Arriving at Swift Current in 1914, a newcomer would soon realize that it was a “boomtown”. It was a lively community with a young, active population. Swift Current boasted 4 hotels, 5 churches, 7 lumberyards, 9 banks and 12 wholesale warehouses. It received 100 bags of mail per day, and shipped more than 1 million bushels of wheat per year.
Swift Current had become a town in 1907; just seven years later it was ready to become a city.Who were the people that were so motivated to build this community? What were their motives as they sought to achieve city status? What was life like in the new city, and how was it affected by changes that occurred during the year?
Why Become a City?
One of the motives within the community was certainly pride. In 7 years the population had increased tenfold. 1911-1913 were wet years with bumper crops that led people to believe in the long-term viability of agriculture in the region. Railway branch lines were being built, and more were anticipated, leading some to believe that Swift Current could become ‘the Chicago of the north’. Swift Current had some of the most varied services in Saskatchewan for a community of its size. The population had every reason to expect forthcoming opportunities.
A more important motive for town council was that gaining city status would allow the community to borrow more money and carry a larger debt burden. Having recently incurred huge debts while developing the city infrastructure, and not wanting to discourage business development by increasing taxes, the Board of Trade and Town council saw achieving city status as imperative.
The last major project in which the Board (of Trade) became involved during the Town’s seven year history was the drive to make Swift Current an incorporated city. The Board of Trade conducted a town census on Nov 14, 1913, which proclaimed that the population was 5,795, a whopping 32% increase since the last census, conducted by the town police only seven months earlier. Of the census taken by the Board, Frank E West, the first mayor of the City of Swift Current, is reported to have later remarked that the Board enumerated every dog and cat in town in order to get city status. Don McGowan, Green and Growing Years
Building the Infrastructure
Swift Current required infrastructure to support the growing community. Telephone service became available in 1910; a water and sewer system and a power plant were next on the list. Although the CPR had power and a dam, they were not willing to share, so Town Council set out to build systems for the town. In 1910 they hired engineers to make recommendations. Bylaws were passed to raise $104,830. Over the next three years six more bylaws were required to provide enough money to complete the work for a total of $483,330. (Somehow, plans for the water and sewer system had neglected to address the need for a dam and a reservoir.)
In 1909 an American, FW Laidley was contracted to provide both power and gas. His deal seemed to be too good to be true, and it was. With the charlatan out of the way and a year lost, council proceeded to hire the same advisor as they had for their very expensive water and sewer system.
The power project had a number of setbacks. First, there was a delay receiving the generating plant from England. This plant, which produced gas by burning coal, did not work properly with Canadian coal. Grates kept burning out and replacements had to be shipped from England. The first light came on in 1912, but within two months proved unable to keep up with the town’s power needs.
Voters determined that a new, oil-burning steam-powered plant was the best way to move forward; they swallowed the $37,000 loss on the first plant. It was ultimately to serve as the pumping station and filtration plant for the water and sewage system.
A new power plant was up and running in 1914; total cost $197,000. Unfortunately the land they had selected was marshy. The building could not withstand the vibrations from the generators.
"These expensive errors, and Council’s decision to place the tax burden on residential landowners, led to serious financial problems that were not resolved for many decades." McGowan
Buildings under construction in 1914 included:
Central High School
Healy Booker Block (Professional Bldg)
Metropolitan Methodist Church
Central Phone Exchange
International Harvester Co Warehouse
“The result of ...municipal policies of inequitable, inflated assessments, excessive borrowing and spending on public works, and poor management of public funds, was that Swift Current by January of 1914 had accumulated a debenture debt of about $850,000, not including the local improvement debt secured by special assessment.” McGowan
Who Were the People of Swift Current in 1914?
In 1914, the people of Swift Current were:
Young – They were able to work 12 hrs/day, 6 days/week
Strong – Even businessmen did physical work
Committed – they were enthusiastic community builders
Fun-loving – in their spare time entertainment prevailed!
There were two men for every woman.
Three-quarters of the population were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Most had a patriotic attachment to Great Britain.
Businessmen came to town to make a profit providing goods and services to homesteaders. Others earned their living working for local businesses, industries, and the CPR, which continued to be a major employer.
Families were relatively small (about five residents per household) and they were community-oriented. There was no radio or television, and most residents read only local newspapersClothing
People of the community dressed to suit their employment, and had some form of dressy outfit for church and community events. Most women made their own clothing and those for their children. Some hired seamstresses or ordered by mail. In 1914, they were not inclined to shop downtown for clothing, so shops were more focused on menswear.
Larger stores advertised ladies clothing.
Eaton’s ads featured the styles of 1914:
- Loosely fitted dresses with oriental influence
- Hobble skirts with hems above the ankle
- Tunics over long skirts
These dresses may have been favoured by wealthy residents for formal events, but they were neither affordable nor practical for the average woman on the dusty or muddy, rutted streets of the city. Daywear consisted of simpler dresses with full aprons; formal outfits were simpler dresses or shirtwaists with skirts.
Businessmen wore three piece suits, often with cuffed trousers. Shirts had celluloid collars and cuffs and were worn with ties or cravats. Men wore their hair short. Moustaches were often curled.
Dresses for girls were quite short.
Boys wore knickers instead of long pants.
Wartime clothing was more austere and dark colours were favoured so that clothing could be worn to funerals. Ladies hemlines rose again to conserve fabric.
Going to School
As the town grew, the number of students wishing to attend school skyrocketed. Swift Current’s first school was a repurposed boxcar. Another one room building was added, followed by the first Central School with four rooms (soon to be followed by a four room addition). Still there was not enough room. One classroom of first year students in 1912 had 77 students! The four-room with full basement Oman School was built on the south side in 1913 so that children on the south side would not have to cross the tracks to go to school.
