A Little Town on the Western Prairies

I will soon be posting some stories regarding life in the 1940s on a seismic crew, from a woman’s point of view.  The five years Sheldon and I spent roaming around Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba with the oil crews were years never to be forgotten.  Exciting, enjoyable, challenging, funny and scary – all terms applied at one time or another.  At the age of 23 we entered the field life of western oil exploration, young and inexperienced and “rar’n to go”.  It was, as the saying goes, to be a steep learning curve.  We left the field for the office five years later, a family of four.  In those five years we learned a great deal, both about ourselves and about life skills in general.  Along the way we built deep and enduring friendships.  The years have now taken Sheldon and many of our peers, but some 60 years later I am lucky enough to have some of the old friends from those crew days still with me.

So what has this to do with a Western prairie town?  You will soon see.  The events in some of my following postings will be set in surroundings and times completely unfamiliar to many of you.  Not wanting to write a history on the social, economic and political times of the 1940s (nor capable of doing so!), I decided instead to introduce you to Standard – a real and quite typical prairie town.  Try to hold the picture of this town in your mind.  When we meet Davidson, Saskatchewan, as seen in May of 1945, remember what you have garnered about Standard’s streets, sidewalks, homes, businesses and community.

Standard is located on the rolling prairies some 50 miles beyond the east edge of Calgary.  About 100 years ago conditions were ripe for bringing about its birth.  A new farming area was being opened up by the CPR.  Danish farmers from Denmark and the United States were looking for land.  A railway ran through the area and there was almost daily service to Calgary.  There was a small coal mine just south of town.  The CPR opened a station, using the kind of building found on their lines all over the West.  This consisted of a two-storey building which had the first floor opening out on the platform by the tracks.  This floor consisted of a large freight room, the station agent’s office, the ticket booth, and a passenger waiting room.  Stairs led to the second floor which housed the station agent and his family.  

A boardwalk sidewalk led up the slope to the level above, where a cluster of buildings sprang up as the town grew.  Soon grain elevators were built along the train tracks.  These were owned by different grain companies to which the farmers could sell their grains.  Eventually there were seven or eight such elevators — prairie giants — landmarks of the West.

Year by year the village grew.  One main street ran north and south.  It was wide.  It had to be, to enable a horse-drawn wagon to turn around when it needed to!  To pick a date in my memory, say 1930, I remember a main street with two grocery stores, and seemingly just one of everything else: drugstore, butcher store, bakery, hotel, bank, post office, lawyer’s office, telephone office, pool hall with barber and soda bar, and doctor’s office.  On side streets one could find a blacksmith, a livery barn, a school, a community hall and a few other cottage industries.  One lady had a beauty parlour in her house; another gave music lesson in hers.  There was one truck driver in town.  Most freight was still hauled by horse and wagon.  On the northwest edge of town was the Lutheran church, the only church in Standard.  Nearby was a cemetery, a small park, and a ball park.  The rest of the town consisted of private homes of all shapes and sizes.  About ½ mile north was a house owned by a nurse.  She ran a little maternity home to handle local births which needed more care than most homes could manage.

Standard’s present population is recorded as about 300.  I could not find a population record for the years I am targeting, but there may not be much difference between 2011 and 1940.  There are new districts, so all in all more houses – but as someone pointed out, there used to be big families in small homes, and now we have small families in larger homes.  The village has changed as the decades slipped by.  In the 1920s and 30s the country roads were poorly graded and very lightly maintained.  Grain was hauled to the elevators by horse-drawn wagon, and coal hauled back to the farm the same way.  During much of the winter the roads from the farms to the village were impassable by car so horse-drawn sleighs were used for the trip.  As roads were raised, graded and gravelled, travel changed from horse-drawn vehicles to cars and trucks.  Livery barns went out of business.  The first garage opened for business in 1920, but the first service station not until 1950—and so it went.

Perhaps one way of looking at this is to realize that we are discussing not just the town of Standard, but the community of Standard.  The town was (and is) the hub.  The farms around are the spokes, and together they formed a live and vibrant unit.  Everyone knew, or knew of, everyone else.  As it was in 1930, so it was in the 1940s, and so it still is today.  Any community affair—be it a national holiday, a sports fundraising event, a shower for a bride-to-be—could as easily be chaired and organized by someone from one of the district farms as by someone from the village.  It was so in the early years and is so today.

There is a saying, “Nothing is all good, or all bad”.  There are good things and bad things about any place one calls home.  However, even while realistically acknowledging this, I strongly applaud the positive side of the community living that Standard represented to me in my early years, and still does today.  When we move on to visit the seismic crews in Davidson, Saskatchewan, it will be interesting to see if echoes of the early Standard will be found.  Join me in a month or so, when I revisit the Davidson of May, 1945.

Postscript:  Since posting this entry, a reader has sent me this link to a photo of Standard in about 1930.


