Local elections in the Great Depression

Another municipal election is now well underway. On Oct. 21, local voters have a very large number of candidates from which to choose – five candidates for the position of mayor, 30 for City Council, 14 for Public School Board and seven hoping to be elected to the Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division.

Over Red Deer’s past century as a city, there have been very close contests and elections where there was no contest at all. Some elections have been held at the heights of wonderful prosperity. Others have been held during times of grim economic depression.

Two of those elections held during tough economic times occurred in 1930 and 1931.

The world stock markets had crashed in October 1929. One of the longest and deepest depressions in history quickly followed.

When the municipal elections were held at the end of 1930, many people were still unsure of what lay ahead. The newspapers were full of stories about soaring unemployment and growing bankruptcies across North America. However, a number of construction projects, including a new court house, new buildings at the Provincial Training School (now known as Michener Centre), new development at the Nazarene Church’s Northern Bible College, and the new Safeway grocery store on Ross Street helped shore up employment in the community.

Nevertheless, there was great concern about when the impact of the Depression would start hitting Red Deer hard. In one instance, a local bank was forced to borrow $3 from a customer when the man who had been cleaning the offices declared that he was “Not prepared to extend credit on his account in the present business and financial situations.”

One of the first reactions of the community was to stick with what they knew and not to gamble on major changes.

Mayor Harold Snell announced he would not be seeking re-election. Hence there was a contest between two sitting city councilors, Fred Turnbull and John Broughton, to replace him. All other incumbents were returned by acclamation. Only two new candidates put their names in for City council and consequently they were also elected by acclamation.

The existing council and City administration had given the electorate good reason to stay with the status quo. The City-owned electric and water utilities were doing so well that in 1930, the City was able to both cut taxes by 9% and substantially reduce its utility rates.

The race for mayor, however, turned out to be surprisingly close. Both candidates were highly respected in the community. In the end, Fred Turnbull was able to edge out John Broughton by 30 votes.

Times turned much grimmer by the time the elections were held at the end of 1931. Fortunately, the City remained in relatively good financial state, due to both the revenues from the utilities and the fact that the City had entered the Depression practically debt-free. While other communities worried about paying the interest on their bonds and bank loans, Red Deer was able to slightly increase its unemployment relief payments.

The 1931 election garnered more candidates and interest than the year before. John Broughton challenged Fred Turnbull for a second time. There were several candidates for City council. However, the trustees for the public and Catholic school boards, as well as the hospital board, were all acclaimed.

The election saw one of the largest turnouts in Red Deer’s history. Fred Turnbull got re-elected as mayor, but only by a margin of 21 votes. Councilors W.P Code and Cecil Hewson were re-elected, with George Orme, a local undertaker, becoming the new member on council. Thus, there had been some changeover, but so far, people were only willing to gamble on a small amount of change.

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