Once a centre of attraction for the Estevan area and a home away from home for people from all across the country and further, the Derrick Motor Hotel has definitely seen better days.
In 2016 it lost the competition to big, new chain hotels that came to Estevan during the latest boom, and it’s been empty ever since. A few weeks ago, the work began to prepare the old building that was becoming a fire hazard for demolition, which is scheduled for October.
By the middle of the last week, the hotel interiors looked very picturesque. Beds were still made up in some rooms, but windows and doors were missing and the wind was chasing dry leaves down the corridors. Armature sticking out the walls and ceiling here and there gave it a bit of an apocalyptic look. A once beautiful basement banquet hall was dark and flooded. Separate furniture pieces could be found anywhere but not where they belonged. Hardly any lights were still working and the echo was travelling through the sleepy halls.
But for Pam Dechief, the youngest daughter of Nick and Verna Morsky, who owned and operated the hotel through its best years, the rooms were still alive and filled with stories and memories from the past. And even the sound of echoing and squeaking stairs were bringing up the memories.
“I just have so many vivid memories… And we are forever grateful to the community for supporting us,” Dechief told the Mercury.
The Morskys moved to Estevan from a small farming community in northern Manitoba in 1956. The family put up their first motel in 1958 and in 1965 along with other shareholders they got involved with building the Derrick Motor Hotel. The grand opening took place in October that year, starting a new great page in Estevan’s history of hospitality, entertainment and good old fun.
“Dad was in his mid-30s when he took over management of the Derrick. So he came in and eventually he bought out the silent partners and he became the sole owner of it in the 70s, and it’s been wonderful for our family,” said Dechief, who along with her older brother and sister grew up working at the Derrick.
For over 40 years Nick, Verna and their family successfully operated one of the most popular places in Estevan.
“I was here two years old sleeping in the office when my mom was working in the kitchen,” said Dechief.
“I must have been five or six, and I remember answering phone calls when they were coming,” recalled Dechief, walking through dark corridors of the hotel and coming to the place where the reception used to be during their times. “I would be at the front desk and I would answer the phone, and at that time the telephone system, we are talking early ‘70s, there were cords and I had to plug them in and unplug them.”
During their times at the Derrick, Dechief did all kinds of jobs, often balancing between the hotel and everything else.
“During school, probably 10-12, I would work in the kitchen, I would work as a waitress, I would be a helper, I worked banquets all through my school, junior high and high school years,” said Dechief. “I never applied for a job, because I always had this.”
The place, the family and the staff around taught her the skills she would need further in life. She worked at the front desk, and once she was old enough she worked the bar and did everything else.
“I cleaned rooms. I knew what every single room looked like.”
While Dechief was walking by the empty rooms, the memories of customers and their stories started coming up.
“I remember it was room 118, there was that customer that stayed in this room and he accused the housekeepers of dumping his contact lenses. And I looked at him, and I said, ‘No, if you wear contacts, you put the lids on your contact lens cases, so don’t blame my housekeepers for something that probably you did.'”
“This is room 108 … We had that lady who worked for us, her name was Merle Hill. She was a lovely, lovely lady … She worked at the front desk, and then she worked at the kitchen. She died in 1992 … She lived in this room for a long time, in room 108 … She worked still, she’d helped in the kitchen or with laundry. She had rheumatoid arthritis and so she had the big knuckles and her fingers were all crooked and bent … I remember she’d go to the laundry room and she’d bring a big hamper of face cloths or towels. And there she would be, she’d bring them into the room and she’d have this TV on, and she was folding towels and face cloths. I can see her folding the face cloths and then ironing them with her hands…”
“This is room 132. Lou, he had a Ukrainian last name, I can’t remember it, he stayed in this room four months, so this was his room.”
The Morskys had many people come for particular rooms, so they would have to ensure that those rooms would be open when their regulars who made the Derrick their second home arrived.
“In the late 60s and 70s they were building the Boundary Dam Station, so all of the workers stayed here and all of the executives stayed here… The 90s, that’s when Shand was built. In the 80s, the oil business was a full time,” recalled Dechief, adding that they were really fortunate to have many people involved with the industries staying at the hotel and using the kitchen and the bar.
Back in the day there weren’t too many options for hotels, but Nick Morsky was often the reason why people wanted to come back and felt so comfortable staying at the Derrick.
“My dad loved people. He had the gift. You would come in, and my dad would ask you questions, and you would leave that conversation thinking he was your best friend,” recalled Dechief.
The Morsky family put quite a bit of work into the hotel. In the late ‘70s, they added on 17 larger nice rooms, a swimming pool and a hot tub with adjacent rooms and an eating area that was used for Sunday brunch and banquets. They also closed the Viking Room night club that featured bands every night of the week and turned it into eight more guest rooms and a small meeting room centre. The front desk was also moved.
