The gopher doesn’t look anything like Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. But that didn’t matter to school kids in 1917.
One of Saskatchewan’s great hopes was that the Great War would lift the economy out of recession. And for the agricultural sector, it did just that.
In 1914, Ottawa encouraged the province to grow as much wheat as possible for the Allies. The response to this challenge was phenomenal. Equating patriotism with production, Saskatchewan farmers harvested the largest crop in the province’s history – 224.3 million bushels, or half the wheat production for the entire country.
The yield, at 25.1 bushels per acre, also broke a provincial record going back to 1905. Farmers were naturally pleased, but even more so because the wartime demand for wheat led to higher prices – from only 66 cents per bushel in 1913 to $2.40 in 1916.
These prices, together with the belief that it would be a short war, provided further incentive to farmers to expand their operations and grow more wheat.
Cropped acreage consequently increased by roughly two million acres in both 1916 and 1917 and then by another million acres in 1918.
In the process, pioneer homesteads completed the transition to commercial operations.
But what is even more remarkable about this story is that Saskatchewan was also expected to provide an ever increasing number of soldiers for the Canadian war effort.
And by 1916, there was a serious labour shortage on the farm – leaving producers scrambling for hired help.
The Saskatchewan government tried to deal with the crisis by appealing for rural residents, including boys and girls and the elderly, to join harvest gangs.
The provincial Bureau of Labour, in co-operation with the Department of Education, also pulled boys in their early teens from schools to handle farm work, especially at harvest time, without academic penalty.
Any student who completed three months of service was formally recognized with a bronze badge as a “Soldier of the Soil.”
Ottawa even temporarily released soldiers to help with seeding and harvesting in 1917 and 1918.
The most ambitious wartime agricultural program, however, had nothing to do with looking after the crop – but ensuring that there was something to harvest.
Gophers destroyed an estimated quarter million acres of crop each year. And the Department of Agriculture turned to the province’s children to do their bit and rid the countryside of this menace.
On May 1, 1917, tens of thousands of kids from 980 schools throughout the province competed in Saskatchewan’s first official Gopher Day.
Armed with poison, snares, traps, and guns, they were sent into the fields by their teachers to wage battle with the “enemy of production.”
By sundown, the children’s “virtual soldiering” had exterminated more than half a million of the pesky rodents.
The Charlottenburg school (district number 1755), between Quinton and Raymore, won the revered Gopher Shield for the most tails.
There was an unexpected connection here. The school district, Charlottenburg, was named after a German municipality on the outskirts of Berlin.
The Gopher Shield was never awarded again.
Originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix
Photograph: Saskatchewan Archives Board
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