Dakin with their kids.
Kjeryn and Kevin Dakin bought the burned down bar with hopes to rebuild and return it to the Bentley community. (Submitted by Kjeryn Dakin)

Her husband, Kevin Dakin, used to eat lunch at the saloon three or four times a week. He said it was the “pulse of the town.”

Important fixture for the community

Nestled in the rolling hills of Alberta’s prairies, 187 kilometres southwest of Edmonton, the Town of Bentley harkens to an older time. For Pam Hansen, a fourth generation Bentley resident, it’s the close-knit community that makes the town feel like home.

“Everybody supports each other and helps each other in bad times and in good times,” she said. 

Located just off the Cowboy Trail, the building itself is over a century old. 

The original building was a store owned by Frank Thorp, who became the first mayor of Bentley in 1915. It was destroyed by a fire in 1919. Since then, the building has undergone changes in ownership and business. 

It was a grocery store when Hansen was born. In 1994, it turned into the Monkey Top Saloon. She was hired to do cleaning and maintenance for the bar a few years before it burned down.

The bar mimicked an old-fashioned saloon, with wood floors and furnishings and high ceilings. Hansen recalled that Harley-Davidson memorabilia, antique saddles and animal taxidermy lined the walls.

“It was just very different and I think that’s why people came to visit. They were always surprised at everything to look at,” she said.

One year earlier, another local landmark, a grain elevator owned by Healthy Herds feed mill, was also destroyed in a fire. So when the Monkey Top burned down, residents were left confused.

Building with the world "SALOON" on fire.
The Monkey Top Saloon caught fire in January, putting it out of service. The historic building also caught fire in 1919. (Submitted by Kjeryn Dakin)

“People were just sad and shocked and wondering what was going to happen next, if they were going to rebuild or not rebuild,” Hansen said.

Plans for new, improved Monkey Top Saloon

Dakin knows she won’t be able to recreate the saloon exactly how it was.

“We know for sure that we will never, ever, ever be able to bring back exactly what the Monkey Top was,” she said. “But we’re going to stay Western saloon style for sure because that’s the true spirit of it.” 

The owners have a cabaret event planned at the end of August, where they will be fundraising for the reconstruction. Community members will be able to drink, dine, dance and vote for one of three concept drawings for the bar’s restoration.

In the name of community, Dakin will also donate 10 per cent of the proceeds to rebuilding the steps at Bentley’s community hall.

The town’s chief administrative officer, Marc Fortais, is excited to see how the community will come together to support Dakin and her co-owners.

“They’re going to represent the community well and the fact that they’re taking the opportunity to engage the community in that process … that says a lot too,” he said. 

“The community is going to give the right input to help the families make the correct decision and build something that the community can get behind.”

Now, Dakin is knee-deep in business drafts, social media plans and event organizing. But she’s doing it with her community in mind.

“The symbiotic relationship of businesses like this is that it’s not just about us,” she said. 

“It’s just a celebration of Bentley and we want the community to come out and vote. We’re going to have a heck of a fun time doing it.”

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