Filed under Prairie Childhood, Seismic Life - The Womens' View

14 Responses to A Little Town on the Western Prairies

  1. Doreen

    I travelled all through Saskatchewan and am familiar with the small towns. I actually was born in one of them called Main Centre. When I travelled throughout Saskatchewan with my Fashion 2000 business, I saw many of the places you are commenting about. Brought back alot of memories. Doreen

    • Marjorie

      Thanks Doreen, I never knew you had travelled around Saskatchewan, even to Davidson I understand! More later. Marjorie

  2. Eveline

    Hi Marjorie
    What a delightful way to begin my day. A few years ago I wrote a story about the Banff of my childhood for a reunion of my High School class. The archives in Banff added it to their collection. These are important memories and important history.
    Thanks for this.

    • Marjorie

      Hello Eveline – Delighted to hear from you – hope the summer has treated you well. I received your attachment and look forward to reading it tomorrow. Today has been a very busy one, so am heading for an early-to-bed. More tomorrow. MMG

  3. Alison Uhrbach

    I too have both travelled all around and lived in small town Saskatchewan (St.Brieux) ..as well as a few small towns in Alberta ( all this from a “city girl” from Edmonton) The most interesting town we lived in as a “glimpse from the past” was Empress, Alberta… once a railroad divisional point with a population of 3,000? it was a “ghost town” of 400 when we lived there in 1977… but the wide streets, and buildings still survived, and had an appeal of their own on a sunny Fall day…

    • Marjorie

      Alison – I had not known (or, perhaps, remembered) that you had done some gypsying around the western provinces. I’m glad you have seen some towns that resemble those of my childhood. A one of 4000 would have been a BIG one in those days, and even the 400 a very respectable size! Did you experience any of the community spirit that existed so strongly in the towns I knew?

      • Alison Uhrbach

        The town that had the MOST community spirit of all was St. Brieux. It was an interesting population mix (app 1000) of Hungarian and French immigrants… 99.9% Catholic!( one other family and ourselves being from “away”!) Corvin replaced a nun in the school, and all our social activities were based around the convent or the church! There were wonderful community suppers with pies to die for!! The “well baby” clinics were held in the Convent, as well as the Seniors shuffleboard, and the community classes ( I took photography, tatting, and Yoga) With the average family size being at LEAST 6 kids.. it was a great place to be as a new mom… they were relaxed, and supportive, and FULL of advice! Although we were “odd man out” in so many ways, we were welcomed into the community in a way I had never known before… and LOVED! We were sad to leave, and have happy memories of those three years.

        • Marjorie

          Alison – What a delightful account! I will look up St. Brieux in my atlas. So glad to hear from someone who has experienced the “oneness” spirit I remember. Standard was about “99.9%” Lutheran, and again, social activities often centred about the church – or the community hall. This is not intended to paint an unrealistic picture – there is always a downside to knowing everyone, and everyone’s business as well, but I am glad Standard was and is part of my life. Marjorie

  4. steven

    The 8th census of Canada was in 1941, and Standard then had 208 people.

    (Official Populations, Municipal Affairs, Government of Alberta.)

    • Marjorie

      Great! I’ll trust that unpaid assistant! So Standard is a bit larger now, which is encouraging as quite a number of smaller villages just withered away when the elevators went, and the roads drastically improved. So we have in 2011 a population of almost 300, and one from 1941 of 208. My (unfounded) guess would be that the population in, say 1930 when I would have been 8, would have been very close to the 208 one of 1941. Now I would love to know the population of Davidson, Saskatchewan about 1945. Any takers? MMG

  5. steven

    According to town of Davidson’s website claims it was incorporated as a village in 1904 with 98 people, then incorporated as a town two years later with a population of 520, and that the current population is about 1,100. A few minutes of web search didn’t turn up any data for the intervening years, though I suppose we could interpolate. (Or, if we’re really excited about it, I imagine an email to the right government archive in Saskatchewan would do the trick.)

    Re the population of Standard in 1930: The link I gave above says the estimated population that year was 235. (For 1931 they estimate just 175.)

    • Marjorie

      Steven – thanks for the help. I’m not sure it is worth too much more effort. I was interested to know if Davidson in 1945 would have been about the same as Standard in that year. With what we know now, I would say that it would have been maybe twice the size of Standard, and that would still be in the category of a ‘”small” western town. If anything is found which pins it down further, good – but with what I have I can make my comments. Thanks again, I never turn down help! Gram

  6. Hi Gram,
    I’ve always thought of you as someone on the cutting edge. It’s wonderful to be able to share your experiences through your blog. My only knowledge of the Canadian prairies in the 1930s and 1940s came from the W. O. Mitchell novel, Who Has Seen the Wind, which I had to read in high school.

    I can tell you honestly that I didn’t like that book very much, mainly because I didn’t feel connected to the culture, the characters or the time. Seeing that same part of Canada in that era through your eyes, however, has been more educational, more real and more accessible than being forced to read a Canadian classic and write an essay on it.

    But then, you’ve always been a fantastic storyteller. I hope that I can leave the same legacy for my loved ones someday.

    • Marjorie

      Adaora – Great to know you are reading my blog, and also to hear from you! Maybe you should go back and have another go at Mitchell again. I am not in his class, but at least mine are first hand experiences! This will be short – my first try to respond on my new lap-top, and it is slow going. Gram