Remembering the horrible harvest of 1919

Another fall harvest is well underway. Although Central Alberta experienced a long and very dry spring, growing conditions over most of the summer were good.

However, there has been uneven weather this fall, with rain showers that have made harvesting a challenge.

Agriculture remains one of the key economic pillars of the region. Consequently, the financial ups and downs experienced by the local farmers and ranchers are soon felt across the whole economy.

One of the worst harvests ever experienced in Central Alberta’s history occurred in 1919.

Central Alberta, and Canada as a whole, was already facing enormous problems and challenges.

The First World War had ended in November, 1918. Tragically, just as that devastating conflict drew to a close, the world was struck by one of the worst pandemics in human history, the Spanish Flu.

Tens of thousands of Canadians lost their lives to this terrible illness, compounding the tremendous loss of life experienced during the four years of the War.

Much of the latter part of the War had been financed by printing money.

Hence, incredible inflation set in as the wartime price and wage controls began to be lifted. Moreover, across much of the prairies, both of the summers of 1918 and 1919 were marked by drought.

Although conditions were dry across Central Alberta as well, this region rarely suffers the depth of drought experienced to the south and east. Hence, during the summer of 1919, many ranchers shipped their cattle to Red Deer and Pine Lake where pasturage and supplies of feed were more plentiful.

The influx of large herds of cattle were manageable throughout the summer and early fall. However, large amounts of extra feed would be needed to keep all of the livestock over the winter.

Harvesting started towards the end of August and initially went well. The newspapers were full of mentions of farmers out with their binders cutting grain. Then a killing frost struck on Sept. 2nd.

That was followed by some prolonged cool and wet weather.

Conditions began to improve towards the end of the month. Farmers began to hope that they would soon be able to catch up. Then disaster struck. A brutal storm struck on Oct. 8th with high winds, plunging temperatures and lots of snow in many areas. A prolonged cold spell set in which meant that the early snow did not melt as would normally be the case.

Farmers who had been able to put their grain into sheaves did not fare too badly. The stooks were still accessible for threshing.

However, for those who had grain and hay flattened under the lingering snow, there was not too much they could do to proceed with the harvest. November brought even more cold and lots more snow.

Many farmers were resigned to the fact that they would now have to wait for spring to finish the harvest.

Meanwhile, with the interrupted harvest and the increased number of livestock, feed became short and animals began to starve. In their weakened condition, the cattle and horses became more susceptible to the cold.

Hence, the poor harvest of 1919 turned into a major agricultural and economic disaster. Consequently, 1920 started out as a very grim year.