Red Deer City Hall looking south west, 1940. Red Deer Archives P4652 (Photo by Ernest Wells)

Michael Dawe: Board of trade kept city running in tough times

The First World War shattered the Alberta and Canadian economies.

Because much of the war had been financed with debt, in the aftermath, Canada suffered the worst inflation in history (i.e., 20 per cent). That was followed by one of the worst economic depressions ever known. Unemployment soared.

Local businesses laid off employees and adopted cash-only policies to minimize bad debts. Nevertheless, many went bankrupt and others just quietly closed their doors.

An indication of how bad things became was shown in October 1922, when Western General, the sole utilities provider in the community, found itself unable to meet its payroll.

Governments, saddled with wartime debts and facing sharp reductions in tax revenue, were of little or no help.

The City of Red Deer raised the property tax levy to 65 mills and increased the business tax rate from 12 to 20 per cent. However, that only made things worse.

Expenditures were slashed and civic salaries were cut by one-third. Nevertheless, the banks finally refused to grant the city any more credit.

The hospital went bankrupt and was taken over by the provincial government. The public school trustees went door to door to try and collect enough on overdue taxes to pay the teachers.

With governments at all levels in severe economic distress, people had to help each other to get through the tough times.

The Red Deer Board of Trade (chamber of commerce) played a major role in the push toward self help and co-operation.

Membership dues were slashed. Volunteerism became the primary means of keeping the board going. Efforts were made to curb out-of-town shopping.

In order to maintain Red Deer’s position as a retail and distribution centre, the board purchased a snow plow so that the main rural roads would remain open in winter and farmers could make it into town to do business.

The board saw that the grain trade provided an opportunity to improve the local economy. The recently nationalized Canadian National Railway was persuaded to build a branch line into Red Deer, although completion dragged on until the summer of 1922.

Meanwhile, the creation of the Alberta Wheat Pool co-operative in 1923 provided a huge boost to grain farmers.

In 1923-24, the board of trade assisted the Scottish Immigrant Aid Society in bringing large numbers of immigrants from the Hebrides to central Alberta. Some members of the board acted as interpreters for the Gaelic-speaking newcomers.

In 1925, the board helped with the construction of a badly needed arena. A non-profit joint stock company was used to raise funds. Red Deer soon had provincial championship hockey teams (men’s and women’s).

By the late 1920s, the local economy had noticeably improved. In 1928, Eaton’s opened the first national chain department store in the community. This helped to make Red Deer the main retail hub for central Alberta.

In early 1930, the board of trade was instrumental in the formation of the Red Deer Aero Club. Shortly thereafter, the board helped to establish Red Deer’s first airport, south of town on the C&E Trail.

Unfortunately, the Great Depression was now setting in. New initiatives were abandoned. Once again, the board of trade had to deal with another round of severe economic hard times.

Membership fees were cut in half. Farmers were invited to join for $1 per year.

In 1934, the board welcomed its first woman member, Dr. Regina Wall, a local chiropractor. In 1935, a young men’s section of the board was created (later known as the Jaycees).

In 1934, the board played a key role in organizing Red Deer’s golden jubilee celebrations. The festivities helped to boost local business and tourism. The board also supported the operation of the Red Deer Auto Court (motel) in what is now Rotary Park.

Things finally improved by the late 1930s. Red Deer got a major boost during the Second World War with the establishment of a major military training centre in Red Deer and air force training bases at Penhold and Bowden.

Nevertheless, in looking back, it was obvious the board of trade (chamber of commerce) had helped the community survive nearly 25 years of hard economic times.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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