Line of cars along Lakeshore Drive at Sylvan Lake during a hot summer’s afternoon, c. 1930. (Red Deer ArP3417)

Line of cars along Lakeshore Drive at Sylvan Lake during a hot summer’s afternoon, c. 1930. (Red Deer ArP3417)

Michael Dawe: Sylvan Lake has long been a retreat for central Albertans

Friday is the beginning of the annual May long weekend.

To many central Albertans, it marks the traditional start of summer. This year, the May long weekend will be quite unlike any other in recent history.

Nevertheless, hopefully, the weather will be good and families will have time together (within the limits set by the provincial government and local health authorities, of course).

This extraordinary year provides an opportunity to reflect back to another extraordinary year, 1932, and how hard times impacted central Alberta and such local resorts as Sylvan Lake.

While the Great Depression started with the stock market crash of October 1929, the bottom of the hard economic times did not hit until 1932.

The price of wheat plunged to a mere 21 cents per bushel. Cattle prices dropped so low that many farmers got a bill when they sent their livestock to market – the animals sold for less than the cost of the shipping to the Calgary Livestock Market.

More businesses went bankrupt. Unemployment rose to more than 20 per cent. The Red Deer Advocate published full page ads urging people to do everything possible to create some jobs.

Ironically, while the general economy suffered, a local resort such as Sylvan Lake did relatively well. People still felt a need to have a vacation, even if it was short and as cheap as possible.

Sylvan Lake provided a place where families could gather for a break at little or no cost. For those wanting to stay a few days, there were lots of places to pitch a tent.

Some entrepreneurs decided to invest in the opportunities created by tourism. The biggest investment was made by James P. Simpson. In 1928, he had built a substantial boathouse next to the large pier constructed the same year with financial assistance from the federal government. He did very well with that business.

In 1932, he decided to build a large dance hall on Lakeshore Drive, a bit east of the boathouse. Although there were already two other dance halls in Sylvan Lake – the Alexander Pavilion and the Oriental Gardens – he was sure there would be lots of business for all three halls.

He spent $10,000 on the structure, with the carpenters being paid up to 20 cents per hour. It was dubbed the Trianon Summer Palace (renamed in later years as the Varsity Hall).

On opening night, June 18, 1932, the crowd was so large that people were forced to stand outside through the fire escapes.

The Trianon Summer Palace was not the only successful new business.

In 1931, when the Alberta Provincial Police was disbanded, Sgt. Alex (Sandy) Robertson and his family decided to build a gas station, restaurant (tea house) and some cottages for rental on the corner directly across the street to the west of the new dance hall.

The Robertsons’ new businesses, which they opened early in the summer of 1932, was formally known as the Balmoral Service and Tea Room. They did very well with tourists looking for refreshments, a meal, an inexpensive place to stay, and/or gasoline for their car.

The Big Moo now stands on the site of the Balmoral.

The Collins family also decided to build another small restaurant on Lakeshore Drive, to the west of the Balmoral Service and Tea Room and the Trianon Dance Hall.

Originally, it was known as the Home Grill, but later became better known as The Centre. It did very well selling hamburgers, fries, hotdogs and cold refreshments, perfect for summer weather.

The Sylvan Lake summer season started with a bang on the first weekend of June with the provincial Elks convention.

While wet and somewhat cool weather slowed some of the usual early summer activities, by mid-July, it was very hot and sunny. The beaches, campgrounds and resort facilities were all packed with tourists.

The climax of the summer events came on Aug. 17, with the annual Sylvan Lake Regatta. The weather was ideal. Huge crowds turned out for the water sports competitions, Elks Lodge midway and many other activities. A particularly popular attraction was the speedboat races on the lake.

As the summer came to an end, unfortunately, the Great Depression continued to grind on across central Alberta.

