Bill Waiser

Tag Archives: storm


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.
Photo Source: UNIVERSITY OF SASKATCHEWAN ARCHIVES AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS 


Email Bill at bill.waiser@usask.ca

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.

Waskesiu Graves, Drowning Deaths

Freak storm on Lake Waskesiu left four dead

Isabella Merrill never forgot ‘the storm.’

In the fall of 1927, she and her husband Harry, a Prince Albert National Park warden, were living in a cabin on the east shore of Waskesiu Lake.

One day, a fierce storm swept across the lake that seemed to blow itself out as quickly as it came up. When interviewed 60 years later, Isabella vividly recalled the spray from the breakers washing over her cabin roof.

Four people were out on the lake when the freak storm hit.

Reuben Dahl, Emile Faber and his wife Mildred, and Emile’s brother Joseph were on their way to Montreal Lake to build some fishing shacks for R.D. Brooks that winter. They were camped at the mouth of the Waskesiu River, waiting for freeze-up so they could take up freight.

The day of the storm, they were apparently coming across the lake by canoe to visit the Pease home (in present-day Waskesiu) to get supplies or mail.

When they didn’t show up at Montreal Lake, three weeks after their expected arrival, the company contacted Rueben’s parents, Alex and Mary Dahl, of Fenton, Saskatchewan. That was late November.

Harry Merrell and fellow park warden Harry Genge were given the grisly chore of trying to find the four missing people in January 1928. They discovered the party’s tent and equipment near the mouth of the river. They also stumbled upon a canoe full of ice.

But even though they probed the ice here and there, sometimes chipping away with axes, they never located the bodies.

The search resumed in the spring. In early May, Reuben’s father Alex and a friend, a psychic, started scanning from shore the still-frozen lake near the Waskesiu River.

At one point, Alex climbed a tree and spotted something dark in the thawing ice. He carefully made his way out to the place, only to be confronted by his dead son’s body. The clothes confirmed that it was the 23-year-old Reuben. The other three missing were found nearby.

The four bodies were buried on a small ridge, along the east shore of the lake, between the townsite and the Waskesiu river. It’s not known whether permission was secured from the Canadian Parks department. But it was the right thing to do — in a lovely spot near to where they had tragically lost their lives.

The four graves were marked with simple wooden crosses. Then, around 1935, Jim Manson, Reuben’s brother-in law (husband of Annie), visited the site and planted a small spruce tree as part of the memorial.

Thousands of people, on their way along the Heart Lakes road, probably drove by the gravesite. People travelling by boat would also have seen the four markers on the slight rise above the lake.

But two decades after the burial, the Parks department found the graves in the way of a new development. In order to ease growing congestion in Waskesiu, Ottawa approved a new auto bungalow camp just north of the townsite in 1948. The graves were in the middle of the new site along the proposed road allowance.

The Parks department wanted construction of what would become known as the Kapasawin Bungalows to get underway that fall. It was consequently decided to remove the four bodies in September 1948 and reinter them at St. Christopher’s Anglican cemetery at Christopher Lake — without informing the families. Ironically, it was only when Hector Dahl (born in the spring of 1927) pulled over to the side of the road out of respect for a funeral procession that he learned that his older brother Reuben’s body and the three others were being moved. Embarrassed Parks officials later apologized for the oversight.

Fortunately, the memorial tree at the gravesite was never touched. And it still stands there today on the slight ridge just beyond the parking lot at the Kapasawin Bungalows office.

Generations of families, staying at Kapasawin, have walked by the tree, unaware of its significance — unless told by the former proprietors.

Meanwhile, people who have been coming to the park for years might know the story of the drownings, but the details are often fuzzy or inaccurate.

That’s a shame.

There needs to be a plaque at the Kapasawin tree that names the four people who lost their lives in the lake and explains why they were once buried there.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: The four drowning victims were buried on the east shore of Lake Waskesiu in 1928.  
Photo Source:Waskesiu Memories, V. 3


Email Bill at bill.waiser@usask.ca

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.