Articles

SASKATOON: CITY IN THE WHEAT

JOHN CLARE January 1 1950
Articles

SASKATOON: CITY IN THE WHEAT

JOHN CLARE January 1 1950

SASKATOON: CITY IN THE WHEAT

Tin Pan Alley forgot to mention that it’s sometimes called “the Prettiest Little City in Western Canada”

JOHN CLARE

MENTION Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in such jaded junctions as New York and London and you are likely to get reactions ranging from genuine incredulity through mild mirth.

Saskatoon seldom rates the spontaneous and unabashed boffs drawn by such place names as Medicine Hat, Moose Jaw and Paducah, Kentucky, but the writers who turned out a version of “Connecticut Yankee” for Bing Crosby not long ago thought it sounded interesting enough to share a spot in the dialogue with Walla Walla, Washington, and Puncetony (where do they get these names anyway?), Pennsylvania.

Song writers, who seem to spend as much time with their gazeteers as they do with their pianos, tapped the rhythmic potential in Saskatoon with a madrigal which began:

What a delight when I think of the night that l met you on—Saskatoon, SASKATCHEWAN ;

Oh, what a thrill was the spill down the hill I upset you on—in SASKATCHEWAN ;

Swift as the breeze was the race on the skis I would bet you on—in Saskatoon, SASKATCHEWAN. *

Irving Caesar, one of the song’s authors and the man who assisted George Gershwin in publicizing another euphonious morsel of the map for Al Jolson in the song “Swanee,” has never been in Saskatoon.

“I must confess,” Caesar wrote recently. “I don’t know whether there is much snow in Saskatoon, SASKATCHEWAN, or whether there is any skiing at all or whether the temperature ever falls below zero. However, I hope the good people of the city will forgive any licenses of a song writer’s imagination and when the song becomes a big hit maybe the Chamber of Commerce will send us a plaque.”

At the last civic election Saskatoon taxpayers voted some $700,000 for an addition to the City Hospital but there was no mention of a plaque. In fact, the only men who looked as though they might handle such an assignment were busy proofreading a bronze legend on the Federal Building which had read “Saskaton” for a long time.

I was in Saskatoon not long ago and checked on the points raised by Caesar and at the same time attempted to measure the city’s change and progress against the Saskatoon I knew when I lived there 16 years ago.

Saskatoon does have snow, quite a bit of it which seems more than it really is because it stays around so long. The temperature frequently goes below zero and seems to get stuck there, also for long periods. The skiing is not very good, as you might expect of the prairies, but some enthusiasts built a ski slide on the river bank.

*Copyright 1936 by Paramount Music Corporation.

The population has risen to 52,000, according to the postmaster. This is the highest it’s been since Saskatoon’s incorporation as a town in 1903 with a population of 113. The depression checked a steady increase as thousands of young people who couldn’t get jobs left town. However, this loss was offset somewhat, even during the 30’s, by a migration from southern Saskatchewan where the drought and the depression were even worse.

But times are good in Saskatoon today. They are good because the wheat farmers, on whom the economy of the city and indeed the prosperity of the whole province squarely rests, have money.

Not long ago a farmer came to town to buy a wedding ring. When he gave up his job 15 years ago and started out for the Kindersley district west of Saskatoon with a yoke of oxen and not much more he hadn’t money to buy a ring for his bride. Today they have four children; he owns his own farm and machinery and he has 70,000 bushels of wheat in storage.

Those Big Western Spenders

HE left his wife home when he went shopping because he wanted to surprise her. In the jewelry store he had doubts. He bought the plain gold band quickly enough, but hesitated before the tray of engagement rings. Finally he made a selection and gave the clerk six $100 bills. “Do you think she’ll like it?” he asked with concern. The clerk felt sure she would.

Down the street he went into a furrier’s and pointed to a coat. “Ask the girl to try that on,” he said, indicating a salesgirl. “This coat is $600, but notice the rich depth of the fur and ” the proprietor began unreeling his sales spiel.

The farmer already had his money in his hand and had begun to count: “One, two he said

laying down $100 bills. “You will notice the full sleeves and the luxurious collar of carefully selected . ” the proprietor continued. “Five, six. Okay?” said the farmer. The furrier's patience, strained by frustration, broke. “Look here, mister,” he demanded. “Aren’t you going to let me even sell this to you?”

That’s not typical by any means but the prairie prosperity of the few past years has demonstrated that the wheat farmer is a spender when he has it. The years have shown, too, that he pays his debts.

