The Arid Years

March 1, 1997 by George Hoffman

For Saskatchewan the beginning of the 20th century was a time of optimism. The land was free and there was money to be made by anyone willing to work. Hundreds of thousands of settlers poured into the province and there seemed no bounds to the growth. Even the Palliser Triangle, the west’s most arid region, filled up with farmers. The elaborate celebrations in Regina on Sept. 4, 1905, inaugurating Saskatchewan as a province and attended by Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, reflected the confidence of the era.

However, people quickly were confronted by reality. The pioneer experience on the prairies was incredibly difficult. There were success stories, but also many failures. Later, after WW I, the prairie economy experienced a serious recession. Drought in southwestern Saskatchewan between 1919 and 1922 resulted in abandoned farms and population decline in that region and served as a warning of what lay ahead.

Nevertheless, there was good reason for continued optimism. There was a record harvest in 1928. Prices were not high but were satisfactory. Mechanization was beginning to make life on farms easier. Tractors were replacing horses, and automobiles were ending the isolation that pioneer families had faced. A report issued by the Bank of Canada in 1937 noted that between 1925 and 1928 the average person in Saskatchewan had one of the highest net cash incomes in the world. Saskatchewan farmers, who a generation earlier had spent their first year on their prairie homesteads in sod huts, could now look at their expanded farms and two-storey frame houses with pride and a sense of accomplishment. They confidently prepared to pass this on to their sons and daughters.

Then disaster struck. Even before the Wall Street crash in October 1929 wheat prices were dropping. The prairie crop that year was small, and the disastrous drought began. In the time ahead, Canadians came to view Saskatchewan, not as a land of opportunity, but the darkest spot in a tragic depression that swept the country.

The major reason for the collapse of the Saskatchewan economy was the international depression and its effect on world trade. The province was almost entirely dependent upon wheat. Wheat commodity prices declined drastically in 1930 and 1931. An international financial crisis developed, and trade patterns were disrupted. The price of wheat fell to 35 cents per bushel in 1932, a price one economist later noted “had no parallel in its world counterpart throughout the preceding 400 years.”

The average price for wheat between 1930 and 1939 was only 60 cents per bushel. No Canadian industry suffered as much as agriculture in the 1930s, and none recovered as slowly. In the process the Saskatchewan economy was ruined.

The West was not only affected by low prices but was doubly cursed. The plains region experienced what can best be described as an environmental or ecological disaster caused by climate and the cultivation practices of the preceding generations. In Saskatchewan, unlike much of the rest of Canada, the Depression always has meant two things: Economic collapse and drought.

Stories of the Dirty Thirties in Saskatchewan begin with the weather. Drought conditions developed on the Great Plains in northern Texas and Oklahoma and swept northward across the 49th parallel. The huge North American Dust Bowl resulted. “Okies,” as John Steinbeck described in The Grapes of Wrath, left the land and headed for California. Temperatures reached great extremes in 1936: 45 C in North Dakota, 42 C at Brandon, Man., and during the third week of July over 40 C every day throughout the Palliser Triangle, an irregularly shaped area located roughly between Cartwright, Man., Lloydminster, Sask., Calgary and Cardston, Alta.

In Saskatchewan the heat reached a peak in 1937. On July 5 it was 43 C in the towns of Midale and Yellow Grass, 42 C in Regina and Moose Jaw and in nine smaller towns in the southern part of the province. The heat was accompanied by below average rainfall. Old Wives Lake, south of Moose Jaw, went dry, and high winds coated the area with alkali dust. Fife Lake, which had covered a township near the Montana border, also dried up, revealing tons of buffalo bones.

The high temperatures and low rainfall over several years caused a devastating drought. The worst year was 1937 when wheat production in the province averaged 2.5 bushels per acre. The average for the entire decade was only 10 bushels. In some places gardens failed completely and even potatoes had to be brought in from other areas. In the central and northern parts of the province the drought was not nearly as severe, but low agricultural prices meant that economic conditions were only slightly better. The south, meanwhile, was a prairie desert. One observer described a part of the area at the time: “The land was lifeless as ashes, and for miles there is scarcely a growing thing to be seen…. There did not appear to be one single field that will produce a bushel of grain or a load of fodder.”

The strongest and most remembered image of the Depression in Saskatchewan is the dust storms. They began in 1931. Parched soil that had been loosened and pulverized by years of plowing was blown off the land by hot, dry winds. Clouds of dust, black blizzards, moved across the province. Soil drifts built up covering fences, filling ditches and forming banks against farm buildings. On one day in January 1931, a month when Saskatchewan is accustomed to blowing snow, it was impossible to see across the street in Moose Jaw at 1 p.m. because of blowing dust.

The Depression and drought had tragic social consequences, and it is impossible to understand the impact without an appreciation of the suffering that occurred. In some areas the circumstances were especially desperate. The Canadian Red Cross was involved in the distribution of relief and its files contain many examples of human tragedy. Pierre Berton, in his book The Great Depression, 1929-1939, recounts several. The Regina representative of the Red Cross toured the hardest hit areas in 1936. He came across a family of nine children all dressed in gunny sacks. Later he encountered a family of 11 crammed into a one-room shack. The children used newspapers as mattresses and sheets, and slept in the same gunny-sack clothing they wore during the day.

But the one thing there was no shortage of in southern Saskatchewan was gophers. There were reports of gophers being stewed, canned, pickled, smoked and fried. Tommy Douglas, first elected to the House of Commons in 1935, described having supper with a family near Weyburn in 1933: “We had a supper of gopher stew. We had bread made from some frozen wheat that had been crushed with a grinder, and we had coffee made from roasted barley.”

