Red Deer’s City Hall Park in the spring in the early 1930s. (Red Deer Archives photo)

Red Deer’s City Hall Park in the spring in the early 1930s. (Red Deer Archives photo)

Michael Dawe: The spring of 1931

Central Alberta has just experienced one of the mildest winters that people can remember. Currently, the region is enjoying a remarkably early spring. However, while this past year has been an unusual one, as with almost everything else in Alberta weather, it has not been an unprecedented one.

An example of what used to be called an “open” winter occurred in 1930-1931. There was very little snow. Temperatures were mild throughout the winter.

Perhaps as a reminder for people not to get too complacent, the coldest weather of the year struck near the end of March. Temperatures plunged to -31 C on March 27.

Fortunately, the weather soon turned much warmer. By the second week of April, temperatures were generally above 20 C. The little bit of snow that remained quickly vanished. Farmers got their spring seeding underway. Many people in town started planting their gardens.

If the early spring weather was pleasant, the economic climate was increasingly grim. The Great Depression, which had started with the stock market crash of 1929, kept getting worse. Money was short. People lost their jobs. Farmers faced decreasing prices for their grain and livestock. Businesses struggled to stay open. More and more of them slipped into bankruptcy.

Even the bigger employers, such as the Canadian Pacific Railway, began to cut back. With a declining amount of freight to be hauled, there was less demand for crews. Public corporations such as Alberta Government Telephones faced a sharp drop in subscribers. Many of AGT’s employees, who were not laid off, were kept busy pulling phones of those who had stopped paying their bills.

When the depression first struck, governments tried to shore up the economy with spending on public buildings and public works projects. The provincial government built a grand new court house on Ross Street, just east of 49 Ave. The City of Red Deer built a municipal water reservoir on the north east side of Michener Hill.

However, these initiatives only brought short term relief from the growing unemployment. Both the provincial and federal governments still struggled with massive debts left over from the First World War and the harsh economic depression of the post-war years.

The City of Red Deer was in much better shape than most government bodies. The purchase of the local electrical utility in 1926 gave the city a good source of revenue other than property and business taxes.

However, city council, remembering the hard lessons of the first round of tough times, kept to a strict “pay-as-you go” policy. There was virtually no new spending and no borrowing of money. Following the examples of the provincial government and the local school boards, salaries of city employees were reduced, although not as severely as in other communities.

Wherever city council felt it was possible, property taxes were reduced to ease the financial burdens on the general population. Nevertheless, money was still provided as “relief” payments to those facing severe hardship and destitution.

However, a new ominous problem began to emerge. A ten-day wind, combined with very dry conditions, created an enormous dust storm. Some drivers reported having to turn on their headlights in mid-day in an attempt to see through the dust.

Farmers stated that while they might have gotten their crops in early, the winds were causing much of the seed to blow away as it had not had a chance to germinate.

Tragically, people did not fathom what the great dust storms of the spring of 1931 meant. They were but the first wave of what became known as “the Dust Bowl” across Western Canada. These terrific storms did not last for just a few days. They kept coming back for weeks and months on end. Only the onset of winter put an end to the blizzards of dirt.

Again, central Alberta did not suffer as badly as many areas across the southern prairies. Nevertheless, conditions were grim and dirty. A long time would pass before there was any real improvement.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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