“If I die tomorrow, I’ve had my fun. I really have to say it was a gem.”
Longtime Sturgeon County resident Walter Jerram, 83, has probably had about as many adventures – and a few misadventures – as someone could have right in the county.
It’s been two decades since the local businessman and former county councillor shuttered the famous Red Barn near Gibbons and two and a half decades since he closed the Alberta Wildlife Park.
After spending nearly 15 years focused on his farm and organic garden just north of Highway 37, he again got the itch to put together a show so he built a stage and hosted a Red Barn reunion July 26 featuring The Cimerons, one of first bands to ever play that venue when it opened in 1975.
“I said, I have to build another stage and have a reunion, and it came together,” Jerram said. “The Cimerons came out of retirement, those old guys, and I couldn’t get enough of it when they were playing.”
Running a successful dance hall was always on his radar, even in his early days growing up in Wainwright.
“As a kid I wanted to start a dance place – I don’t know why – a place for people to come enjoy themselves,” he said.
It didn’t happen right away; after graduating high school Jerram spent 12 years working on the railroad in the Edmonton area before he decided he just wasn’t happy doing it. A coworker told him about a farm near Gibbons that was for sale for $6,500 – no small chunk of change in 1963 – and with the help of a business partner he raised the money and bought it along with a few head of cattle.
The Red Barn and Alberta Wildlife Park were still a decade away at that point, but Jerram satisfied his urge to get out and mingle with the public by running for county councillor in 1963, and he was re-elected twice, giving him a total of 12 years at the council table.
He said having the opportunity to serve the community was incredibly rewarding, adding he worked hard at it.
“I made damn sure they were served well,” he said. “I always believed if you do a job, you have to do it right.”
The Red Barn
He carried that attitude through to the Red Barn, serving his customers instead of his constituents. In the early 1970s he applied for a $500,000 loan – without anything as collateral – but the bankers must have liked his plan because it was approved.
Jerram and his partner built the venue, which could hold 1,000 people, and it opened in 1975. He rented it out for corporate and other group functions, but Saturday night was always a dance party open to the public with a wide variety of acts coming through.
It proved to be an immediate success, and he was turning people away on the very first night.
“I couldn’t believe the response, because the first night we opened (the radio station) CFCW gave us a lot of plugs,” he said.
Most famous among the artists who took to that stage was country-music legend Johnny Cash, who liked the venue so much he played it twice over the years.
Jerram recalled a discussion with Cash about how he would take to the stage, with Cash expressing hesitance to Jerram’s request he go on stage with all the lights out, but he eventually relented.
“We put the lights out, he walked out on the stage in the dark, we turned the lights on and he said, ‘I’m Johnny Cash,'” Jerram said. “The crowd just roared. It just brought the house down.”
He also got to hobnob with the likes of musicians June Carter and the Carter Sisters, Tammy Wynette, Buck Owens, Charlie Kenny. He also got to meet some people famous for other reasons, like Prince Andrew and Mother Theresa.
Alberta Wildlife Park
At the same time Jerram opened the Red Barn, he had also built a private zoo called the Alberta Wildlife Park, which operated from 1975 to 1988.
He said Al Adair, a Peace River MLA who was then a minister in Peter Lougheed’s government, put out a call in the media for someone to take in some wild animals after another zoo operation shut down. Jerram stepped up.
“When those lions, tigers and cheetahs came on the property, I was nervous,” he said. “I was always afraid the keepers would forget to lock the gate, so I built an enclosure in another enclosure with two gates. I always felt that was safe.”
While he never had any problems with the wild carnivores escaping, he said the scariest moment came when he woke up one day to find that eight zebras had escaped from their pen after a strong wind broke the chain on the gate.
“I got on my horse, went out there, and by God when I rounded them up they ran right back eight miles to their enclosure,” he said. “Cars were going by on the road, blowing their horn, and the zebras just kept going.”
Jerram added it was lucky he was reasonably handy with his veterinary skills – something all farmers with livestock have to develop – because he couldn’t afford the $500 veterinarian bill every time an animal needed to be dewormed or given their shots.
Ultimately, the venture proved to be too costly, and the zoo closed its doors after 13 years.
“In 1988, when it was losing money, I knew we just couldn’t do it. We must have put $1 million into the place,” he said. “But it was an experience I’ll never forget.”
After the wildlife park closed, the Red Barn continued on for another seven years but eventually it too closed its doors.
Jerram said he and his business partner had differences they couldn’t overcome so they sold the Red Barn and went their separate ways in 1995.
“I hated to leave it, and for years after that I was depressed,” he said. For about 15 years he laid low. He bought a farm just north on Highway 37, and spent the time tending to his goats and his organic garden before eventually deciding the reunion show was in order.
He said he was incredibly pleased that one his favourite bands, The Cimerons, came out of retirement for the show and with any luck, he will turn it into an annual event.
“That old-time music is just fabulous, and of course for me it brings back all kinds of memories because I had a whale of a time at that barn,” he said.