Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: March 2015


The day Sask. kids waged war on gophers

The gopher doesn’t look anything like Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. But that didn’t matter to school kids in 1917.

One of Saskatchewan’s great hopes was that the Great War would lift the economy out of recession. And for the agricultural sector, it did just that.

In 1914, Ottawa encouraged the province to grow as much wheat as possible for the Allies. The response to this challenge was phenomenal. Equating patriotism with production, Saskatchewan farmers harvested the largest crop in the province’s history – 224.3 million bushels, or half the wheat production for the entire country.
The yield, at 25.1 bushels per acre, also broke a provincial record going back to 1905. Farmers were naturally pleased, but even more so because the wartime demand for wheat led to higher prices – from only 66 cents per bushel in 1913 to $2.40 in 1916.

These prices, together with the belief that it would be a short war, provided further incentive to farmers to expand their operations and grow more wheat.
Cropped acreage consequently increased by roughly two million acres in both 1916 and 1917 and then by another million acres in 1918.

In the process, pioneer homesteads completed the transition to commercial operations.

But what is even more remarkable about this story is that Saskatchewan was also expected to provide an ever increasing number of soldiers for the Canadian war effort.

And by 1916, there was a serious labour shortage on the farm – leaving producers scrambling for hired help.

The Saskatchewan government tried to deal with the crisis by appealing for rural residents, including boys and girls and the elderly, to join harvest gangs.

The provincial Bureau of Labour, in co-operation with the Department of Education, also pulled boys in their early teens from schools to handle farm work, especially at harvest time, without academic penalty.

Any student who completed three months of service was formally recognized with a bronze badge as a “Soldier of the Soil.”

Ottawa even temporarily released soldiers to help with seeding and harvesting in 1917 and 1918.

The most ambitious wartime agricultural program, however, had nothing to do with looking after the crop – but ensuring that there was something to harvest.
Gophers destroyed an estimated quarter million acres of crop each year. And the Department of Agriculture turned to the province’s children to do their bit and rid the countryside of this menace.

On May 1, 1917, tens of thousands of kids from 980 schools throughout the province competed in Saskatchewan’s first official Gopher Day.

Armed with poison, snares, traps, and guns, they were sent into the fields by their teachers to wage battle with the “enemy of production.”

By sundown, the children’s “virtual soldiering” had exterminated more than half a million of the pesky rodents.

The Charlottenburg school (district number 1755), between Quinton and Raymore, won the revered Gopher Shield for the most tails.

There was an unexpected connection here. The school district, Charlottenburg, was named after a German municipality on the outskirts of Berlin.

The Gopher Shield was never awarded again.

Originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix
Photograph: Saskatchewan Archives Board

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

History and stories are lost when buildings are torn down

It didn’t take long for the Farnam Block to come down.

Granted, the building had been padlocked since 2013.

But once a last-minute attempt to buy the building from its current owners failed, not even an online petition could save it from the wrecking ball.

Much has been written over the past few weeks about the history of the Farnam Block and its place in Saskatoon history.

Music fans have also talked nostalgically about the bands that played at Lydia’s Pub over the years.

But what has been rarely mentioned is that the Turning the Tide bookstore, behind the block on 11th Avenue, was once the Merry Mansion, home of Humphrey and the Dumptrucks.

Michael “Bear” Millar, one of the band members, fondly recalls his days in the mansion in the early 1970s.

He remembers how they practised almost every day – including sometimes at night with a bonfire on the front lawn – and how Lydia’s stage served as their living room.

There was also a steady stream of artists through the mansion, including Canadian composer (and Eston’s own) Jack Lenz and American blues musician Roosevelt Sykes (The Honeydripper).

Bear has “lots of memories in that place” and how it was an integral part of the Canadian music scene.

That’s what the Farnam Block should remind us – that heritage is not something that happens someplace else.

Saskatchewan heritage not only provides us with a sense of history, a sense of place, but a sense of identity … a feeling of connectedness … who we are as a people.

