Circumstances that gave rise to the Special areas (part 5)

Part five of a series about Oliver Longman and the history of the Special Areas.
Many people living in the Special Areas don’t realize that what happened here back in the 1930s was not unique. As early as the 1880s, governments knew that certain dryland regions though potentially productive, would never be able to sustain the same number of quarter-section farms as other parts of the prairies.
One of the first experiences proving this occurred in the 1880s/90s, when German homesteaders established a colony called Josefsburg south of Medicine Hat. The settlers arrived, built homes and barns, and broke ground. A reporter from Medicine Hat visited the colony and said: “This colony has 350 inhabitants. Wonderful progress has been made, and there are no grumblers.”
Even so, after multiple years of drought, members of the colony abandoned the region. They couldn’t grow a crop. Many went north and established a new community, similarly named Josephburg, east of Fort Saskatchewan.
For decades, the chorus of voices singing the praises of small dryland homesteads in the arid regions was intense. The CPR wanted settlers to purchase land it had obtained from Ottawa, thereby providing expanded rail traffic. At one point, it was publicly claimed that the land in these arid regions would provide crop yields “as heavy as the gumbo of Manitoba.”
The Alberta government believed that black summer fallow would guarantee crops, even in the most arid regions. Ottawa’s agriculture minister said that the rain in Alberta always falls “when it is needed.”
Yet homesteaders sent to these lands endured chronic crop failures. By 1914, settlers who had arrived with hope, clothing, and even money, were broke. To see them through the winter and enable the planting of next year’s crop, federal aid poured in.
Historian David Jones at the University of Calgary says the flagrant lies of promotion were coming home to roost. These arid regions would simply not support quarter- and half-section dryland farms. By 1918, over 600 homesteaders north of the Red Deer River had abandoned their land.
In 1917-18, a mere 72,000 bushels of grain was marketed through the elevators at Alderson. A year later, the number dropped to 14,000 bushels. The year after (1919-20), the number fell to 9,000.
Historian Jones says that long before the Great Depression of the 1930s, most of the damage done to the region that became known as the Special Areas had already occurred. In 1926 alone, there were over 10,000 abandoned farms comprising 2.3 million acres. Farm abandonment during the thirties would never reach what occurred in 1926. Fewer than 500 of 2,386 original farmers remained in the Tilley East region. It was a population loss exceeding 80% over an area comprising more than 1.5 million acres.
None of this was a surprise. As far back as the 1890s, the Medicine Hat Times reported that these arid regions were one of the finest for ranching, but that “it would be almost criminal to bring settlers here to try to make a living out of straight farming.” Ottawa knew that regional deserts existed in select parts of the prairies, yet continued to sacrifice unknowing homesteaders.
Even the province participated in the propaganda. Alberta Agriculture Minister George Hoadley openly and publicly denied that a population exodus was underway in southern Alberta, even as it was occurring. Apparently, he didn’t want to be the first to admit that these arid regions simply wouldn’t accommodate vast numbers of quarter section farmers.
This commentary is by the Hard Grass Landowners Council and is prepared by an editorial committee that includes: Bruce Beasley, Richard Bailey, Jim Ness, and Pat Rutledge.

About the author