1929 - 1939

In the history series Alberta in the 20th Century, Ted Byfield writes that the Great Depression arrived as hundreds of little events in Alberta that gradually built up, until by the end of 1930 the word depression "entered nearly every conversation, became the chief term in every business issue and the decisive issue in most personal decisions". Wheat prices went through the floor and wool dropped 50 per cent.

Southern Alberta, still suffering from the devastating drought that started in the early 1920's, and which had driven 17,000 people out of the area, fell victim to an infestation of grasshoppers. Alberta historian James Gray wrote that the grasshoppers "ate the handles off pitchforks, armpits out of shirts on farmers' backs and clothes off lines". The drought caused dust storms so severe that a barber stopped giving shaves in southern Alberta, because dust particles in the men's faces were ruining his razors.

In northern Alberta, Edmonton was inundated with the unemployed. Various 'squatting places' were padlocked off by the authorities, but still the city homeless situation worsened. Riots took place, firearms were seized and in 1931 the unemployed were banned from holding parades by the Edmonton municipal government. As today, the Edmonton river valley was where many of the dispossessed sought shelter during the warmer months.

In rural northern Alberta, including the Whitecourt area, the population did relatively well. They were not subject to the drought and grasshopper plagues of the south. More importantly, they were not as dependent as city people on money. They could produce much of their own food. As one old farmer cynically put it, the cows kept giving milk, the hay kept growing and the chickens kept laying eggs because it could not be explained to them that there was a depression going on. Where self-produced consumption was not feasible, barter took the place of money in many exchanges.

What the barter and the natural production pointed out was that the Great Depression was not so much a result of any natural occurrence, but a shortage of money. One of the few mainstream economists not to gloss over the manmade cause of the depression was Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman. Friedman, and his co-author, Anna J. Schwartz, demonstrated convincingly that it was not free enterprise, but rather the U.S. Federal Reserve System that precipitated the Great Depression. Using official figures, Friedman and Schwartz showed that "from the cyclical peak in August 1929 to a cyclical trough in March 1933, the stock of money fell by over a third." Unfortunately, Friedman and Schwartz did not feel free to comment on the role of compound interest in creating monetary instability.

Facets of the Whitecourt economy that depended heavily on money, as opposed to barter, did suffer. Smaller lumber companies ran into trouble when railroad contracts for the cutting of ties were cut back. In 1932, Jerry Graham had to relinquish his interest in Whitecourt Lumber for financial reasons. The town lost its local constable, with the Alberta Provincial Police being subsumed into the R.C.M.P. An officer would be sent out from Edmonton for the winter, and during the summer the area was periodically patrolled by an officer from Mayerthorpe. Jerry Graham was appointed magistrate to replace the retiring C.A. Stephens.

In 1933, just before Christmas, the third major fire in little more than a decade struck downtown Whitecourt. This one had tragic results. One of the Traxler children was trapped upstairs in the living quarters over Traxler's store and perished in the blaze. Mrs. Traxler broke her hip while jumping to safety. In addition to Traxlers', the Poon King Laundry and Nels Lyons house were destroyed. The present day Common Wealth Credit Union sits on the spot occupied by one of the buildings destroyed in the fire.

In 1934, Jerry Graham took over a small house that was standing vacant just south of the buildings destroyed by fire. He ran his post office, an insurance business and real estate business from the location, in addition to various other endeavours. Wong's restaurant, standing next to the Whitecourt Hotel was taken over by Mah Jim in the 1930's, with the original owners, the Wong family, moving to Edmonton and eventually starting up the Seven Seas restaurant on Jasper Avenue. The Whitecourt Lumber Store also managed to stay open, although work in the bush was cut back to a minimum.

Western Construction & Lumber Co. reduced the amount of lumber it was taking out of the bush, but fared relatively well during the depression, having enough contracts in place to keep the mill in town running quite steadily. In 1935, Allen J. Millar moved back to the area where he had spent many summers while a child, and eventually took over the management of Western. Along with his wife, Jean, A. J., as he came to be known, dove into Whitecourt community projects, donating lumber, equipment and his time to a myriad of projects. In 1938, with the economy beginning to improve, Western built a large new mill, which became the basis of the present mill.

Cash incomes were hard to come by, but with Western's work and a natural abundance of game, berries and farm produce, Whitecourt fared well enough during the Great Depression that people actually moved into the area. As the population neared the 300 mark, the people did not let a lack of money stop them from a vibrant social life. Ballgames, picnics, dances, concerts, basketball, tennis and hockey games went on much as before. The appearance of river boats in the 30's added to the outdoor fun with many a Sunday afternoon spent exploring the nooks and crannies of both rivers. Races, picnics and singsongs often accompanied the cruises down the river. The boats were used for transportation and freighting as well.

