Mitigating the Dirty Thirties – Relief

The rains stopped in 1929.

No one panicked. Dry years were not unknown – there had been the occasional one or two every decade so far. Everyone knew the rains would come again “next year.” Abe certainly believed so, for in the fall of 1929, he purchased a new Rumley combine.

The new Rumley combine, 1929; Abe on the combine, Garnet and Addie standing in front of the tractor

But the rains didn’t come “next year,” or for several years after. Crops struggled. What little grew was quickly devoured by grasshoppers, that is, if it wasn’t blown away first. Abe recorded annual yields between 2 and 9 bushels per acre. In 1937, the year of no rain, it plummeted to 1/3 bushel per acre, a “total crop failure.”

No crops meant no income; consequently, farmers couldn’t buy goods – groceries, clothes, farm implements, fuel, repairs, seed grain or feed. Nor could they pay taxes, so both local and provincial governments faced declining revenues.

For the first two years, municipalities bore the responsibility of providing relief to desperate farmers and businesses. In 1931, the provincial government accepted the enormity of the drought and formed the Saskatchewan Relief Commission to coordinate and oversee the distribution of relief. Farmers had to apply; once approved, they received vouchers to obtain essential goods from local merchants.

Livestock languished because of poor pasture so feed and fodder were also obtained via relief. When that proved to be too expensive, livestock was shipped to overwinter in areas not effected by the drought. The returning livestock was often in poor condition. In 1932, the Meyronne Independent reported “there is some disappointment among the farmers regarding the condition of their horses recently returned from the north feeding grounds, many of which had become quite thin.”

The provincial government initiated highway improvements as one way of providing families with income. In 1931, approximately 9000 men were hired. A man with a two-horse team was paid $4.00 per day (after paying $1.00 for food); one with a four-horse team, $5.00 per day. Married men with families were given three days’ work; a single man, one day’s work. They were paid with vouchers for groceries, medicine, binder twine, machinery repairs, clothing, fuel, kerosene, harness repairs, and feed for horses actually used on the work. Highway 13 through Meyronne was one of the many highways upgraded under this program.

Highway 13, just west of Meyronne (the trees around the Hanna farm are barely visible above the horizon on the right-hand side)

Of all the Old-timers’ stories about relief, the ones most often recounted concerned shipments of food and clothing received from all across Canada. In 1932, 280 carloads of fruit and vegetables and 60 carloads of coal were distributed in the Meyronne area. Abe and Addie often received vegetables from Addie’s sister living in Alberta, and once received 10 pounds of jackfish (Northern Pike) from her brother in Manitoba. Addie promptly canned the fish; the house reeked for days afterward. My father, Garnet, about 10 at the time, refused to eat fish to his dying day.

Relief helped many farmers and businesses survive until the rains returned in 1938. It was not enough for many, though. About 10,000 families packed up and left southwestern Saskatchewan for the parkland, the region that Palliser and Hind had favoured many years previously.


(Read Addie’s stories about surviving the Dirty Thirties in Our Bull’s Loose In Town: Tales from the Homestead — Chapter 32: The Dirty Thirties; Chapter 35: Living on Relief; Chapter 36: The Plight of the Unemployed; Chapter 39: The Year with no Crop)

#DirtyThirties #Depression #SaskatchewanReliefCommission #SaskatchewanHistory #Meyronne #OurBullsLooseInTown #MargaretGHanna #Dustbowl #PrairieHistory

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