Small Town Alberta

In 1952, approximately 3000 people lived in Wainwright, Alberta.  As prairie towns went, this was big.  And Wainwright had big ideas, maybe even becoming a city.  But you needed 5000 people to become a city and you try luring 2000 new people to a dusty, scruffy chunk of real estate in a half-forgotten corner of a prairie province.  There are only so many spinoff jobs from farming.   Besides, most prairie towns were beginning to shrink, not grow, and Wainwright was lucky to be treading water with its 3000.

Eastern Alberta, at the town’s latitude, was a world of mixed farming.   The soil wasn’t rich enough to deliver bumper crops but neither was it so poor that running cattle was the only option.  Ergo, wheat, oats, barley, and Hereford cattle were what you saw.  No Canola or flax or exotic cattle breeds.   A dairy farmer might have his Holsteins and there was the occasional Jersey kept for decorative purposes, but short-horned white-faced cattle dominated.

At the beginning of the 20thcentury, there were no towns to speak of north of the 51stparallel.  The countryside still consisted of aboriginal villages and Metis settlements with a scattering of white settlers (e.g. the famous Barr colony didn’t arrive until 1903). History belonged to the aboriginal peoples and the Metis. While the CPR’s rail line , built close to the U.S. border, had been operating for over 10 years, central and northern Alberta and Saskatchewan were still very much unsettled by the white man.   But with the completion of the northern rail line through Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Vancouver, a near stampede of settlers poured out from the east and northern U.S. to populate and farm the Canadian west.  When you examine all that transpired in those few short years from 1900 to 1914, the energy and achievements were impressive.  Unfortunately, the 

path to growth had some washouts.  WW1 took and lost almost an entire generation of youth.    Things picked up nicely in the go-go twenties until the decade-long depression again brought everything to a standstill.  It took the young families re-building after WW2 to re-invigorate the growth.

Certainly, there was no shortage of optimism.  The war was over and those young families were eager to build a future. Conversations swirled around what was coming next – paved roads, television, more radio stations, refrigerators, seed-cleaning plants, power steering, automatic transmissions, and transistor radios.  With hard work and a little luck who knew what could happen?

With few exceptions, aesthetics played no part in a town’s development. All prairie towns were laid out on a grid -as per the railroad’s dictates – spreading out from one side (the station side) of the train tracks (As a rule, the railroad builders were ceded every other section of land along their right of way and so had a big  say (i.e. the onlysay) as to where a town-site was placed and how adjacent land was developed).  Commercial buildings showed the obligatory false fronts, hotels sometimes had verandas, and sidewalks were a luxury.    The grid layout was a variation on the classic baroque street pattern, as in Quebec, where the town radiated outward from the centre of power (in Quebec’s case, the church).  Here the centre of power was the railroad and the towns didn’t so much radiate outwards as swell out from one side of the tracks a bit like a burl on a tree.

It was the houses that were interesting.  Here could be found  ‘architecture writ- small’.   Houses were small and functional – a front porch, a back porch, a kitchen, living room, and as many bedrooms as the owner could afford.   To the casual observer these simply appeared as row upon row of small bungalows or two-stories.  The really surprising fact was that these little houses were all different.  ‘Plans drawn up on grocery bags’was how one critic put it.   In the larger scheme of things, this astonishing variety may have been inconsequential  but in the hardscrabble of surviving on the harsh prairie, they were nothing less than stirring expressions of creativity.   More importantly, perhaps, the houses could be seen as representative of the freedom of the prairie.  No matter how tenuous the future, people were free to carve out a life of their own.  There were no big bosses, no entrenched factories to indenture people, no wealthy power structure to dictate another’s place in society; in fact, very little wealth at all.   But there was freedom and community and optimism and of all the positive stories to emerge from the 20thcentury, the energy of these drab little towns and their citizens might have been the nicest manifestation of what a democracy could deliver when given a chance.

Which isn’t to say living in a small town was a walk in the park.   Jobs were scarce, wages were low, and job security was non-existent.  Prosperity in large part was a function of crop yields and the price obtained for livestock.  Success or failure was most often determined by the weather.   Some things never change.

But Wainwright had an advantage over most prairie towns.  Besides being a railway divisional point that required personnel to take up residence in the town, it had something else.

Sometimes a disadvantage turns out to be an advantage.   Prairie towns with the greatest chance of success were, understandably, the ones surrounded by the richest farmland.  But the land around Wainwright was certainly not the best, sandy in many places, and boasting only marginal top soil in others.  It was so miserable that in 1909 the federal government set aside 160 square miles of this scrub prairie as a refuge for the vanishing plains bison.  This worked, with mixed results, until 1939 when the bison were shipped north to Wood Buffalo National Park and the land morphed into a training ground for the army.  During the war, it was used as a prisoner-of-war compound.  After the war, it became Camp Wainwright, 160 square miles of rolling grassland upon which the armies of Canada could simulate fighting on foreign terrains (This will give you some idea of the physical diversity of the area – you want desert? you want jungle? you want swamp?  You got it).