Table games such as Space Invaders and Ms. Pac-man would keep youth hockey teams occupied in the corridors during their stays in Estevan. The beverage room and off-sale were an attraction for a different auditorium, but it only added to the popularity of the place on top of everything else.
“When we were here, we had a full kitchen and the people that bought it off us took the kitchen out and made this beverage room a lot larger. And that’s what people remember now is the karaoke and the beverage room here,” said Dechief.
After the new owners came in and before it closed there were some other changes, mainly cosmetic, but the hotel remained the same in general.
There were a lot of cooks running the kitchen throughout the years and some were really great. Verna Morsky also spent about 20 years at the head of the kitchen, and Dechief worked there a lot as well.
“We’ve had lots of good meals. I remember steak and lobster. Those lobster tails were that big,” recalled Dechief. “I remember that one couple, they’d come every Saturday night, they were from Roche Percee and that was their date night … for 25 years.”
One would lose count of the number of thousands of banquets, fundraisers, weddings, cabarets and Christmas parties, which Dechief remembers the most, and other conventions took place at the dining areas of the Derrick.
“There were people who had their weddings here in the 70s, their children had their wedding receptions here in the 90s,” recalled Dechief.
The kitchen at the Derrick was another legend, which made people coming back over and over again.
“I ran into a guy at the bank today. He came here for a lunch in the bar every single day for 25 years. And he had the soup and sandwich special every day,” Dechief said.
Estevan residents Bonny and Randy Curzon were among the many who got married at the Derrick. Their wedding reception for 140 people took place on Sept. 1, 1990, at the banquet hall.
“What really attracted me to the Derrick was that they had the cook there … he was amazing. They had the best dining room and food in town and for miles around … And Nick and Verna were so nice,” recalled Bonny.
They’d planned the wedding and got everything ready, and at the last moment the chef had moved away to B.C. But the wedding still turned out wonderful and up to this day remains a great memory. The Curzons also still have their voucher for a free night at the Derrick Motor Hotel, which will remain a family relic, reminding them of the beautiful celebration they had there 30 years ago.
Throughout the years, many groups would come to Nick Morsky asking for a donation. He would provide those, but quite often he would do even better.
“He would say, ‘Here is my hall. Use it for free, have a dance, make a lot of money.’ So many groups did that,” recalled Dechief, adding that many organizations raised a lot of money for their causes at the Derrick.
“I think our largest banquet was about 550 people that were served down (in the basement banquet hall),” said Dechief. “I think it was an NDP fundraiser party.”
Another key to success was how the Morskys treated the staff. And even though there could have been some misfortunes, most people recall working at the Derrick as a good time.
“(Dad) never thought he was better than they were because he was right there working alongside of them, as was I and my mother and brother and sister,” said Dechief. “We were there working beside the staff, not standing and watching … because that’s what you need in small business. The owner is the manager, and also the toilet scrubber.”
The demolition of the Derrick Motor Hotel will close a big chapter for the community and for Dechief personally, but as when they sold the hotel, she feels that it’s just the time.
“People have asked if I was sad, if I’m crying, I said, ‘No, I had so many good memories there and it’s fine, it’s okay,” said Dechief. “I’m closing another chapter of the book, and who knows what’s going to happen next in our lives and it’s fine.”
No one would know exactly how many important events took place at the Derrick, but one thing is known for certain: almost every person who’s been in Estevan long enough has great memories related to this place. The demolition of the 55-year-old building is the end of the chapter for many Estevan residents, as the Derrick Motor Hotel keeps the memories of thousands of people.
“Part of me dies knowing the fate of the Derrick Hotel, a lot of good times with the Morsky family,” said Kevin Mortenson in a Facebook post. And dozens of comments started flowing in.
“Estevan won’t be the same without the Derrick, a long-standing city landmark,” said Rob Haygarth in a comment.
“Some of the best bands in Canada and the U.S. played upstairs and downstairs in the Derrick,” recalled Murray Henderson.
“I carried dad’s (Ross LeBlanc’s) instruments down there many times. Did lots of Ducks Unlimited and wildlife fundraisers down there also,” wrote Jason LeBlanc.
“Lots of memories. I remember birthday parties there as a child, the fun cabarets, and the turnaround for the cruise,” said Cindy Fleck-Romanyk in a comment.
“Nick and family have been a cornerstone in Estevan,” summarized Doug Bella.
But even though it’s always sad to say goodbye, which the City of Estevan will have to do in October, the end of one story is always the beginning of the new one.
Be sure to watch the Mercury for updates on this story.