A dry cycle that impacted crops in central Alberta commenced in 1918 and carried into 1922. (Photo by Red Deer Archives)

A dry cycle that impacted crops in central Alberta commenced in 1918 and carried into 1922. (Photo by Red Deer Archives)

Michael Dawe: Hot, dry summer of 1922

Another harvest season is now upon us. Over the past 140 years of agricultural cultivation in central Alberta (i.e. since 1882), there have been some very good harvests, and some very poor ones. Unfortunately, because of the prolonged hot dry period earlier this year, most are predicting that this year’s harvest will be one of the poorer ones.

One harvest, which was a very poor one, took place nearly a century ago in 1922. Probably the closest the Red Deer area has ever come to a total crop failure due to drought took place that summer and fall.

That year – 1922 was not the first harsh year. The dry cycle had commenced in 1918. This meant that there was no subsurface moisture to carry the crops through the periods of little or no rain. It also meant that the lakes, sloughs and creeks had become very low, and in some cases, had completely dried up. Consequently, the watering of livestock became very difficult.

The spring started with the ever present Albertan hope for a better year. However, there were only a couple of days with showers in May. Moreover, there was a lot of heat with temperatures rising at times to nearly 30 C. Consequently, germination of crops was spotty at best.

June was no better. There was one good rain on June 15, but it only lasted one day. Over all, only 36 mm of rain fell in the whole month. Crops began to wither and brown. Hay grew so poorly that there seemed no point in trying for a summer cut.

July continued to be very hot and dry. A storm on July 12 brought high winds and a lot of hail, but not much rain. Several fields and many gardens, already struggling, were completely wiped out.

The economy of Red Deer was so dependent upon the financial wellbeing of the local farmers that money became very tight as the summer progressed. The Commercial Café on Ross Street decided that the increasing hard times were giving their potential patrons “indigestion.” Arrangements were then made to have the orchestra from the Rex Movie Theatre play in the restaurant three nights a week in the hopes that this might attract more business.

There were still a few who benefited from the long hot summer. The local Red Deer Golf and Country Club provided an economical venue for summer recreation. The course had a very busy season as games rarely had to be called off due to weather. Moreover, a new clubhouse was built that summer, which provided a major improvement of facilities.

Resorts like Sylvan, Gull and Pine Lakes provided relief for families looking for an economical spot to cool off during the long hot summer days and evenings. Thus, the merchants in those communities experienced a welcome uptick in business.

Sylvan Lake decided to capitalize on the long hot summer with a large regatta on Aug. 16. A huge amount of volunteer time was invested to make sure that there would be a terrific show for tourists and locals alike.

As happens all too often in Alberta, the weather provided a cruel twist of fate. Just before the regatta was to take place, the weather suddenly turned cool and wet. The regatta was postponed for a week, but the rescheduled event did not come off very well.

Despite the blow to Sylvan Lake, people welcomed the rain. However, it had come too late to do the crops any good. Harvesting had already commenced in early August because of premature ripening. The bout of rain only served to delay that weak harvest.

However, there was promise in the late summer rains. They were the best precipitation in nearly four years. While it was too late to help the 1922 crop, people hoped that the return of more normal moisture levels would mean a much better crop in 1923. And those hopes were eventually realized.

On the Labour Day weekend, a stampede was held at the Red Deer Exhibition grounds. The event was a much better success than expected. Optimism was slowly returning to the community.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.