Thousands abandoned their farms and attempted to begin new lives elsewhere. Many moved to unsettled land far to the north. Their trek northward and their experiences in an isolated and strange environment resulted in some of the most serious cases of deprivation. Standards of living often were as low as in the worst parts of the wheat belt. Sandy Nicholson, later a Saskatchewan member of Parliament, was a United Church minister in 1935 in an area into which many from the south moved. He made the following entries in his diary while visiting some of the families:

Thursday, March 28. They apologized for their food. They had no fruit, butter or potatoes.

Friday, March 29. They had a cup of tea and bread without butter before we went to bed.

Saturday, March 30. …had hot cakes for breakfast with syrup made from water and sugar…had a drink made from roasted wheat which he called Bennett Coffee… had dinner, three fried eggs for four people and some potatoes, tea, bread and corn syrup.

Perhaps it is understandable that a Saskatchewan mother would comment, as one did in 1933, that “I can only say, emphatically, that I do not want my children to be farmers.”

All of this indelibly marked the province and its people. Gone forever were the days when it was said that wheat was king and Saskatchewan the province of the future. Such sentiments must have been a distant and likely bitter memory to a 50-year-old farmer as he loaded his family’s few belongings on a wagon and headed north.

And so the Depression was a dividing line. It separated an earlier period of expansion and growth from a time of regional disparity when the West would not lead Canada into the future but look to other areas of the country for support. Never again would anyone believe that a prairie farm offered certain prosperity.

The psychological impact of the Depression is more difficult to assess. How many lives were ruined by the hardships of the 1930s? How were parents affected who were unable to provide adequately for their families, particularly when they had expected to be able to? Or what about the teenagers who were told that their high school education would be delayed only to learn that it would be cancelled forever? That was the reality of the situation in Saskatchewan during the ‘30s. Sometimes, though, it is pointed out that Saskatchewan people laughed at the conditions they faced back then. But what should be remembered is what Tommy Douglas, a great practitioner of Depression black humor, said about this: “They learned to laugh about some of their problems. There are times, you know, when there are feelings that lie too deep for tears, so they had to laugh to keep from crying.”

This, however, is not the end of the story. In some ways it is just the beginning. Faith in the future survived even during the worst of times. Where hope nearly was extinguished, it was revived. Saskatchewan recovered from the disaster. And through it all people showed an almost incomprehensible determination and spirit.

In 1934 two journalists toured the drought area. The articles they wrote were graphic accounts of desperate conditions. But they also reported that farmers maintained that there was nothing wrong with the land and said that “if we get enough rain next year we can grow 40 bushels per acre.” After visiting the worst drought district, they wrote: “The people living here, who ought to know, say that the land is still all right. It will grow crops if nature will only provide rain. They still believe a ‘comeback’ can be made if it will rain next year.”

Such stubborn confidence recalls the characters in the novels of Shellbrook, Sask., native Sinclair Ross, one of the few writers who realistically portrayed life on the prairies during the Depression. When faced with the extremes of summer droughts or winter blizzards, the people showed pride and determination and refused to accept defeat. The central character in one of Ross’s short stories refused to be forced off his land by the drought. In reply to his wife’s pleas to move away, he said: “You’ll see it come back. There’s good wheat in it yet…. We’ll have crops again…. Good crops–the land will come back…. The dry years won’t last forever.”

Margaret Laurence, the famous Canadian novelist, commented on this faith in the land in Ross’s writing: “Indeed the land sometimes assumes a character as harsh as that of the vengeful God who sorely tried Job and the farmers who stay on, year after year, seeing their crops spoiled and themselves becoming old in youth, yet still maintaining their obsessive faith in the land, are reminiscent of Job himself. ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.’”

Perhaps it is true that such faith was blind and obsessive and such optimism no more than wishful dreams in face of futility. However, without it the wheat economy would not have survived, and there would have been no recovery.

It is ironic that eventually the 1930s came to be considered the beginning of a great success story for Saskatchewan. Ordinary men and women, against incredible odds, were not conquered by the environment and won the fight against the desert. Solutions were found to the problems that had destroyed the wheat country. New farming methods, improved types of farm machinery, drought resistant grasses, dams, dugouts, irrigation–all were a part of a massive rehabilitation program. Farmers came by the hundreds to meetings to discuss with crop scientists and agricultural engineers how their land could be saved and restored. If one image of the Depression is a dust storm, an equally important one is a gathering of farmers at a discer demonstration. The first is a picture of despair, while the second is one of hope and optimism. On one occasion research officers from an agricultural experimental station met with farmers in a crowded one-room school north of Swift Current. Before the meeting began, a farmer rose and spoke: “We aren’t here today for social talk and we didn’t come here just to visit with you. We’re here to learn how to control soil drifting. We’ve got a problem, and we want you to tell us how to fix it. If you can’t do that, tell us right now and we’ll go home. But if you’ve got any answers for us, if you can tell us anything that will help, we will stay with you till the cows come home.”

Those weren’t the words of a defeated man.

The Depression and drought had long-term economic, social and political effects, and great changes came to the province. However, the Saskatchewan of 1905 was not totally destroyed. The fundamental faith in wheat and the land remained. That faith was confirmed when the rains returned, and record amounts of wheat were produced in the period following WW II. Few, if any, came to the conclusion that it had been a mistake to settle the West and that the plains should be allowed to revert to the weed-covered waste land and short grass range that they had once been.

Today some environmentalists question the wisdom of people having come to the great semi-arid expanse of the West to “bust and break” the land with plows and replace the sturdy grasses with a crop not naturally suited to the region. They point to the dust storms of the ‘30s and argue that modern scientific agriculture has only postponed the inevitable and eventually will cause another ecological disaster, perhaps slightly different in form. The generation that survived the drought in Saskatchewan would disagree. And, to this point at least, so would their children and grandchildren who continue to grow wheat on the plains. The faith in the land remains.

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