In 1914 the second (present) Central School was built as Central Collegiate, to accommodate the growing number of high school students. Elmwood School, twice the size of Oman, was built in 1914.
There were a number of school practices in 1914 that were very different from today. Corporal punishment was standard treatment for unruly students. (The strap was not actually banned in Saskatchewan until 2005!) Students also had their grades published in the local newspaper. Female teachers were paid considerably less than their male counterparts for the same work. Nelson Latour, who taught Grades 7 and 8, as well as some high school students, had a salary of $1800 per year, one of the highest in the province. Along with his teaching and marking duties, Latour coached sports, organized concerts and trained a choral group.
Patriotism was considered very important in schools. In fact, the province made it a requirement for all schoolyards to fly the Union Jack and students were to sing patriotic songs in the classroom. This was particularly important training for the large number of students whose parents had emigrated from the United States, in order to form a national identity.
Swift Current in 1914 was a very active city. There were things to do for every age and for every interest. There were lectures ranging from home economics to psychology. Theatre presented concerts and silent films. Huge circuses came to town, and the annual fair was a big attraction. Men’s clubs included Masons, Oddfellows, Eagles, Foresters, Workmen, Orangemen, Rifle Association and Caledonian Society.
Sports were very popular. The city had indoor rinks for ice skating, roller skating and curling. Hockey and baseball were popular for both players and spectators. Tennis and golf were popular past-times, as were hunting and boating.
Picnics, garden parties, ice cream socials and community suppers were great social events.
Casual visiting that might include tea or party games was common, but more formal teas, dances, masquerades and formal balls were regular fare in Swift Current.
Tea parties were a common way for women to get together. If a woman sent a notice to the newspaper that she was “receiving” it meant just that. She was receiving guests on a certain day. An “At Home” was a more formal, lavish tea that was an open invitation on a come-and-go basis.
Music was a very important aspect of community life. Concerts were regularly held at local theatres and orchestras played at dinner in local hotel restaurants. Musicians were paid to provide music for silent films, and there were many music teachers and choirmasters within the community. One of the most important musical contributions to Swift Current was made by the City Band. By 1914 they had made a deal with council to trade their land and building for an annual fee, free practice space and lodging and free light. They were to play 12 free concerts per year, and were paid for any others. As well as concerts, the band played at the skating rink and roller skating rink and was on hand for community celebrations.
The business district was established on Railway Street and 11th Avenue (Central). It expanded to include 1st Avenue NE and 1st Avenue NW.
Of major importance was the establishment of grain elevators; as homesteaders poured into the district, they hauled their grain to town and visited the local businesses.
Swift Current grew as a farmer’s town and businesses were sensitive to their needs. Sykes Blacksmith began to sell implements for farmers and pianos to their wives. The Argue & Cooper store expanded twice during the boom years and became the most important department store in the southwest. Banks, realty businesses and laundries flourished, and hotels were full.
The growing community was well fed. Canned goods were sold in grocery stores, there were several butchers, and dairy, bakery and market garden products were delivered to homes by local producers.
*“Boosterism”, aimed at stimulating growth by lobbying, advertising and offering incentives, led to conflicts of interest when Board of Trade members were also council members. Low taxes for businesses put the tax burden on residents and ultimately contributed to financial troubles in years ahead.
A new resolve emerged in the community, this time an outward-looking commitment to do whatever it took to prevail. People in the newly born city learned once again to build a future through hard work, community spirit and seeking the greater good.
Brass & iron bedstead & mattress factory
Sash & door factory/planning mill
Soft drink bottling works
Cement products factory
3 machine shops
Industries “helped to diversify and stabilize Swift Current’s economy, making it somewhat less vulnerable to the fluctuating fortunes of its farmers.” P 74
The Homesteading Experience
Farmers then, as now, were reliant on weather conditions to have successful crops. In 1914, prairie fires were also a substantial risk. Homesteaders had to be lucky enough to have filed on land with an adequate water supply and decent soil. Local businesses tried to provide the right implements and products to make this process successful. They also extended credit until harvest in many cases.
By 1914 all the land within many miles of Swift Current had been claimed. Homesteaders could buy land, but demand made land prices increase beyond the means of many. The only Dominion land left was south near the American border.
Better Farming TrainsHomesteaders were eager to learn new farming practices. Between 1914 and 1922, trains organized by the provincial Dept of Agriculture, University of Saskatchewan and railroads, toured the province with exhibits and lectures. Topics included livestock, field husbandry, farm mechanics and other relevant topics. There were also exhibits about household science and exhibits for children. In 1914, 40,000 people attended in five weeks!
And Then the Bubble Burst...
For most regions the boom ended in 1913, when a Canada-wide recession caused banks to tighten their purses and building slowed down. Swift Current remained active because of the building of two CPR branch lines and because of several major building projects in town. By the middle of 1914, workers began leaving town after building projects were completed. As the city began to feel the effects of the recession, unemployment increased, and in August hundreds of men left for war. This substantially reduced the number of taxpayers, leaving the city in a more precarious financial situation.
1914 was a year of drought and almost complete crop failure, so regional farmers were not spending in local stores either. What had begun as another successful year ended in a period of tightened belts and uncertainty.
Many men from Swift Current enlisted right away. Unemployment was high, and joining the army was a paying job. Many young men thought that going to war would be an adventure. Nobody expected the war to last more than a few months. In fact, well into the autumn of 1914, the newspaper ran headlines suggesting the enemy was ready to surrender.
The community rallied around, ladies knit socks and sewed clothing for soldiers and the mayor called a community meeting (stating that he expected to see at least 3,000 people in attendance), to petition the Dominion Government to augment reserve forces so that a second wave of soldiers would be ready.