The 1930s are well remembered as the decade of the Great Depression. The entire world suffered from one of the worst economic collapses ever recorded. Millions were unemployed and often destitute. Even the weather turned brutal with one of the worst droughts in history besetting much of western North America.
As has been often written, the start of the Depression is usually set as being the great stock market crash of October 1929. Actually, the markets and the economy started to stabilize in the succeeding months.
However, a wave of bank failures, many originating in Europe, caused the economy to plunge to new levels of financial collapse. Ultimate bottom was not hit until 1933.
Then, very slowly, the economy began to improve. A series of dramatic new policies and programs were adopted by the new American president Franklin Roosevelt as part of his famed New Deal.
A number of these initiatives were copied in Canada by Prime Minister R.B. Bennett of Calgary.
Nevertheless, unemployment remained stubbornly high. The public’s frustration with the slow rate of improvement grew. In 1935, R.B. Bennett’s government was crushed in the federal election by former Prime Minister MacKenzie King.
In Alberta, a much more radical political solution, Social Credit, swept to power under William Aberhart.
Still conditions remained generally poor. The greatest heat wave in history struck North America in July 1936. Temperatures in southern Saskatchewan hit a record breaking 43.9C (111F). The drought wiped out many crops. The famous ‘Dust Bowl’ reached its peak.
By 1937, governments were starting to worry about the huge deficits they had been running to fight the Depression. Hence, several programs and initiatives were cut in order to try and balance budgets. The economy reversed course and began sinking again.
The Alberta government’s early attempts to implement ‘social credit’ stumbled badly. The provincial sales tax failed to bring in the expected amount of revenue. Several legislative enactments were deemed to be unconstitutional. Finally, the Government was forced to declare a 60-day moratorium on provincial debts, a short-term admission of bankruptcy.
The Government’s own MLAs began to revolt. One of the key members of this ‘insurgency” was Red Deer’s MLA Alfred J. Hooke.
Nevertheless, Red Deer fared somewhat better than almost everywhere else. Because the City owned its own electric and water utilities, City council had a dependable revenue stream other than taxes. With little debt, the City was able to implement a number of relief and make-work projects to ease unemployment.
In 1937, the City was even able to implement a new public service, garbage collection, on the suggestion of the Red Deer Health Unit, which was trying to improve health standards in the community. James Blades was awarded the contract.
The federal government implemented a new program, the Home Improvement Plan, to try and renew growth and employment in the construction industry. In Red Deer, the Building Trades Association, consisting of both contractors and tradesmen was established to take advantage of the initiative.
The plan achieved some modest success. Before the year was over, some new houses were being built in Red Deer again, reversing several years of little or no construction.
Red Deer even got a mild boost of industry when the Hydro-Pete Refinery was constructed in what is now West Park Estates.
A Young Men’s Section of the Red Deer Board of Trade (later renamed the Jaycees) was formed in 1937 to help foster new energy and new initiatives in Red Deer’s business community. At one of the first meetings of the group, Jack McAfee spoke of the great potential of the tar sands of northeastern Alberta.
Other community groups that formed in 1937 were a Kinsmen Club as well as the Quota Club, an organization for business and professional women. The following year, the Red Deer Lions Club was organized.
Conditions remained generally poor for a long time to come, but a least some glimmers of hope and promise were starting to reappear.