An Empire Day/Victoria Day gathering of school children on Ross Street by the Cenotaph in the 1920s. On the right hand side, are members of the Red Deer Citizens Band (forerunner of the Red Deer Royals). (Photo via Red Deer Archives)

An Empire Day/Victoria Day gathering of school children on Ross Street by the Cenotaph in the 1920s. On the right hand side, are members of the Red Deer Citizens Band (forerunner of the Red Deer Royals). (Photo via Red Deer Archives)

Victoria Day event helped after war

One hundred years ago, on May 24, 1921, a major community event was staged in Red Deer. It was the Victoria Day celebration. It was organized jointly by the local units of the Red Deer militia, the Great War Veterans Association and the Red Deer Baseball Association. It was an enormous success.

Although Victoria Day had been celebrated in Red Deer as far back as the late 1890s, it was generally not that big of a local celebration. There were sporting competitions, usually involving baseball, football (soccer) and cricket. The games were staged at Alexandra Park (Red Deer Fairgrounds), south of Parkvale.

However, there were often large, more organized, events in neighbouring communities such as Blackfalds, Lacombe, Innisfail, Pine Lake and Sylvan Lake. Athletes from Red Deer often went to those towns as there were more teams to compete against.

Nevertheless, there was a strong sentiment in Red Deer that a strong community spring event was badly needed. The First World War had been devastating – 118 young men had lost their lives, while a great many who did make it home returned with wounds to their bodies and/or minds. A special hospital for veterans suffering from shellshock/PTSD was opened on the East Hill.

As the war was coming to an end, central Alberta was hard hit by the Spanish flu pandemic. Dozens lost their lives. Many were ill for weeks and months. Quarantines meant that social interaction became very limited for a long period of time.

Sport organizations really suffered. Organized hockey was so weak that the city did not put in a municipal rink for the 1919-1920 season. Instead, very modest improvements were made to a slough on the north side of Parkvale.

Hence, it was thought that a grand Victoria Day event would both reinvigorate the recreational/sports activities in Red Deer and rebuild social links shattered by the war.

It is not surprising that the local militia played a key role in the plans. There was a strong tradition of military involvement in Royal events, including Victoria Day. The 78 Battery, of the Royal Canadian Artillery, had been formed in Red Deer in 1920 and quickly turned into a very energetic organization. Moreover, given the success of the Battery, the military decided to also form a unit of infantry (a company of the Alberta Regiment) in Red Deer.

The Great War Veterans Association (forerunner of the Legion) had proven to be an invaluable source of support and activities for the veterans and their families. It was a reliable partner in organizing community events.

Baseball had long been a very popular sport in Red Deer. In fact, in 1912, Red Deer even had a professional baseball team, before it ran into financial problems. Hence, the Baseball Association was a logical partner for organizing sports events.

As a lead-up to Victoria Day, the I.O.D.E. (Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire) organized a special assembly at the Central School on May 23 (Empire Day). Students were encouraged to take pride in Canada, the Empire and the Royal Family.

May 24 was warm and sunny with no hint of rain. The militia led the parade from the Armouries to the Fairgrounds The newly reactivated Boy Scout troop joined the procession.

The day’s sports competitions went well for Red Deer. While the cricket team lost to Olds, Red Deer swept the baseball and football (soccer) games. The results of the track and field events were more mixed. While members of the Red Deer Fire Brigade did well, athletes from the rural Horn Hill district by Penhold, won several meets.

Paid admission at the Fairgrounds exceeded 2,000. To put that into context, that was the equivalent of three-quarters of the population of the city at the time.

The day finished up with a huge dance in the Red Deer Armouries. The building was full to overflowing. A profit of hundreds of dollars was made, which then could be used to organize future events.

Not surprisingly, another big Victoria Day celebration was held in Red Deer in 1922 with hopes that it would become a very popular annual event.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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