Soldiers marching west on Ross Street on July 11, 1942. (Photo by Ernest Wells via Red Deer Archives)

Soldiers marching west on Ross Street on July 11, 1942. (Photo by Ernest Wells via Red Deer Archives)

Michael Dawe: People had to adjust in summer of 1942

Traditionally, the May 24 (Victoria Day) long weekend marks the traditional start of summer in central Alberta. For the second year in a row, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a lot of activities being restricted. That was also the case nearly 80 years ago when the Second World War was on and people had to adjust as best they could.

A great insight into the summer of 1942 can be gleaned by going through the diary of Ernest Wells. He worked for the Red Deer Advocate in the layout department. He was also a local reporter and sports columnist for such papers as the Edmonton Bulletin, Edmonton Journal, Calgary Herald and Calgary Albertan.

The Second World War brought many challenges, not the least of which was the rationing of such things as sugar, coffee and butter. Gasoline was also restricted, which made the traditional summer travelling difficult, unless it was done by train.

There was very little complaint about the restrictions and rationing. People felt that conforming to the strict rules and regulations was a “patriotic duty” in support of the war effort.

There was a large military training base in Red Deer, north of 55 St., and two large airbases south of town, one at Penhold and the other at Bowden. Consequently, there was a very large military presence in Red Deer, with almost as many army and air force personnel as there were civilians.

Ernie Wells got ready for summer by buying a good quality, second-hand, ice box for $4 and a new screen door for the house. These proved to be good investments. Weather was generally very warm, but also quite wet. That made for a very ample supply of mosquitoes in the city.

Not surprisingly, one of the big summer time attractions were military parades through the downtown. Huge crowds turned out to watch the soldiers, airmen and cadets march crisply down the streets. There was also lots and lots of music courtesy of the military marching bands.

Ernie’s wife, Marion, had her birthday at the end of July. The family went on a picnic at the Auto Camp (current site of Rotary Park) to celebrate. They also hiked up Piper’s Mountain. The excursion got somewhat sidetracked when one of Ernie’s sons kicked off his shoe and Ernie “had to do a mountain goat act” to retrieve it. Once at the top, the family watched the numerous training flights taking off and landing at the Penhold airport.

The big event of the summer was the annual Red Deer Fair. Record breaking crowds, numbering literally in the thousands, turned out to take in the exhibits and to enjoy the midway. What was billed as the largest ferris wheel in Western Canada proved to be particularly popular.

The grandstand show, with a special musical entertainment dubbed “A Toast to Victory” proved to be so popular that large numbers had to be turned away. The irony was that the end of the war was actually still three years away.

The Wells family took in as much as they could. However, with rides costing 12¢ and ice cream cones running 10¢ apiece, they found that the supply of cash started to run a little low by the end of the day.

Ernie spent the later part of the evening writing up the prize list results for the newspapers. It was heavy work, but worthwhile as he produced 62 inches of copy for which he received pretty good pay. To help him with his work and the long hours, the Fair Board lent him a small office under the grandstand.

However, Ernie also found himself quite with a number of lost children who were brought into the office until their parents could be located. He commented in his diary that “ice cream was a popular part of the cheering up.”

Ernie concluded with the comment that with all the hot weather “none of us had much energy.” Nevertheless, the children were cheerful and contented after their great adventures at the fair.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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