Despite broken dreams, cruel setbacks, misery and deprivation, people never lost faith in the land and its ability to provide a good living.
In September 1934, newspaper reporters D.B. Macrae and R.M. Scott toured the drought-stricken areas of southern Saskatchewan and filed stories along the way.
Wherever they went, they found that life had been reduced “to the lowest common denominator.”
Perhaps the cook at Fillmore restaurant summed up it best: “No crop, no garden, no oats, no potatoes, no feed. Nothing of everything.”
Saskatchewan was the hardest hit province in Canada during the 1930s.
The twin scourge of record-low wheat prices and prolonged drought walloped the province’s agricultural community.
Total farm cash income went into a nosedive, slipping from $273 million in 1928 to just $66 million in 1931 — and remained there for the better part of the decade. To put these figures in perspective, the average net cash income for a Saskatchewan farmer went from $1,614 in 1928 to a mere 66 bucks by 1933.
Saskatchewan’s retail trade, as a consequence, shrank almost 50 per cent from 1930 to 1933, the greatest contraction in any province.
Per capita income, meanwhile, fell a humbling 72 percent between 1928 and 1933.
It’s often assumed that Saskatchewan’s crop acreage and population also experienced negative growth during the 1930s — that people gave up putting in a crop, while the province began to bleed people.
But remarkably, despite the broken dreams, cruel setbacks, and the misery and deprivation, people never lost faith in the land and its ability to provide a good living.
Wherever reporters Macrae and Scott traveled in southern Saskatchewan, they were constantly assured by farmers that “the land is still all right. All it needs is rain.”
This continued determination to plant wheat every spring, as if by instinct, helps explain why crop acreage never declined during the 1930s.
After all, Saskatchewan was “next year country.”
The 1932 crop, for example, was the largest since 1928.
But the problem was the severe drought that seemed to place a stranglehold on the province and not let go for the better part of the decade.
Total wheat production dropped by a third during the 1930s, even though the area devoted to wheat actually increased by a million acres over the same period. In other words, more cropped land was producing less wheat.
1931, 1933, and 1934 were particularly bad crop years with average yields of just under nine bushels per acre.
The 1937 harvest was even worse. Wheat production dropped to a stunning 35 million bushels, a paltry 2.5 bushels per acre.
The other surprising statistic is that Saskatchewan’s total and rural populations (931,547 and 753,004 in 1936, respectively) reached their highest levels several years into the Depression.
Regina’s and Prince Albert’s populations continued to grow through the 1930s as people from rural areas either migrated to the provincial capital in search of work, if not help, or tried to escape to a region that had not been as hard hit by the punishing drought.
In fact, Prince Albert was the fastest growing city in western Canada in 1936 and would continue to attract new residents during the latter half of the decade (from 9,905 in 1931 to 12,290 a decade later).
Thousands of other people abandoned their farms in the worst areas of the Saskatchewan dust bowl for a new beginning north of North Saskatchewan River.
This trickle became a flood after one year without much rainfall turned into three to four. It was one of the greatest internal migrations in Canadian history.
Some of the Depression refugees included families from the province’s major cities. Under the Relief Settlement Plan, a federal-provincial agreement, the urban unemployed were given a chance to get back to work on the land.
About 45,000 refugees — roughly the equivalent of the Saskatoon population at that time — moved into the forest fringe of central Saskatchewan between 1930 and 1936. Two-thirds arrived in 1933 and 1934, some even coming from southeastern Alberta.
Many of the new settlers, in places like Little Saskatoon and Tamarack in the Loon Lake area, traded one harsh existence for another.
The story was much the same for pioneer farmers who struggled to clear the land, only to see their crops lost to frost.
Beginning in 1937, one of the worst growing seasons on record, hundreds began to flee the region, returning to their former communities or trying their luck in another province.
That’s when the provincial exodus began — not in 1929 and the start of the Depression, but 1937.
Saskatchewan’s population would not return to its 1936 peak for almost another half century.
Photo: The 1930s drought, portrayed here as a wolf at the door, forced many farmers to start over in Saskatchewan’s forest fringe. (Montreal Star, Sept. 17, 1934)
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.
“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
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.