Michael Dawe: Difficult economic times gave rise to social unrest

Whenever economic times get tough, or the normal order of things gets disrupted, people often react with anger, fear and frustration.

Moreover, when the economic hardships become severe, many will turn to extremism to vent their fury, as well as to search for fixes to the economic and social problems.

That was certainly the case in central Alberta during the Great Depression of the 1930s. As the economic crisis continued to grow, people became more desperate to find culprits and solutions.

Sometimes, anger boiled over and there was violence or attempts to destroy property.

One of the first instances of a destructive outburst happened not long after the Depression started with the collapse of the U.S. stock markets in the fall of 1929.

At around 2 a.m. on July 10, 1930, an attempt was made to burn down the Alexander Pavilion dance hall on the lakeshore of Sylvan Lake. A barrel full of shavings, twigs and the remains of a banana crate was doused in kerosene and set ablaze.

Fortunately, the owner, Henry Hussfeldt, soon realized something terrible was going on. Together with some passersby, he was able to put out the blaze before much damage was done.

Then, on July 31, 1930, at 3:30 in the morning, someone threw four sticks of dynamite through an open window at the dance hall.

Fortunately, the damage was limited to a hole blown in the floor and the shattering of windows. None of the estimated 30 people, sleeping in the overnight rooms on the east end of the hall, were injured, although they were all shaken up.

Moreover, many of people in the community were awakened by the sound of the four explosions and were frightened when they learned what had happened.

The Alberta Provincial Police stated that anarchists were the culprits behind the incidents and began a major investigation.

There was increasingly open Communist Party activity in the area with the hard times. However, the police and authorities never publicly suggested a link between the local Communists and the purported anarchist attack. In fact, no suspects were ever identified and arrested.

Meanwhile, there were growing numbers of public Communist events in such communities as Eckville, Rocky Mountain House and Nordegg.

The biggest public gatherings took place on May Day (May 1), also referred to by many as International Workers’ Day.

The Communist May Day marches and assemblies in west central Alberta often attracted groups of around 125 to 150 people. Almost always, the gatherings were peaceful.

One exception happened in Eckville. A group of “whites” assembled to make a counter-protest against the “reds” (using the terminology adopted during the Russian Revolution).

Angry words were exchanged, but nothing much else happened. A couple of police constables stood by in case the confrontations escalated. However, their intervention was not needed.

This is not to say that the provincial police remained neutral. On one occasion, a truck load of Communists and sympathizers was stopped by the police on their way to a dance at a hall near Sylvan Lake.

The prospective partygoers protested that people frequently piled into a truck to go to a local dance or social celebration without any problems. The police were not swayed. The group was not allowed to proceed any further.

Another more severe confrontation happened in August 1931 in Rocky Mountain House. Speeches by some Communist organizers, legally authorized under town permit, were abruptly ended by a group described as consisting of “lumberjacks and veterans.”

No one was actually hurt, but once again, there were some very hot words and threats of violence.

Things became somewhat different during a provincial byelection held that fall for the Red Deer constituency. The Communists ran Fred Bray, a blacksmith and First World War veteran.

The Communist meetings across the riding came off reasonably well. In early November in Rocky Mountain House, a rally attracted a crowd of more than 100. No one attempted to disrupt it.

Ultimately, in the byelection, the Conservative party candidate, W.E. Payne, pulled off an upset over the governing United Farmers of Alberta. People voted strongly for a change.

Bray, the Communist, finished fourth.

Meanwhile, another extreme group, the Ku Klux Klan became very publicly active in central Alberta.

To be continued.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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