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The Recession and the Second World War

Ladies College aka Sanitorium aka Provincial Training School

The 1920s and 1930s were recessionary periods all across Alberta. Red Deer and district, dependant on its agricultural industry, was hit hard by drought and low wheat prices. In spite of these conditions, the farms of Central Alberta fared comparatively to those in southern Alberta, an area known as the dust bowl during this era.

Gaetz Avenue

Red Deer in the 1920s endured many trials: inflation, unemployment, drought and recession caused the city's finances to crumble, nearly leading to bankruptcy. Construction was at a near standstill despite a housing shortage. Land development companies, unable to make money off their investments, were often unable to pay the taxes on their land; C&E Townsite Properties alone had $54,013 in tax arrears before the city confiscated their properties. Many other businesses were also in trouble, some going bankrupt. This caused municipal tax arrears to mount and city debt to rise. By 1921, Red Deer had a debt of $147,130.

Courthouse being built

However, by 1923, conditions in the city were slowly improving; the price of wheat rose by nearly 60% and the organization of the Alberta Wheat Pool made it easier for farmers to sell their grain. In that same year, one of early Red Deer's most important institutions, the Provincial Training School for handicapped children, opened and filled to capacity. The city's finances continued to improve in 1926 when the city took over provision of electricity from Western General Electric, and began to make a profit that helped wipe out its debt. In the late 1920s, Red Deer started to grow again obtaining a new high school, grain elevator, a T. Eaton Company department store, the Crescent Theatre, the Nazarene's Northern Bible College, a Safeway, several new business blocks and houses. Despite these gains, Red Deer's economy was still recovering. The city's population continued to stagnate as it increased by only 16 residents during the 1920s.

Sylvan Lake, on the other hand, fared well during this recessionary era, because it was becoming increasingly more dependant on its tourism industry. While it remained an agricultural service centre, Sylvan Lake's building development was marked by new tourist structures. In 1926, a large boathouse was constructed on the lake for use by tourists. In 1928, the Dominion Government and the Sylvan Lake Women’s Institute constructed a long pier jutting out into the lake from the bottom of Main Street. The town also gained a waterslide. In addition, Sylvan Lake’s first hotels, the Alexander Hotel and the Sylvan Lake Hotel were both built in the 1920s. In the next few decades, the tourism industry would continue to grow, transforming the town into a summer resort destination.

Rocky Mountain House was also shielded from the brunt of the interwar recessions because of its lumber industry, which was one of the largest in the west. Many new mills and lumber camps operated throughout the 1920s and 1930s, such as Atlas Lumber Co. and Phoenix Lumber Co, which had 200 men on its pay roll at the peak of its operations. The village was also home to a creamery in 1924. In 1938, Rocky Mountain House had grown enough to earn itself a public hospital and electric works. The next year, Rocky Mountain House’s population reached 800, and it was incorporated as a town. The town’s population continued to grow rapidly throughout the Second World War, reaching 1000 in 1945.

Milk Condensery

After the world's stock markets crashed, farm prices began to plummet, hitting the economy of Red Deer particularly hard. Construction in the city nearly ceased, increasing unemployment. Ironically, one of the city's most enthralling examples of real estate development during the Great Depression was the construction of city hall. The neo-classical structure opened in 1931, complete with a terra cotta roof. The City tried to resolve unemployment issues by creating public work projects like the building of a traffic bridge across Waskasoo Creek, grading streets, and building a new reservoir. Unsurprisingly, the city soon exhausted its budget, and transients were flooding into the city looking for work - sometimes upwards of 150 men a day. Fortunately, unlike in Southern Alberta, improved weather returned to Central Alberta during the 1930s, allowing farmers to again produce a successful crop. Red Deer's municipal government also had a hand in improving the local economy through effective management of its utilities, decreasing property taxes, and low expenditures. In a short amount of time, Red Deer managed to reduce its debt. New projects were going ahead in the second half of the decade. The Central Alberta Dairy Pool's milk condensery, built in 1936 on Gaetz Avenue, gave a boost to the construction industry and to dairy farmers. An oil refinery was built south of the city, and a reconstruction of Fort Normandeau began at the Old Crossing. A new department store, movie theatre, hotel, water filtration plant, business blocks, garages and service stations, and residences were all being built at the close of the decade.

T. Eaton Store

Real estate development was on the rise in Central Alberta when the Second World War broke out. The British Air Commonwealth Training Plan revitalized small town Alberta, through the building of training schools and airfields. Ponoka Mental Hospital opened a cannery during the war and began supplying canned goods to hospitals around the province. At Penhold airport, 40 kilometres south of Red Deer, the No. 36 Service Flying Training School operated.


In the northeast corner of Red Deer, a military training centre opened in 1940, housing more than 1000 recruits-a huge number considering that the population of Red Deer was approximately 2500 at the time. Restaurants, hotels and beer parlours opened and expanded there services to entertain the enlistees. Some enlistees came with their families, exacerbating a critical housing shortage during the war. The high cost of rapid growth forced the city to yet again go into debt. An Intermediate School was built to accommodate new students. New businesses came into town during the war including a United Dairies creamery and a soft-drink bottling plant. A new recreational hut was opened by the Knights of Columbus for the newcomers. Farmers in Central Alberta were having great wheat harvests, so much so that there was an overproduction of wheat and not all of it could be sold.


Dawe, Michael. Red Deer: An Illustrated History. Red Deer and District Museum Society, the City of Red Deer Archives and the Red Deer Visitor and Convention Bureau, 1996.

Parker, Georgean. Proud Beginnings: A Pictorial History of Red Deer. Red Deer: Red Deer and District Museum Society, 1981.

Ponoka 1904 to 1954: 50th Anniversary. Ponoka Herald, ~1954.

Sylan Lake Chamber of Commerce. “A Brief History of Sylvan Lake.” Retrieved March 27, 2009 from http://www.sylvanlakechamber.com/history.htm

The Days after Yesterday: Rocky Mountain House / Nordegg and Area History. Rocky Mountain Alberta: The Rocky Mountain House Reunion Historical Society, 2003.

The Days Before Yesterday: History of Rocky Mountain House District. Rocky Mountain House, Alberta: Rocky Mountain House Reunion Historical Society, 1977.

Town of Sylvan Lake. “A Town for All Seasons – Sylvan Lake: Growth Strategy.” September, 2008. Retrieved March 27, 2009 from http://www.town.sylvan-lake.ab.ca/press-release/Sylvan-Lake-Growth-Strategy.pdf

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