The Harold Bone Orchestra, the popular local group who played at the first A.G.T. St. Valentine’s Day ball in 1922 and several subsequent ones as well. (Photo courtesy Red Deer Archives)

The Harold Bone Orchestra, the popular local group who played at the first A.G.T. St. Valentine’s Day ball in 1922 and several subsequent ones as well. (Photo courtesy Red Deer Archives)

Michael Dawe: St. Valentine’s Day in 1922

Another St. Valentine’s Day will soon be upon us. However, with a global pandemic and severe economic hardships for many, St. Valentine’s Day 2021 will very different than Valentine’s Days in the past.

There will still be gifts of chocolates, candy, jewelry and flowers. There will hopefully be a chance for a romantic dinner, if not in a local restaurant, then at home. However, there will not be the social gatherings that normally take place, on or before the special day.

One hundred years ago, in the years following the end of the First World War, St. Valentine’s Days were also very constrained.

Although the First World War came to an end on November 11, 1918, for many months afterwards, much of the world was beset by the worst pandemic in modern times, the Spanish influenza. Any type of contact, in social gatherings or with people other than immediate family, was largely avoided.

Moreover, it took weeks and months for many veterans to make their way home. Hence, on February 14, 1919, many couples were still physically separated. For those veterans who had made it home, many were suffering wounds to their bodies and/or their minds.

With the economy plunging into one of the worst recessions on record, unemployment was high. Money was very tight. Hence, while there was the joy of being reunited after many years of separation, the ability to celebrate in any major way was very limited.

In 1920, there were plans for a major dance on Friday, February 13, sponsored by the local United Farmers of Alberta (U.F.A.). Unfortunately, with very cold weather and continuing hard economic times, attendance was much smaller than expected. Nevertheless, people enjoyed the music provided by the newly formed Great War Veterans Association (G.W.V.A.) orchestra.

In 1921, in the days leading up to St. Valentine’s Day, the federal Soldiers Settlement Board held a five-day Soldiers’ Wives Institute. The intent was to provide information, resources and general support for the spouses of veterans. Notable was the fact that the women in attendance brought a large number of babies and toddlers with them. The post-war baby boom was now underway.

However, with all of the attention to the Institute, nothing of substance was organized for St. Valentine’s Day. The fact that February 14 that year was on a Sunday added to the relative quiet.

Things became much different in 1922. In 1920, Alberta Government Telephone took over the nearly bankrupt local Western General Telephone Company. The subsequent construction of a new exchange building, and other major investments by A.G.T., improved Red Deer’s role as a communications centre.

In 1922, the staff of A.G.T., in particular the young female operators, decided to organize an elaborate St. Valentine’s Day celebration at the Armouries, which was becoming the major community centre for Red Deer. The hall was decorated with streamers, Japanese lanterns, and 1,800 hearts, hand-made by the telephone operators. The Rex Theatre loaned their spotlights for the event.

A crowd of more than 350 turned out. The dancing went on until well after midnight even though St. Valentine’s Day was a week day. There is no record as to how many romances were started or deepened that evening. A large profit from the ticket sales was reported, which was then turned over to the fund to build a cenotaph (war memorial) in Red Deer.

The A.G.T. St. Valentine’s Day ball was such a huge success that it became the major mid-winter event in the community for many years thereafter.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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