Many people are commenting on what a dry year 2015 has been (at least so far) across Western Canada.
However, while some people have been claiming that this spring and summer has been ‘driest on record’ or ‘the worst in memory’, they are forgetting that drought, sometimes droughts that last for years, have always been a periodic fact of life in Alberta.
One of the worst multi-year droughts started in 1919, just after the end of the First World War. While the Red Deer Fair, dubbed the Victory Fair, was generally deemed to a success, many of the agricultural exhibits were cut back because of the dry conditions.
Moreover, the air was full of heavy smoke from a major forest fire near Rocky Mountain House. Large ashes fell constantly to the ground.
The upbeat fair organizers claimed that the resulting pall only served to, “Cut off the full glare of the hot July sun.”
The succeeding summers were hot and dry, while the following winters were long and brutally cold.
Feed became so short that many cattle perished out in the pastures. A number of farmers became destitute and had to apply for emergency relief from the provincial government. The provincial and local governments struggled to respond as all were suffering from severe financial shortfalls in the post-war years.
Conditions hit bottom in 1922.
The closest the Red Deer area has ever come to a total crop failure occurred in the summer and fall of that year. Most were able to salvage at least some crops.
Nevertheless, the growth in the fields was so sparse that many farmers could easily keep up to the harvesting machines while stooking up the resulting straw.
Fortunately, things started to turn out better in 1923.
Crop yields improve markedly as the prices for grain rose as well. The crop of 1928 was one of the best in years. Tragically, thereafter, another multi-year drought began to set in, coinciding with the onset of the Great Depression.
The Red Deer area never suffered the dustbowl conditions that hit southeastern Alberta and most of Saskatchewan. Nevertheless, there were times when the phenomenal dust clouds created in the dried out areas forced the Red Deer householders to turn on their lights in the late afternoon.
The dry years seem to hit their deepest intensity in 1932.
Then the drought eased somewhat. However, in 1936, one of the worst heat waves in Canadian history struck.
There were more than 780 heat-related deaths recorded across the country. Crops literally shriveled up in the extreme heat. Soil erosion in the great Dust Bowl intensified even more.
Central Alberta suffered, although not as badly as other parts of the prairies.
There were no reports of deaths due to heat prostration in this area.
There were still several days with temperatures exceeding 30C.
On the hottest day in Red Deer, the thermometers registered 35.5C (96F). Crops that year were light and matured very early. Some farmers reported that they had been able to start harvesting their wheat in early August.
The summer of 1937 was also generally hot and dry. In early July, the temperatures hit 45 Celsius (113 Fahrenheit in Midale, Saskatchewan.
Then, on July 14th, the day before Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General of Canada, made a vice-regal tour of Central Alberta, heavy rains set in. Many scheduled events had to be cancelled. Lord Tweedsmuir optimistically made the comment that if he had known that his visit would have ended the big drought so dramatically, he would have come to Red Deer much earlier.
Sylvan Lake had enjoyed great popularity as an affordable summer resort for much of the 1930s. However, the summer of 1937 turned sour as the cool and wet conditions continued on into fall. The farmers had a better year than they had experienced for quite a while, but the tourist operators suffered as the usual summer crowds dropped off dramatically.