All in all, things were pretty good for Wainwright in 1952.    A railway town, an army town, and a small oil refinery on the western outskirts combined to fuel the optimism of a town that was going somewhere.   People didn’t have to rely entirely upon crop yields and cattle prices for their livelihood. The army camp, the railroad, and the refinery each delivered a few full-time jobs.

But – and this was true of a great many small towns In the 1950’s – it was the people who made the place special.   Young couples with young families were there to make a future.  With a population of 3000, the town had four doctors, 3 of them under the age of 35 (Read into that what you will – either the town was exceptionally well cared for or there was an unusual demand for medical services.  Since there was no health care insurance in those days and people were generally poor, I think the answer is that the town was well cared for). Townspeople worked hard; they played hard; and they planned vigorously.  There were few government programs in those days – you wanted something done, you had better find your own means for doing it.  Meanwhile, the town could boast of six cafes, two hotels, three grocery stores, three dry goods stores, a bakery, a dairy, a theatre, two drugstores, two hardware stores, three auto dealers, two farm equipment dealers, and a locker plant (for those of you too young to remember, no one owned a freezer in those days so if you wanted to keep some frozen meat you had to rent a locker from the locker plant).

Of course there were the slackers.   The two beer parlors had a small but steady clientele of men who had either given up or didn’t care.  Quixotic characters weren’t hard to find. The eternally optimistic farm boy from east of town who had his farmer father buy him a new International half-ton so he could spend his days driving up and down Main Street looking for girls.  He was a familiar sight with his arm propped on the truck door and a pack of Kools tucked into the sleeve.   He never seemed to realize girls – the few that might have noticed him – weren’t about to run up to his truck and throw their arms around his neck, while he, on his part, wasn’t about to get out of the truck.  It was a stand off of sorts that went on for years.  Every town had a supply of eccentrics.  Not only were they tolerated, they were often spoken of with pride, as if they added to the town’s special character.  

Wainwright’s memorial to WW1 was the centerpiece of the town.  A clock tower, roughly 30 feet high, sat in the intersection of Main Street and 2ndavenue.  It was a handsome rock tower, each rock reputedly representing a district man lost in the Great War.  Given that each rock was slightly larger than a basketball and the tower was roughly 15 feet in diameter at its base, the Clock stood as vivid reminder of just how devastating the war was to the country’s youth.

And Wainwright had churches. Lordy, it had churches.  In addition to the ‘Main Street’ denominations of Catholic, Anglican, United, and Presbysterian, there was an impressive, ever-changing gaggle of fundamentalist cliques, each with its fire-breathing congregation and firm conviction that everyone else was doomed to the eternal fires of hell.  If anyone doubted this, they needed only to have lit up a cigarette or cracked open a beer in a believer’s presence and then looked into their eyes. Whatever one thought of all this religious democracy in action, it did add to the energy of the town and everyone, whatever their private opinions were, more or less tolerated each other.

The railroad divisional point designation was a big deal.  It meant the town had a large station with a beanery, a telegraph office, a roundhouse, watertower, a spacious stockyard, a half-dozen grain elevators, several sidings, and two loading docks.  And all this meant permanent employment for some.

But, with all the positives, Wainwright also had a few major drawbacks.  The big one was its location, I mean itsspecificlocation.  And, for this, you could blame the railroad, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad.   They were in a hurry to lay track and in all that haste they didn’t give a lot of thought to the aesthetics of a town’s location.   What they did think about was where their trains would need water and fuel and that – no more, no less – was where the town would be. Consequently, Wainwright, a mere 7 miles from one of the most beautiful river valleys in Canada, was placed in a slough bottom east of that valley.  Town growth forever after would have to combat the marshy terrain and the desire of spring snow melt from as far away – residents exaggeratedly believed – as Hudson’s Bay to gather en masse In and around the town. Before modern drainage techniques could be brought to bear, spring in Wainwright was not for the faint-hearted. For a few weeks each year, a raging torrent swept in from the northeast, ripping out a section of Main Street north of Sixth Avenue, and continuing on to form two lakes, one on each side of the tracks, in the southwest.  Sloughs, in and around the town, all survived the dry summers and provided a year-round home for mosquitoes, muskrats, a variety of shore birds, and discarded farm equipment.  And, of course, outdoor rinks in the winter.

Another drawback was by no means specific to Wainwright.  Towns were all so busy building a society that worked they had little time for social amenities, especially for their youth.  Children were expected to find their own entertainment and the town’s largesse seldom extended beyond building an ice arena and that usually depended upon having enough people with enough money to hold a car raffle or two or three to finance the construction.  Obviously some towns were more indulgent of their youth than others – the dynamics of this fact being one of the great mysteries of the prairies – but Wainwright, for all its commercial energy, had limited enthusiasm for anything else.  

So that’s my story of one prairie town in 1952.  I’ve forgotten many things that should be said but the time came and went quickly and most of the features I’ve described have long since disappeared. Yet for one brief moment in history, these small prairie towns displayed an energy, an enthusiasm, and an optimism that was remarkable.   They may not have been Camelots, but they were definitely special.  (September, 2014)

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