Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: November 2017

Woman Dust Storm Great Depression

Drought and dust a legacy of Great Depression

“It wasn’t this way before,” admitted Edna Jaques in a soul-baring article in Chatelaine magazine in November 1937.

After nine consecutive years of unrelenting drought, the Briercrest Saskatchewan poet found herself “whipped” and “not ashamed any more” to admit it.

Severe dry spells had always been a feature of prairie settlement, appearing on average every 20 years or so.  The 1930s, however, were memorable for both the persistence and extent of the drought.

While other provinces, in particular Ontario and Quebec, were recovering from the Great Depression, Saskatchewan experienced its most far-reaching drought in 1937. Not even Prince Albert was spared.

Jaques, who was 11 when her family homesteaded in the Moose Jaw area in 1902, had never known the land to be so desolate. Drought had reduced Briercrest to “gray ashy wastes that once were fields, white alkali flats that once were blue simmering lakes.”

The story was the same across the scorched southern prairies. Some fields were so patchy that harvesting seemed a terrible joke.

Saskatchewan’s total wheat production dropped by a third during the 1930s even though wheat acreage increased by more than a million acres during the same period. In other words, more cropped land was actually producing less wheat. The 1937 wheat harvest was a paltry 2.5 bushels per acre.

Jaques scanned the heavens daily in search of the promise of rain, but it never came — only a few scattered drops. “Today the sky was almost a black blue,” she wrote in frustration. “You would think a million tons of water would be held in its inky depths, but it was only dust and wind.”

That was Jaque’s other lament. “Drought never comes alone.”

Hot, drying winds scooped up loose topsoil into dust blizzards that made outside activity nearly impossible. An estimated quarter of a million acres of Saskatchewan land was blowing out of control by the mid-1930s.

“The air was murky and thick … that made it hard to breathe,” Jaques recalled after one dust storm struck the community. “Your heart pounded against your ribs in a sickening thud.”

Darkness at noon was not uncommon, while churning dirt piled up in drifts along buildings, fence lines or ridges. The “driven soil” was a temporary visitor, Jaques observed, “nesting for a few days until another wind comes up to move it somewhere else.”

Homemakers faced a frustrating battle trying to keep the dust out of their homes, placing wet rags on window sills and hanging wet sheets over doorways. But it still managed to seep through, depositing a thick film on everything. Tables were often set with the cups and bowls upside down, a temporary response that became a lifelong habit for some.

The ever-present dust also affected people’s health. Jaques attended a town meeting where half the women were suffering from “dust fever.”

“Their faces were swollen and red and broken out,” she reported, “but they’d blow their noses in unison, in duets and trios and choruses and laugh about it.”

They all knew, though, that their brave front was a public mask — a way of consoling each other and finding comfort in the belief that next year would be better.

Behind closed doors, it was a different story. “They cry at home,” Jaques commiserated, “cry over shabby children and poor food and dead gardens.”

Kids continued to play on the street, seemingly oblivious to how Briercrest had been staggered by depression and drought. But as Jaques noted, children, especially the younger ones, had known nothing else — not even “what rain is.”

The experience was never forgotten. The spectre of drought haunted people for years to come. “We’ll pull through,” Jaques bravely affirmed.  “But we’ll never be the same again — the price of it had been too high.”

Her poetry bore the imprint of what she lived through.

Edna Jaques published over 3,000 poems during her lifetime — many noted for their unvarnished realism. Indeed, her verse found a receptive audience in newspapers and magazines in the 1930s and 1940s.

“The Farmer’s Wife in the Drought Area” was one of her more popular Depression poems: “The garden is a dreary blighted waste/The air is gritty to my taste.”

The lines may not have been elegant, but that was Jaques’ appeal.  There was nothing elegant about a dust storm.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: Dust storms brought life to a standstill in the 1930s.

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Saskatchewan veteran designed Brooding Soldier monument

In July 1946, Regina architect Frederick Chapman Clemesha, then living in southern California, wrote the Canadian Battlefields Memorials Commission, anxious to know whether his “Brooding Soldier” monument had survived the Second World War.

The commission chairman was surprised to hear from Clemesha — he had not been in contact for nearly a quarter century — and assured him that the monument had not been damaged during the Nazi occupation. He also reported that the trees at the site had matured into a small park.

“I have never heard,” the Ottawa official concluded, “but the most admiring comments on the St. Julien Memorial.”

Clemesha was pleased. He always believed that the scarred battleground was too stark for his design. He need not have worried.