It also provides some much-needed perspective or insight into the past.

Saskatchewan heritage is a story with broad implications, not only for the province, but for the country as a whole, perhaps even the world.

And we need to study, explain and celebrate that heritage.

Saskatchewan has some structural gems that are largely unknown outside the province – from the Addison sod house near Kindersley to the church at Stanley mission to the cathedral at Gravelbourg to the Convent Bed and Breakfast in Val Marie to the largest collection of collegiate gothic architecture on any university campus in Canada.

And let’s not forget about industrial sites such as the LaColle Falls dam and hydroelectric site or the Claybank brick factory.

Or agricultural sites such as the Melfort Dominion Experimental Farm. Heritage structures are not just old buildings.

They can be architecturally significant (style and/or materials); important for who lived there, what happened there or how they were used; or special because they reflect society’s values at the time. Most people identify with structures in their neighbourhoods or downtown core for any number of reasons.

Bear Miller’s memories of the Merry Mansion are just one example.

There is a certain irony about the loss of the Farnam block. It was built during Saskatoon’s first boom before the Great War, and now it’s one of the casualties of another building boom a century later.

It is also sad that Saskatoon can plan today for the expansion of the city, but seems one step behind when it comes to the protection of heritage buildings, and in turn, our stories.

Something needs to be done so that a similar situation does not arise again. And it needs to be done soon before any more buildings are lost.

As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill observed in 1943 in calling for the reconstruction of Westminster buildings partially destroyed by the blitz, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

Originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix
Photograph by: Richard Marjan, the StarPhoenix

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

The political odyssey of Charles McDonald

Tired of parliamentarians not answering questions, mouthing “talking points” prepared by backroom handlers or replying with a fog of obfuscation – when not levelling accusations against the other side?

Well, that was never the problem with Charles McDonald, a druggist from Prince Albert.

McDonald was temporarily thrust into the spotlight when William Lyon Mackenzie King – the guy on our $50 bill – found himself in political trouble.

King might have been Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, but in October 1925, he had badly misread the public mood and lost his seat in a federal election of his own calling. He needed to find a new riding if he was going to continue to lead the Liberal party in the House of Commons.

The prime minister initially leaned toward running in Quebec, where Liberal party strength meant certain victory, especially after the 1917 conscription crisis.

However, he then received a telegram from Saskatchewan’s Liberal premier, Jimmy Gardiner, advising him that Charles McDonald, the newly elected and firsttime Liberal MP for Prince Albert, was willing to step aside for his leader.

King liked the idea. He wanted to strengthen Liberal party support in Western Canada and what better way than to represent a Saskatchewan riding in one of the fastest-growing provinces at the time?

Besides, his mentor, former Liberal leader and prime minister Wilfrid Laurier, had won the Prince Albert seat in the 1896 election when it was possible for candidates to run in two ridings at the same time.

Although Laurier won both seats, he chose to represent Quebec East. That didn’t matter to King – he was never one to question destiny.

Charles McDonald resigned the Prince Albert seat in January 1926 without ever taking his place in the House of Commons and a byelection was called the following month to fill the vacancy.

King travelled by train to Prince Albert to accept the nomination and was met at the station by a delegation of local Liberals.

They had a list of the usual demands: better roads and more railway branch lines.

They also wanted something special in exchange for help in the byelection – the creation of a new national park just north of the city.

Prince Albert got its park and King handily won the contest. He would represent Prince Albert for the next two decades.

He never forgot McDonald’s sacrifice and looked for an opportunity to repay him.

That time arrived in the fall of 1935, when King returned to the prime minister’s office after five years in political exile during the Great Depression.

One of his first acts upon assuming power was to name McDonald to a Senate vacancy.

However, McDonald, then living in Vancouver, was too ill to travel to Ottawa to be sworn in. He died the following year.

Charles McDonald enjoys the distinction of being the only person elected to the House of Commons and appointed to the Senate who never uttered a single word in either chamber.

Originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix
Photograph: Prince Albert Historical Museum

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix