On Oct. 17, 2016, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix carried an obituary for 82-year-old Peter O. Fehr of Warman, Saskatchewan.
Peter might not have been widely known, but in June 1934, he was captured on film — in his mother’s arms — in one of the most famous photographs in Canadian history.
That’s when his parents, Abram and Elizabeth Fehr, and their seven children were stranded in Edmonton’s Market Square, barefoot, hungry and broke. A newspaper photographer for the Edmonton Journal snapped a picture of the impoverished family standing in front of their car and trailer. The photo would become one of the most enduring images of the Dirty Thirties.
Abram and Elizabeth Fehr were Mennonites from the Nuenlage Colony north of Saskatoon. They were a hard-working family, but hard work didn’t count for much when the Great Depression descended on Saskatchewan. Record-low wheat prices, combined with a prolonged drought, sent shock waves through the provincial economy.
Many people were forced to go on relief. Others left dried-out areas to chase the promise of a new start along the edge of the northern boreal forest.
The Fehrs had heard there was good farmland in Alberta’s Peace River country. Desperate for a better life, they sold everything they owned, bought an old car, and headed for northern Alberta in 1932.
But life in the Peace River district was little better. Their first crop was hit by frost. The following year, the Peace River flooded.
Anxious to return to Saskatchewan, the Fehrs started for home one month after baby Peter was born in March 1934. For the next eight weeks, they battled mud, breakdowns, and constant hunger. Abram worked at local farms along the way to earn a few pennies to feed his starving family and buy gas for the car.
By the time they reached Edmonton in late June, Elizabeth was too weak to nurse baby Peter. Abram sent 10-year-old Corny to go from house to house to beg for food.
Two city policemen found the family — “the most pitiful case” they had ever encountered — and took them to the station, where the Salvation Army gave them a meal and some clothing.
The next day, before the Fehrs left for Saskatoon, the now famous photograph was taken — with Peter safely in Elizabeth’s arms. The accompanying article described them as “a pitiful spectacle of depression dereliction.”
When the Fehrs returned to Saskatchewan, they faced several more difficult years. But they survived without seeking government relief.
Abram eventually secured land when farming conditions improved at the end of the 1930s. That was the same land, according to his obituary, that Peter took over in 1963 and worked for the next four decades before retiring to Warman with his wife Olinda.
The photograph of the Fehrs, in the meantime, has come to symbolize the desperate plight of young prairie families during the Great Depression.
The picture is a regular fixture in Canadian history textbooks. It also appears in popular literature on the Dirty Thirties. In James Gray’s book, The Winter Years, for example, the Fehr family photograph is the lead illustration in a section entitled, “The face of the depression.”
It’s also been used in displays. At one time, the photograph was prominently featured in an exhibit at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum.
But the story behind the picture — how thousands of western families doggedly survived the Great Depression with “nothing of everything” — is equally important.
During the 1930s, government relief assistance was provided as a last resort and at a minimum level, while people found it hard to put their pride in their pocket and ask for help. Saskatchewan citizens somehow managed to get through these bleak years to the end of the decade and the return of better times. But it came at great personal cost — one that people who lived through the depression never forgot. The Fehr photograph serves as a poignant reminder of what many families went through.
Peter Fehr was certainly thankful for how things turned out. When I interviewed him for my CBC TV news history show, “Looking Back,” and asked what people should think about when looking at the photograph, he responded, “Oh, how good we’ve got it now … how things have changed.”
He could have added … how we survived.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: The 1934 photograph of the Fehr family came to symbolize the desperate plight of prairie families during the Great Depression.
Photo Credit: Glenbow Archives ND-#-6742
Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary 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.