While many people think of the 1920s as a period of good times and prosperity – the Roaring Twenties – the experience in Alberta was much different.
For much of the decade, they were years of economy hardship. The City of Red Deer stagnated as a small, quiet Prairie town with roughly 2,800 residents.
Very few houses were built. Hardly any new businesses were started.
Things did begin to pick up a little in Red Deer toward the end of the decade. Eaton’s opened the first chain department store in central Alberta. Safeway opened the first chain grocery store. The Nazarene Church started a Bible college.
The provincial government expanded the Provincial Training School, creating new employment in the community.
In May 1929, there was the exciting news that the Eddy Match Company had plans to build a factory in Red Deer. This would be the largest new industrial investment in the community since the boom years prior to the First World War.
There would also be the creation of 100 permanent jobs, a huge boost to the small city.
There was a large element of politics behind the proposal. R.B. Bennett was the leader of the national Conservative Party and had extensive interests in the Eddy Match Company.
A federal election was expected sometime in 1930. An economic boost to Red Deer would be good politics in a riding held by a United Farmers of Alberta party member, Alfred Speakman.
The Eddy Match Company was the largest match manufacturer in Canada. In 1928, the company decided to establish a western presence.
There were several advantages to locating in Red Deer. It was mid-point between Calgary and Edmonton. There was good rail transport to and from the community.
There was a plentiful wood supply from the west country. The revamped city electrical utilities system meant there was a plentiful supply of cheap, reliable power.
With the prolonged recession, there was a large pool of available workers.
Most importantly, with the City of Red Deer craving some sort of economic boost, there was an eagerness to strike an attractive deal, including major financial incentives and large tax concessions.
On May 3, 1929, the Eddy Match Company announced plans to build a factory in Red Deer. The news was so exciting that the Advocate published a special edition, the only occasion outside a time of war that it did so.
The city agreed to sell the company a 40-acre site, west of the CPR tracks, along the Red Deer River, at a low price.
The city offered to lower the already modest power and water utility rates. If approved by the voters, the city offered a major reduction on taxes for 20 years.
The authorizing bylaw was put to a public vote on June 28. For the first time in Red Deer’s history, a bylaw was approved unanimously.
No one felt that the financial incentives and tax concessions were too generous. Everyone confidently predicted that construction of the factory would begin early in 1930.
Unfortunately, world events intervened. In October 1929, the world financial markets crashed and an unprecedented global economic depression set in. Capital funds for new industrial investments quickly vanished.
For quite a long time, the people of Red Deer convinced themselves that the wonderful new venture had merely been postponed, not cancelled.
In 1931, city council was still talking about building new roads to improve the access to the Eddy Match site.
In 1932, a meeting was held with Premier John Brownlee to see if the provincial government could offer tax incentives to get the project moving again.
However, the province was now severely strapped for funds itself and did not have means to offer any new deals, over and above what the city had already offered.
Hence, nothing ever happened. Eventually, people were forced to accept reality. A grand dream of the future had been dashed.
Meanwhile, a large chunk of otherwise prime developable land west of the CPR tracks stayed vacant for many years.
Some of that land was developed as a light industrial district in the 1950s and 1960s. The area is now being redeveloped again as Riverlands/Capstone.
Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.