February 23, 2023 (tomorrow) marks the centennial of the oldest continuous service club in our city - the Rotary Club of Red Deer. It is one of 46,000 Rotary clubs world-wide with nearly 1.4 million members.
The first Rotary Club was formed on February 23, 1905, when Paul Harris, an attorney in Chicago, Illinois, invited three friends to help start a diverse club of business people and professionals which would foster a spirit of fellowship and provide service to their community.
The idea of forming a local Rotary Club was proposed as Red Deer was coming through one of the most difficult times, economically and socially, in its history. The community had been devasted by the horrific First World War followed by the Spanish ‘flu epidemic, then the worst inflation ever recorded and finally a harsh economic depression with local unemployment surging to nearly 25%.
Many local businesses either went bankrupt, or else quietly closed their doors. Local farmers were particularly hard hit during the early 1920s. They faced the harshest drought since the start of settlement. The American government closed the border to most agricultural exports. Farmers trying to sell their cattle often found themselves deeper in debt when the animals sold for less than the cost of sending the animals to market.
Governments were either bankrupt or nearly bankrupt with the vast debts incurred as part of the War effort and skyrocketing tax arrears. Therefore, people could not turn to government to bail out the economic distress.
To show how bad things had become, the Red Deer Hospital went bankrupt and had to be taken over by the Provincial Government. The City of Red Deer became effectively bankrupt and had to cut all expenditures to the absolute bone when the banks refused to grant it any more credit. The Public School Board was only able to pay its teachers after some of the trustees took out personal bank loans.
Finally, in late 1922, the economy finally hit bottom and things began to slowly improve. Because of the camaraderie of having survived such desperate times and because of the urgent need for some sort of community organization to start to rebuild the City’s public services and amenities, Red Deer’s businessmen and professionals decided it was an ideal time to start a “self-help” group such as a Rotary service club.
An organizational meeting was held in early February. Turn out was good and 19 individuals agreed to sign up as charter members. On February 23, 1923, the 18th anniversary of its parent organization, the Rotary Club of Red Deer was officially chartered at a ceremony in the Knox Presbyterian Church Hall. With a population of only 2400, Red Deer became the smallest community in the world to have a local Rotary Club.
The charter president was William (Bill) Botterill, Dr. Harold Snell was the charter secretary and Herbert Willson was the charter treasurer. The other directors selected were Donald Gunn, William Payne, Edward Smith, William Stephenson and W.E. Lord.
The enthusiasm and drive of the founding members was indicated by their record of attendance at meetings. In its first decade of existence, the Red Deer Club’s average attendance was 95.7%. Charter president, Bill Botterill, recorded 36 years of perfect attendance.
The first major project for the Club was the installation of playground equipment on the City Square. Other early projects included the collection of Christmas toys for children, the gathering of clothing for the Red Deer Welfare Board, contributions to sports programs, donations to the Red Deer Hospital and Public Library, assistance in the construction of Red Deer’s first arena and the establishment at Sylvan Lake of a health camp for underprivileged children.
Over the years, the local Rotary Club’s activities and projects have responded to changing times and new priorities.
In December 1974, the Rotary Club of Red Deer East was formed, followed by the Red Deer Sunrise Rotary Club in 1999 and the Red Deer Rotary Club Urban Spirits in 2017.
It is noteworthy that an organization born in the grimmest times of Red Deer’s history continues to grow and to make our community a much better place to live.
Michael Dawe is a Red Deer historian and his column appears on Wednesdays.