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Feature Article


Written By: Lawrence Herzog
Published By: Real Estate Weekly
Article © Copyright Lawrence Herzog

Oliver gets through the Depression

When the stock markets crashed on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, speculators lost $9 billion and the shock waves reverberated around the world and triggered a global economic depression. Commodity markets collapsed and Edmonton's dependency on agriculture made it particularly vulnerable to the downturn.

The city's real estate market quickly felt the brunt and building permits fell from $5.67 million in 1929 to $428,000 in 1933. Over the same period, the Edmonton consumer price index tumbled 22 per cent.

With the city's agricultural, manufacturing and service sectors tied so intimately with consumer spending, the impact on Oliver was considerable. The neighbourhood's significant proportion of professional and higher income people were mostly able to remain self-sufficient through the lean times of the decade.

Many turned to their backyard gardens and chicken coops to help them weather the economic storm and most were able to carry on with life much as they had before. As money became scarce, bartering for services became more common and visits to the doctor and dentist were frequently paid with vegetables, eggs and small livestock.

As the 1930s progressed, more and more Edmontonians were forced to apply for relief. By 1931, as many as 14,000 Edmontonians, nearly 20 per cent of the population, were supported by direct government relief. The plight of farmers in rural areas, besieged by falling commodity prices and drought, began to be felt in the city.

In pursuit of work, hundreds of men left their families and travelled to Edmonton. With Oliver's proximity to the city's rail lines, many of these men came to neighbourhood houses seeking a meal and, if there were any odd jobs to be done, they would often contribute sweat equity for their food. The going rate for tilling a garden during the Depression was $2. Propelled by people looking for work, the city's population, which stood at 75,000 people in 1929, swelled to nearly 85,000 by 1936.

Many squatters, unable to find or pay for accommodation, set up tents in the river valley where the Victoria Golf Course is today. They panned for gold and managed to extract enough to make a decent living.

In 1937, what had been known as the West End officially became Oliver, after the school named for Frank Oliver, founder of the Edmonton Bulletin. Just as life in the neighbourhood and in Canada began to show signs of economic revival, life was thrown into chaos when Great Britain declared war on Germany September 3, 1939.

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) took over the Edmonton Exhibition Grounds for use as a British Commonwealth Training station and an Air Observers School was established at Blatchford Field (now the Edmonton Municipal Airport). Personnel from all over the Commonwealth came to Edmonton for aviation training and since there wasn"t enough barracks to accommodate them all, the call went out to residents to put up one or more of "the boys" at their homes. Many Oliver residents, glad to do their part and appreciative of the $25 a month offered by the military for room and board, did just that.

As the Depression and World War raged on, life continued in the shops and on the streets of Oliver. People still needed to eat and get around, go to school and work and take care of their families. Throughout the period, Jasper Avenue continued to be the centre of the action and that's where people shopped and gathered for leisure and to socialize. Some businesses were forced to close but others survived by adapting their products to meet the demands of more thrifty buying public.

The small, family-owned grocery stores along Jasper Avenue were hit particularly hard by the Depression and, even though they were suffering, store owners did what they could for those less fortunate. The Oakland, California-based Safeway food store chain made its first appearance in the area in 1930, opening an outlet at 124th Street and 102nd Avenue, competing with a wholesale buying power that the family-owned stores just could not match.

Because money was tight and many families could not afford to pay for recreation, the great unencumbered outdoors of the North Saskatchewan River valley became the preferred place for West End residents to play during the depression years. But there were other places as well, including Kitchener Park at 114th Street and 103rd Avenue and the Central Skating Rink, which was started around 1931 by a confectionary store owner named R. J. Barnes.

He flooded a field adjacent to his store on the northeast corner of 112th Street and Jasper Avenue and it quickly became a popular gathering place. The big ice surface, nearly a block long, was where many local children learned to skate.

During the evenings, volunteers would play in a local band, housed on a platform measuring about 12 feet by 12 feet, draped with curtains in the event of wind and heated by a small wood stove. The contraption was set on a sled and pushed on its runners out into the centre of the ice. Frozen saliva would produce some weird and wonderful sounds from the trumpets and tubas as different renditions were given to the Skater's Waltz, Colonel Bogey and other marches.

A version of this article appears in The Life of a Neighbourhood: A History of the Oliver District, co-authored by Lawrence Herzog and Shirley Lowe, published by the Oliver Community League.

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