However, like Sylvan Lake, conditions still were generally somewhat better in this area than in other parts of Western Canada. Consequently, local farmers and residents shared what they had by sending boxcars of relief supplies – food, clothing, etc. – to the dust bowl areas of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

According to Alberta Education, 24,478 students registered for homeschooling in 2020-21 compared to 13,463 in 2019-20. (Photo contributed)
Dramatic jump in homeschooling

Alberta Homeschooling Association says parents unhappy with online learning

Alberta Minister of Health Tyler Shandro announced that the province will provide interim access to the drug Zolgensma, which helps treat Spinal Muscular Atrophy. (Photo by Paul Taillon/Office of the Premier)
Province aims to help children suffering from Spinal Muscular Atrophy

The Alberta government is trying to make a difference for children battling… Continue reading

Sylvan Lake Fire Department respond to a call at Fox Run School, Wednesday morning. (Photo by Sean Mathieson)
Fire department responds to mechanical belt malfunction at Sylvan Lake school

Students at Fox Run and Mother Teresa are asked to stay home, bused students will be taken home

Foundation Farms Corp will be building its first indoor vertical farm in Alberta in the coming months. (Screenshot, Foundation Farms Corp website)
Company to set up Indoor Vertical Farm in Red Deer

A new era of farming is on its way to Central Alberta.… Continue reading

Fitness equipment is sitting unused in Red Deer-area area gyms, which remain closed since pandemic restrictions were announced on Dec. 8. (
Red Deer gym owners call for a targeted re-opening plan

The limbo of ongoing closures is ‘frustrating,’ they say

Bags of methamphetamine seized at Coutts, Alta., border crossing is shown in this December 2020 handout photo. The Canada Border Services Agency says it has made Canada’s largest-ever seizure of methamphetamine at an Alberta land border crossing from the United States. The agency says on Christmas Day, it flagged a produce truck at the Coutts border crossing for further inspection. Officers found more than 228 kilograms of meth with an estimated street value of $28.5 million. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Canada Border Services Agency
Alberta border agents made record meth bust after pulling over produce truck

COUTTS, Alta. — The Canada Border Services Agency says officers in southern… Continue reading

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. Quebec’s director of national health says he’s still not sure when the province will begin administering COVID-19 booster shots — 42 days since officials started injecting people with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Calculated risk or gamble: Experts differ on merits of Quebec’s vaccine strategy

MONTREAL — Quebec’s director of national health said he’s still not sure… Continue reading

This electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, in yellow, emerging from the surface of cells, blue/pink, cultured in a lab. The Canadian Armed Forces is dealing with a dramatic increase in the number of troops who have been infected with COVID-19 over the past month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-NIAID-RML via AP
Canadian military dealing with surge in new COVID-19 infections since December

OTTAWA — The Canadian Armed Forces is dealing with a dramatic increase… Continue reading

Advocates for the homeless hold a protest against the COVID-19 curfew Monday, January 11, 2021 in Montreal. The Quebec government says it will not challenge a temporary court order granted Tuesday that exempts the homeless from a provincewide curfew imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Quebec to exempt homeless from curfew after court finds measure endangered safety

MONTREAL — The Quebec government said Wednesday it will not challenge a… Continue reading

People march towards Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office in Toronto, during a rally led by current and former international students calling for changes to immigration rules during COVID-19, on Sept. 12, 2020. A new work permit program for international students in Canada is taking applications starting today. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin
New work permit program for international graduates in Canada taking applications

A new work-permit program aimed at encouraging international students to settle in… Continue reading

A fire-destroyed property registered to Gabriel Wortman at 200 Portapique Beach Road is seen in Portapique, N.S. on May 8, 2020. Three people who allegedly supplied ammunition to the gunman who murdered 22 people in the April 18-19 mass shooting in Nova Scotia are scheduled for court hearings today. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Lawyer for accused in ammo transfer to N.S. shooter criticizes lack of disclosure

HALIFAX — A lawyer for one of three people who allegedly supplied… Continue reading

Hassan Diab holds a news conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa Friday, February 7, 2020. nbsp;A lawyer for Diab says a French appeal court’s order that the Ottawa sociology professor stand trial for a decades-old synagogue bombing is the latest misstep in a long odyssey of injustice. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Order to stand trial in Paris bombing flies in face of evidence, Diab’s lawyer says

OTTAWA — A lawyer for Hassan Diab says a French appeal court’s… Continue reading

File - In this Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018 file photo, survivors of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz arrive for a commemoration ceremony on International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism inside Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland. The commemorations for the victims of the Holocaust at the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau on Jan. 27, 1945, will be mostly online this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski, file)
Auschwitz survivors mark anniversary online amid pandemic

Memorial site closed to visitors because of the pandemic

Most Read