Frederick Chapman Clemshaw was born in Lancashire, England, in 1876. He emigrated to Saskatchewan in the early 20th century and opened an architectural practice, Clemesha and Portnall, in Regina. For some unknown reason, he changed his surname to Clemesha during his career as an architect.

In September 1915, Clemesha was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 46th Battalion, South Saskatchewan Regiment. What’s surprising about his enlistment was not necessarily his age (39) or that he was married with children, but that he was a Quaker (Society of Friends).

Clemesha landed in France in August 1916 and took part in some of the major Canadian battles. Yet even though the 46th was known as the “suicide battalion” because of its high casualty rate, he escaped the carnage with only a scar on his left cheek from a bullet wound.

Clemesha returned to his Regina architectural practice after the war. Encouraged by his business partner, another veteran, he submitted a design to the 1920 national competition to commemorate eight Canadian Great War battles in Belgium and France.

The 160 entrants were winnowed down to 17 finalists who prepared final drawings and maquettes (small-scale models). The international jury selected two designs — one by Walter Allward of Toronto, the other by Clemesha. It was also decided that the same monument would not be used at all eight sites.

The major monument, designed by Allward, would be placed at Vimy, France. Clemesha’s Brooding Soldier, on the other hand, would be located at St. Julien, Belgium. That’s where Canadian troops sustained the first gas attack on the Western Front and suffered 2,000 dead during the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. The other six sites would be given simple block memorials.

Clemesha’s Brooding Soldier submission was a sharp contrast to Allward’s grand monument. But its apparent simplicity belied the genius of the design.

Rising from a rectangular base, the elongated plinth transitions into the upper torso of a Canadian soldier, with his helmeted head bowed and his hands resting on his rifle in reverse arms. The clean lines of the monument complement the overwhelming sense of solemnness that pervades the memorial. Indeed, it’s extraordinary how the brooding figure rising out the top of the column can be so evocative.

Clemesha travelled to Ypres, Belgium in 1922 to oversee construction of the monument. Once the site was confirmed — just north of the village of St. Julien at a place known as Vancouver Corner — the nearly 11-metre (35 feet, 3 inches) monument quickly took shape with grey granite from Brittany.

The word CANADA appeared in block letters near the front of the base. Metal plaques placed on either side of the column had wording in both French and English:

This column marks the

battlefield where 18,000

Canadians on the British

left withstood the first

German gas attacks the

22-24th April 1915 2,000

fell and lie buried nearby

The formal unveiling was July 8, 1923 — 13 years before the Vimy Monument dedication. French General Ferdinand Foch, commander of the Allied forces in the closing months of the war, offered words of remembrance at the ceremony. He paid special tribute to the valour of the untested Canadian soldiers in defiantly holding the line during the gas attack.

Clemesha never returned to Saskatchewan. He travelled directly from Belgium to California to take up a position at the Theosophical Seminary outside San Diego.

His brooding figure, in the meantime, garnered rave reviews.

“It does more than command the landscape,” reported London’s Evening Standard after the dedication, “this is the soul of those who fell.”

French architect Paul Cret, one of the jurors for the memorial competition, was equally effusive — albeit in an amusing way.

“What I admire above all,” he wrote after visiting St. Julien in 1923, “is the fact that the lines of the memorial are simple enough to withstand the vastness of the battlefields, where so many others look like a piece of furniture dropped in a field by a moving van.”

Today, Clemesha’s Brooding Soldier is one of Canada’s most recognized war memorials, second only to the Vimy Monument. In Saskatchewan, for example, the image appears on licence plates for veterans.

The monument is also a must-see on Great War battlefield tours. People come away from the site lost in their thoughts.

“There is a mysterious power in this brooding figure,” one  early visitor claimed, “drawing you from the things that are to the things that were.”

And it was at the memorial, on April 22, 2015, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres, that the King of Belgium presided at a ceremony marking the battle and decrying the use of chemical weapons.

Ironically, Clemesha almost didn’t enter the monument contest. He wasn’t happy with his initial design for the Brooding Soldier and threw it away in frustration. Thankfully, his partner retrieved the sketch from the waste paper basket and put it back on Clemesha’s drafting desk.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: The Brooding Soldier monument at Vancouver Corner, just north of the village of St. Julien, Belgium. The elongated plinth of the Brooding Soldier monument transitions into the upper torso of a Canadian soldier, with his helmeted head bowed and his hands resting on his rifle in reverse arms. 
Photo Source: Bill Waiser

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.