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
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
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
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.