One businessman, whose firm held 3,000 mortgages, mostly in Saskatchewan, now has no more than 50 on the books. The farmer debtors have repaid to this one firm between $7 millions and $8 millions. The International Harvester Co. has not a dollar’s worth of bills receivable in the West; at the end of 1934 this one company was carrvin°r $12 millions. &

Why does Saskatoon continue to flourish despite the fact that there has Continued on page 33

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not been a good general crop in the plains area for the past four years? In 1945 the yield was the poorest since 1937. The famed Goose Lake area west of Saskatoon has not had a big crop for four years. But times remain good.

What is the answer to this apparent paradox? In the last few years a great new wheat-growing country to the northeast, the spectacularly fertile Carrot River Valley, has come into production. This has meant new money, new business for Saskatoon to take up the slack of low yields in other

The price, which has been very right indeed, has been a big factor, too. A relatively small yield can mean a* fair return and the relatively good prices of the last 10 years, augmented by Wheat Board interim payments, have put some fiscal fat on the wheat farmers’ bones.

But, of course, when you get right down to it the prosperity and, in fact, the continued existence of Saskatoon depends on one thing—rain.

A grain merchant told me: “Let’s not kid ourselves. This province has only one thing—wheat. Alberta has its oil and cattle and coal, but all we have is our wheat crop. We’ve grown plenty of it and we will grow plenty more, but we must have rain.”

Even the children talk about the weather in Saskatoon. The mood of the people changes with the mood of the sky. Their eyes are constantly turned upward during the critical days of early summer.

Fields Lap at the Limits

Last summer there was rain on May 30, then the long dry days came. The wheat was stunted, parched. The hot winds blew, pushing ahead of them a dark pall of dust from the fields that recalled the days of the ’30’s when farm women wore goggles indoors at their suddenly hopeless tasks while their future, their past and their dreams blew into the Dakotas on the wings of a storm as black as the Angel of Death.

The winds recalled the grim humor of the story about the farmer in the dustbowl who ran outdoors one day when he heard thunder. He tripped, fell, and knocked himself out. Friends had to throw three buckets of dust in his face to revive him.

June was a grim month, full of heat as tense as the taut lines around anxious eyes. Until June 22. It rained that day. The dates come to mind as easily as the children’s birthdays. It rained again and again and the rains which should have come in June came in July and in many areas the crop was saved. And for those who didn’t get the rain at all there’s always next year.

The people of Saskatoon itself are constantly reminded that they will always be living part of their lives in a dimension called “next year.” It is a city set like an island in the wheat, the fields lapping at the limits like a changing sea. Yet it is growing mellow, growing up physically too.

Like most Western towns it was for many years laid out like the outline of a city. But a lively home and industrial building program have filled in the spaces between the sketch lines of its 13J4 square miles.

For many years it was known as the Hub City. The latest figures list 117 wholesale houses distributing goods to „a wide area. Twelve railway lines wheel out from the city and 98 industries are making and turning out egg powder,

dresses, vinegar, flour, packed meat, road machinery, caskets and linseed oil. This year Saskatoon received recognition as an industrial centre when M. A. East, who runs the John East Iron Works started by his father, was elected president of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association. This is the first time a prairie industrialist has headed the association.

The diminutive “Hub,” easier to handle than the original Cree name “Mis-sask-quah-too-mina” which referred to a succulent prairie berry, was given wide usage except in Board of Trade literature. However, if current trend continues Saskatoon will soon be known as “The Prettiest Little City in Western Canada.” This comes, not from the Cree, but from “Yessir, we’re often told that we have the prettiest little city in Western Canada.”

A Gamble on the West Bank

For many years the city, which lies on the east and west banks of the South Saskatchewan and is stitched together by six bridges, was like an attractive woman who wasn’t too well groomed. The river was naturally beautiful and along its banks grew trees in natural profusion. But the city itself, laid out on the bald prairie, had to plant its own boulevards with elm and ash. The riverbank was unkempt and, while it had a certain primitive beauty, this was marred by the years’ accumulation of empty beer bottles, ashes and the boudoirs of bindle stiffs waiting for the next freight.

One of the city’s projects during the depression — toward which the province and Ottawa each paid a third— was the building of the concrete span now known as the Broadway Bridge. Another was the beautification of the riverbank. It has been terraced and grown to grass and trees. The Kiwanis Club built a riverside park close to downtown and placed a bandstand there. As a crowning touch, like a new hat, the CNR built the Bessborough Hotel on the west bark.

When a deputation went to Montreal to see Sir Henry Thornton in 1928 it took an idea for a hotel which would cost about $1 million. Saskatoon needed a hotel desperately and was ready to waive taxes for 25 years.

Sir Henry shook his head. “Sorry, gentlemen,” he said. “That is not what we have in mind for Saskatoon. Come with me.” The deputation’s hopes withered visibly. He took the Westerners to his home and showed the plans for the hotel which is now the Bessborough. The cost was $3.5 millions for its 260 rooms, ballroom, private dining rooms and cafeteria. “That’s the hotel Saskatoon should have,” he said.

