When I was growing up, the best milkshakes in the world were at the Dairy Bar. Of course, when you’re a kid, everything in the world is new and every experience is the best.
The Dairy Bar was special. It was in the middle of nowhere, about as far as you’d want to ride a bike on a hot summer day. You had to ride to the end of our subdivision, across the CPR tracks, then up a long, steep hill. You’d have to travel a bit on the highway to cross over a deep ravine. Lastly, you’d have to traverse a wide, gravel-strewn field to reach the Dairy Bar, perched atop a cliff overlooking the ravine and the railway tracks and the river valley and, way off in the distance, the subdivision that we left behind.
But the milkshakes were worth the effort. There were only three flavours — vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. They were the best milkshakes in the world.
The Dairy Bar is long gone. Looking back, I don’t know how it survived in the first place. It was a long way from anywhere. Our neighbourhood was closest, yet there were few young people living there and every summer there were fewer still. Maybe the highway provided enough customers travelling back and forth to town. I do miss the place. There’s a big pile of smelter slag now, in the spot where the Dairy Bar used to thrill children.
Since then, I’ve had great milkshakes in Regina and I’ve had great milkshakes in Saskatoon, and many other places in my travels. They’ve been made with gourmet creamery ice cream and with home-made ingredients processed in small batches. They’ve been passed through takeout windows, served over the counter by candy-stripe-uniformed staff, and delivered ceremoniously to ornate, French-café style tables. They’ve come in a dozen flavours or more.
But none of them have been the best milkshake in the world.
This year, on Canada Day, we found the best milkshake in the world.
The town of Central Butte is just a half-hour down the road from Elbow. The last time I spent any time in the town was on the 1990 Great Saskatchewan Heritage Bicycle Tour, organized by the Wascana Freewheelers Bicycle Touring Club. Central Butte was a welcome place to stop for water and lunch on that bicycle tour. We had started from Chaplin earlier in the day. Tailwinds pushed us into Central Butte on our way to Douglas Provincial Park on a sunny spring day.
I’ve driven past the town a few times since then, but usually too late in the day and in too much of a hurry to take the time to stop. Canada Day, we decided to stop in for a look around.
The streets of Central Butte were pretty quiet. The weather was really nice and summery, there were Canada Day and Canada 150 celebrations in Elbow and Riverhurst, and a lot was happening at Douglas and Danielson provincial parks. I’m guessing that people left town for festivities elsewhere.
We spent about half an hour walking around downtown.
There were fewer businesses than I remember from our bicycle tour, but core services are still there — grocery store, pharmacy, insurance, hair salons, dentist, travel agency and massage therapy.
I was sorry to see that the bank will be pulling up stakes and moving out before the end of summer. The credit union looks like it has no intention of leaving anytime soon. Someone has been constructing a very large industrial building on the outskirts. The town looks very determined to stand its ground.
Two restaurants were open on Canada Day — April’s Diner and Debby-Lee’s Retro 50’s Diner in the Central Butte Hotel. The laughter and conversation on the outdoor patio at April’s Diner, carried on the breeze for blocks, made the restaurant sound pretty inviting. But, lured by the promise of vintage sock-hop and soda-jerk atmosphere, we stepped into Debby-Lee’s instead.
We weren’t planning on staying for dinner, but wanted a snack to satisfy us before returning to the road. We figured a couple of milkshakes and an order of fries should do the trick.
The choice was simple. There were only three flavours of milkshake on the menu — vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. You don’t need any more than that.
We each ordered strawberry. While waiting, we strolled around the restaurant, looking at the memorabilia. Guests at another table reminded us to be sure to walk to the back to see the soda fountain mannequin.
Lisa, working front-of-house, scurried back and forth preparing our milkshakes, while Cliff got things going in the kitchen. We didn’t get to meet Debby-Lee, who was away that day.
The shakes arrived at the table first, tall fountain-shop classic soda glasses each filled nearly to overflowing with blushing, frothy ice creamy goodness, topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. At least as much again was plunked down in a pair of frosty stainless steel cups.
I never would have guessed we’d be getting that much milkshake from the price on the menu. There’s something to be said for small town hospitality.
And then the fries, a haystack-sized pile made from real, cut potatoes. I’m glad we decided to split an order between us.
It wasn’t the quantity or the price, or even the ingredients, that made these the best milkshakes in the world. We had found something unexpected because we had taken the time to stop in and look around to experience something new. The milkshakes, whipped up in a ’50s themed diner in a historic small-town hotel, were a bonus. That’s what made them the best milkshakes in the world.
Town of Central Butte
Central Butte Hotel, home of Debby-Lee’s Retro 50’s Diner
Lake Diefenbaker Tourism
History of Central Butte, in two volumes: Our heritage : a view from the Butte. Volume 1 and Our heritage : a view from the Butte. Volume 2.
Central Butte 2016 Census Profile.
Central Butte in the news
Southern Sask. bank to close after more than 100 years in business, Global News, July 11, 2017.
RCMP searching for Central Butte, Sask., robbery suspect, CBC News, June 15, 2017.
Snow planes and other fine winter transportation, CBC Saskatchewan, December 19, 2012.
Small town high schools get highest ranking in Sask, CBC News, June 28, 2012
Bullies get free ride in Central Butte, families claim, CBC News, March 28, 2012.