“It made us … It came at just the right time.”
Those were the words of Queen Elizabeth, better known as the ‘Queen Mom,’ in reflecting on her landmark 1939 tour of Canada with her husband, King George VI.
It was the first time a reigning British monarch had visited Canada. Canadians came out in record numbers — nowhere more than in Saskatchewan — as the couple crossed the country and back.
By the time the royals headed home, it was estimated that half a million people, more than 50 per cent of the Saskatchewan population, had seen the couple.
Even the royals, who had been unexpectedly thrust into their roles with the abdication of King Edward VIII two years earlier, were astounded by their reception.
At each stop on the westward leg of the tour across the southern prairies, even at small towns along the Canadian Pacific Line where the royal train was not expected to stop, huge crowds gathered, if only to catch a passing glimpse of the king and queen.
More than 100,000 waited through light drizzle in Regina on May 25. Another 40,000 braved a heavy downpour in Moose Jaw.
The rain did not deter the royals either. They insisted that activities continue as planned, even going as far as to ask that the top be left down on their car as they made their way through the streets in each city.
The long-awaited break in the drought, coupled with the arrival of the king and queen, seemed a sign of good things to come.
On the return trip across the country, the royal train travelled across the prairie parkland on the Canadian National Line with stops in Saskatoon and Melville on June 3.
Melville was one of the last western stops on the tour, and one of the last chances for people to see the couple.
Farm families reportedly came from as far as two hundred miles away. Cars and trucks rolled in all day from all directions, including Manitoba and the northern United States. It would reportedly take three hours to clear the traffic jam.
Special trains, meanwhile, brought groups from nearby towns. The towns of Yorkton, Esterhazy, and Canora simply closed for the day.
By the early evening, several hours before the royal couple was scheduled to arrive, hundreds, then thousands of people began to gather at the Melville train station, where a huge sign proclaiming, “Welcome to Their Majesties,” had been painted on the side of the Pool elevator.
Those in attendance included 600 Great War veterans and an estimated 10,000 schoolchildren. A 200-piece orchestra was part of the celebrations.
Shortly after 10 p.m., the royal train pulled into Melville to the deafening roar of the crowd. Moments later, King George and Queen Elizabeth stepped into a blue spotlight to another thunderous cheer.
Smiling and waving, but unable to see much beyond the platform because of the darkness, Queen Elizabeth asked that the spotlight be passed over the audience. She and the king were stunned by the size of the crowd: an estimated 60,000 people.
In one day, Melville, with a usual population of 4,000, had become Saskatchewan’s largest city — bigger than Regina or Saskatoon at the time.
The couple briefly mingled with the crowd before returning to their train just 20 minutes after their arrival. As they waved from the back of the last car before disappearing inside, fireworks were set off.
Melville’s extraordinary welcome made headlines across North America. Reporters were particularly struck by how the region’s immigrant population, mostly from central and eastern Europe, had so eagerly embraced the visiting couple.
The reception also left a lasting impression on the royals. In a telegram to town officials the next day, King George confessed, “The Queen and I will not easily forget the scene which greeted us at Melville.”
More than anything else, though, the Melville celebrations reassured British officials of Canadian loyalty to the Crown.
Throughout the royal tour, there were regular dispatches about the deteriorating situation in Europe and the looming threat of another war. Naturally, British officials travelling with the royal couple wondered how Canadians would respond.
The brief Melville stop left no doubt.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: The Melville Sask Pool elevator was painted in honour of the 1939 royal visit
Photo Source: PROVINCIAL ARCHIVES OF SASKATCHEWAN RA-15061
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.