A Protest from the Beaver

The hotel was completed in 1931 but remained closed until 1935 when the trustees yielded to repeated sleeve pluckings on the part of Saskatoon civic groups and staked their new hostelry against the depression. The gamble has paid off and the Bessborough, with 8,000 guests a month, shows an operating profit each year.

The hotel has provided a focal point for the social life of Saskatoon and has attracted at least 40 conventions a year, including the Canadian Medical Association which made the first telecast in Canada transmitting an image of an operation at the City Hospital to the delegates, and 5,000 young Lutherans who visited the city last year. Many of them remarked Saskatoon was the prettiest little city in Western Canada.

The Cosmopolitan Club has now

taken the lead in lifting the face of the east bank of the river. The only active protest against all this civic improvement has come from a couple of beaver who live in the river just off Idylwyld, the city’s choice residential district. Saskatchewan Crescent, Idylwyld’s main stem, which starts at the old traffic bridge and ends at a brewery, is lined with fine trees. The beaver have gnawed down a couple of these.

The affection Saskatoon people feel for their trees, an affection that makes Joyce Kilmer’s celebrated passion look pallid, sometimes strikes visitors as excessive. However, when you consider that it is almost easier to raise a family than a healthy tree you begin to understand their pride.

That Rolling Prairie Gait

One of the most eloquent expressions of this feeling for trees stands on the western limits of the city—a memorial avenue of elms. The avenue was begun by Mrs. A. H. Hanson and Mrs. J. W. A. Jarvis 26 years ago to honor the men who fell in World War I.

During World War II Saskatoon was a key air-training centre with its No. 4 S.F.T.S. and No. 7 Initial Training School. Many Australians, as blue as their flimsy greatcoats in the unaccustomed cold, went through No. 4. One of them recalled his days in Saskatoon after he got overseas by saying: “The coldest obscenity weather and the warmest obscenity hospitality of any place I’ve ever been.”

The famed Saskatoon Light Infantry fought through the Italian campaign and moved on to Northwest Europe for the kill. The town contributed many sailors to the Royal Canadian Navy and today, with all three services vying for enlistments, the Navy is the first choice among young Saskatonians. At HMCS Unicom, the Navy’s headquarters in the city, they say the prairie boys make first-class seamen.

One of the veterans who went into business for themselves in Saskatoon after the war is former Leading Coder Orville Brown, 32, who grew up in the city. Orville has his own householdfurnishings business.

“I had a rehab grant of $480 and $1,500 of my own when I started up in a shop 14 by 14 three years ago,” he said recently in the little coffee bar he has set up for his staff of 14 in what used to be the coal bin under his store.

Orville’s present store is big and bright on a main downtown comer. Last year he did a business of $154,000. This year he will take in $200,000. He owns his own car and a truck and next spring he will start work on a new house of his own design down by the river.

A Newspaper Was Handwritten

The presence of Orville and other young men and women like him who have chosen to settle down in Saskatoon has strengthened the structure of the community. It needs constant replenishing because the men and women who came west with the steel, and know Saskatoon’s history best because they made it, are in their 70’s now. Almost every day the name of one of them appears in the obituary columns of the Star-Phoenix,

The first real settlers, a bunch of Methodists from the East calling themselves the Temperance Colonization Society, planned Saskatoon as a dry city. Nature had helped, of course, and boosters still argue that the city’s celebrated dryness makes temperatures down to 40 below painless and indeed exhilarating. But beer parlors (men only) and government liquor stores have brought an orderly wetness. The principles of the founders, however, are

not forgotten: In the Nutana district, on the east bank of the river, there is a street called Temperance.

In 1881 the pioneering Methodists were granted two million acres along the South Saskatchewan and they went the following year by train from Toronto to Moosomin which was the end of the CPR steel at that time. They went on by wagon and established their first camp at Clark’s Crossing near the site of the city, on July 28 of that year.

The townsite was chosen the next year on the east bank of the river and 35 settlers attended the flag-raising ceremony on the ground now occupied by Nutatan Collegiate. A ferry was built in 1884 and the first handwritten copy of the first newspaper, the Saskatoon Sentinel, appeared.

The path of Saskatoon’s growth can be traced on a wildly surging graph on which one of the peak periods was the giddy boom of 1910 to 1913. The city had 156 real-estate agencies alone. Building permits for 1912 were over $7 millions. One group of enthusiasts sold shares in a project which they called Factoria out on the prairie close to town. Factoria was to be a manufacturing centre Pittsburgh style. A flour mill was actually built but when the boom collapsed it was abandoned. Land which sold recently for $200 a foot sold then for from $3,000 to $4,000 a foot.

