A pool hall in Red Deer, 1919. (Red Deer Archives N399)

Michael Dawe: City reeled from social upheavel after First World War ended

The First World War was a truly traumatic experience.

Many families were devastated after the loss of loved ones who had gone off to fight in the war. Many veterans came back with severe injuries to their bodies, their minds, or both.

The economy was shattered from the tremendous costs of fighting the war, with incredible rates of inflation and unemployment setting in after the conflict finally ended.

Consequently, people’s sense of faith and optimism in the future virtually vanished as they counted the costs of the terrible cataclysm and wondered if it had all been worthwhile.

With so many questioning their long-held beliefs, a good deal of social disruption followed. Prohibition had been brought in during the war, but increasing numbers of local residents began to flout the law.

Soon, central Alberta had one of the highest rates of the illegal possession and illegal manufacture of alcohol in the province.

There were other social issues and problems. There were complaints that a brothel had opened in Red Deer. Pressure was brought on the police to close the establishment as quickly as possible. Another heated controversy arose over pool halls and billiard parlours.

Those establishments had long suffered from a bad reputation. There were many who considered them to be “dens of iniquity” that could corrupt the young if they were allowed to visit them.

There were credible claims that they were places where gambling took place and where profanity and “rough language” were frequent.

However, concerns over pool halls and billiard parlours were heightened after the implementation of Prohibition. There was a growing worry that these establishments would become places where the illegal sale and consumption of alcohol would occur.

The provincial government brought in new regulations to try and prevent this from happening. The local Social Service League passed a resolution congratulating the government on its actions, but warned that “there was (still) a great danger that pool rooms in the province could be turned into bar rooms” and thereby become “blind pigs” for “the illegal distribution of liquor.”

Adding to the problem was the general lack of recreational facilities and programs, particularly for teenagers and young adults.

Red Deer did not have a public recreation centre. Many sports and recreational organizations had either folded or become relatively inactive during the war years.

For example, hockey really suffered during the aftermath of the war in the winter of 1919. Red Deer already lacked an indoor arena.

Because of severe financial constraints, the city only managed to create an outdoor rink by using a slough on First Street South (49th Street) on the north side of Parkvale. Many of the rink boards were salvaged from old buildings.

With the poor state of sports and recreational activities in the community, people worried that pool halls and billiard parlours would become even more popular spots for teenagers and young adults.

Strongly worded letters were written to the editors of the local newspapers.

One stated that the day after young men turn 17, they can legally go into a pool hall “and use the filthiest language and express it in a modern and scientific way that will take the breath away from the most seasoned in the place.”

Tempers flared when a pool hall owner responded that if his critics “wanted to look around,” they “would be able to find places (other than pool halls), where they could see real gambling which would make their heads swim.”

City council, always being sensitive to public opinion, asked the chief of police to ensure that all laws and regulations, particularly those involving the prohibition of alcohol and the control of pool halls and billiard parlours, were being strictly enforced.

There was some comfort when the police chief reported back that he found all of the local billiard parlours and pool rooms had been fully following the law.

Breaches of the Prohibition laws, however, continued to be a major problem until the provincial government legalized the sale and consumption of alcohol again in 1923, albeit with very strict limits and controls.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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