In 1934, a Whitecourt story made a splash in the Edmonton papers, as good news often did in areas hard hit by the depression. Two of the young Merrifield brothers were caught in a flood. Jack and Harry survived their precarious situation by helping each other along the top of a wire fence to a chicken coop. A passing farmer was instructed by young Jack to get their horse and swim out to rescue them from their perch. Once the farmer had towed Jack to safety with the aid of the horse, Jack thanked the farmer and headed back out with his steed to save his younger brother. Jack was feted as a young hero in the city paper.
Dr. Barrow retired in 1934 due to health reasons. He was replaced by a succession of District Nurses, who continued to provide medical services to the area. The first of these was Irene Stewart, who stayed nine years, and lived in a house built for the nurses on the corner of 52 Avenue and Main Street.

At the Whitecourt Legion, the arrival of F. L. Barrow, the son of Doctor Barrow, in July 1930 led to a resurgence in activity. Mr. Barrow was Dominion Secretary of the Canadian Legion and was instrumental in restoring the pensions of many veterans. Previously, the federal government had discontinued the pensions of some of those who had served their country.

The Legion then sold off a portion of its thirteen acre sports ground east of the school, in order to keep up with payments on the land. In the late 30's the Legion regrouped and established a baseball diamond and race track. These and other amenities evolved into the present day Rodeo Grounds and Rotary Park.

In 1932, The Ladies Auxiliary to the Legion was formed and in 1934 the Legion joined the fight to improve road transportation in the area. In 1936 a highway right of way was cut between Whitecourt and Iosegun Lake near present day Fox Creek. The road was mainly suitable for horses and four-wheel drive vehicles, but it was another step in establishing a northern connection through Whitecourt.

Towards the end of 1935, arrangements were made with Mr. Montemurro of Mayerthorpe to show movies in the Legion Hall. A projection booth was built to meet with government regulations, but electrical problems led to many a blackout, with the result that the movies were discontinued. A small music club was set up, and the dances held at the Legion raised enough money to pay for the projection room.

1935 was also the year the new radical Alberta Social Credit Party won a landslide electoral victory, taking 56 of 63 ridings. Along with the rest of Alberta, Whitecourt was plunged into the most tumultuous period in Alberta history to date, as the upstart Socreds faced off against powerful international financial institutions. The election had the highest voter turnout in Alberta history - a respectable 82 per cent, compared to the current average of about 53 per cent. Not only did people vote, there was widespread involvement in political organizations and educational efforts.

Social Credit sought to end the shortage of money in the province by issuing 'prosperity certificates' which were similar to a form of provincial money. They also attempted to create a citizen's dividend and to pass legislation to provide relief from compound interest costs. However, a hostile press, neophyte errors and most importantly, the courts, stopped the majority of Social Credit legislation in its tracks.

Of the twelve major pieces of Social Credit legislation proposed, all were eventually disallowed by the courts, with some cases making their way to the Supreme Court of Canada. This included the Settlement of Debt acts, which had basically forbidden compound interest on loans to farmers. As Ted Byfield wrote in Alberta in the Twentieth Century, "farmers struggled and sank under the effect of compounding interest". A large company might get a loan at 2 per cent during this era, but the small farmers traditionally paid between 8 and 10 per cent.

When the Calgary Herald sought a balanced approach to reporting on the Social Credit government, the newspaper conglomerate it was part of abruptly retired the Herald's longtime and respected publisher, J. H. Woods. The business manager took over the head job, and a Paul Reading was sent out from Montreal to set the editorial direction. Clarence Stout, a senior editor with the Herald, wrote in 1937 that Reading "charged that our policy with Social Credit had to be changed, for he boasted he 'would get rid of Aberhart (Social Credit premier) in short order.'"

Aberhart hung on, with more and more people rejecting the information that was propagated by the mass media of the time. Despite its early errors, Social Credit governed Alberta from 1935 to 1971. During this time Social Credit government eliminated Alberta's debt; established the Credit Union Act and Alberta Treasury Branches to provide low-interest loans; kept Alberta debt-free and income tax-free; and encouraged local ownership and control of hospitals, schools and utilities.

Unfortunately, it took the onset of WWII to prove out the Social Credit dictum that "whatever is physically possible, can be financially possible". Cash incomes once again became plentiful, as fifty-four men and one woman from Whitecourt went off to fight in the battles raging in Europe. It was never explained why money that immediately became available to build weapons and hire soldiers could not have previously been made available to build homes and hire the unemployed in the cities. Indeed, astute analysts have since attributed the rise of Nazism itself to the desperation in Germany occasioned by the Great Depression and reparations payments from WWI. The lone woman to enlist from Whitecourt was Ruth Powers, granddaughter of old Dan who had drove the first train into Whitecourt back in 1921.