Not long ago S. E. (“Bally”) Bushe, who runs a successful general insurance business in Saskatoon and Edmonton, recalled how he came to Saskatoon in 1911 from Winnipeg with $4.40. He paid $4 room rent for the week and bought a wild duck dinner for 25 cents. With the other 15 cents he bought a pack of cigarettes and, full of 22-yearold confidence, went to get a job.

He found one quickly with one of the real-estate agencies and soon was making $350 a day in commissions. When he left on his honeymoon in June 1913 he figured he was worth close to $150,000 on paper. On his return he was broke.

The Lily Was a Leaper

Through the story of Saskatoon’s running (and winning) fight with forces of nature and economics runs a subplot full of conflict of a different kind—the long rivalry with Regina. This has cooled somewhat with the years, but the feeling is still there and, lavalike, bubbles unexpectedly. The rivalry is in the best tradition of intercity feuding such as Canadians have seen between Calgary and Edmonton, Montreal and Toronto.

Over the years the Saskatchewan cities have battled for the university, which went to Saskatoon; the General Motors plant, which went to Regina; and the new $7 million hospital, now being built as part of the university.

Plans announced last fall for a new blacktop road, No. 2, running from the U. S. border through Regina to Waskesiu National Park north of Prince Albert, did not include Saskatoon even as a way station. As a matter of fact, this road, a pike for visiting Americans, would miss Saskatoon by about 50 miles. Saskatonians who claim they can detect signs of chicanery, Regina style, in this arrangement say they will have more to say before the route is finally settled.

The blond dolomite (a type of field stone quarried nearby) walls of the university have no ivy outside, few legends inside, except possibly the one about Victoria the hen. Her real name ran to seven serial numbers which no one could remember, so the men at the agricultural college, whose* hearts leaped at the mere sight of her egg-production record, called her Victoria.

Soon after World War I a group of engineers formed an informal club for the purpose of applying their newly acquired calculus to the problem of filling inside straights. At the end of each evening’s research they would go downtown to a Chinese restaurant for a chicken dinner supplied by one of the group after a visit to the university henhouse.

After one of these late suppers word went out that Victoria was missing. And the real pity of it all was that, according to the story, she was tough eating.

The university (registration 3,200 this term) is a provincial institution. It will receive five new buildings in addition to the hospital as a result, of a current $9,925,000 expansion program.

Saskatoon has produced only one sports champion—Ethel Catherwood, who ignored the added burden of the sobriquet, “The Saskatoon Lily,” to win the women’s high jump at the 1928 Olympics. The city has produced some finalists but, at this writing, no Dominion championship teams.

“Sure, Jules Is a Big Shot”

However, Saskatoon’s playground rinks and commercial league (21 teams last year) continue to provide the major and minor pro-hockey leagues with players. This year’s program used by the Quakers, Saskatoon’s senior hockey team, proudly lists the local boys who turn on a dime for money in the big league: Bob Dawes, Vic Lynn and Harry Watson, with the Leafs; Pat Lundy, Syd Abel, Jerry Couture, Gordon Howe and Keith Burgess, with the Detroit Red Wings; Hal Laycoe, with Boston; and Charlie Rayner (he really comes from Sutherland, a suburb and location of the CPR yards), with the Rangers.

The program also includes the names of the Bentley brothers. But as anyone in Regina can tell you they come from Delisle, not Saskatoon.

Saskatoon’s rink was built during the depression when $100,000 was collected through the sale of $10 bonds to the public. Every time another $1,000 was raised whistles and sirens told the people.

The pioneer spirit, the pioneer way of doing things together for the good of the community to the accompaniment of some of the livelier manifestations of civic spirit, is still a part of Saskatoon. It’s as much a part of it as the city’s wide streets, the men’s wide hat brims and Shy Stother who haB been shining shoes in the basement of the King George Hotel for the last 30 years.

Shy likes to bring you up-to-date while he slowly and expertly shines your shoes.

“Fred Woolhouse, Les Skinner — they’re both doctors now. Doing well,” he said recently as his thick fingers gently smeared the polish. “Do you ever see Jules Fontaine down East?” What was the name? Shy straightened up. His expression said, “Are you sure you come from Saskatoon?” “Jules Fontaine—you must have known him. He was foot runner, now he’s a hook auditor. Jules is a big shot down East. He had a brother Joe,” said Shy.

Thera was a Joe Fortin.

“That’s him. He comes to see me when he’s in town. They all come to see Shy. If you see Jules Fontaine down East you tell him Shy was asking after him,” finishing a shoe with a soft snap of the cloth.

That’s the message from Shy. He was asking after you, Jules. And another thing—Remember Saskatoon? Well sir, it's become the prettiest little city in Western Canada. if