How Lethbridge Licked The Drought

Fear that the thirsty Thirties will return haunts every prairie farmer except those who work near Lethbridge. Here's how The Ditch turned southern Alberta into the richest land in the west

ROBERT COLLINS February 1 1954

How Lethbridge Licked The Drought

Fear that the thirsty Thirties will return haunts every prairie farmer except those who work near Lethbridge. Here's how The Ditch turned southern Alberta into the richest land in the west

ROBERT COLLINS February 1 1954

How Lethbridge Licked The Drought

Fear that the thirsty Thirties will return haunts every prairie farmer except those who work near Lethbridge. Here's how The Ditch turned southern Alberta into the richest land in the west


OLD-TIMERS in Lethbridge, Alberta’s third city, still scoff at a report made ninety-three years ago by the late Capt. John Palliser. Palliser was an English explorer and geologist who traveled across western Canada, penciled a lopsided fifty-million-acre triangle on his map of the prairies and informed Her Majesty’s colonial office: “This area is more or less arid desert. It can never be expected to be occupied by settlers.”

His prophecy was part ially fulfilled. Settlers did go into Palliser’s triangle but two hundred and fifty thousand of them were sent trudging out by the drought of the 1930s. Today, despite a recent string of good crops, the dust-bowl farmers of southern Saskatchewan and eastern Alberta rarely count on security. They feel that sooner or later dry years may return.

But in the lower left corner of the triangle, about a hundred and thirty miles south of Calgary, Lethbridge laughs at Palliser and the drought. For Lethbridge has water the difference between prosperity and poverty on the prairies. It is the birthplace of Canadian irrigation or, as irrigation farmers put it, “the ditch.” It is the shopping centre for the richest, most heavily populated agricultural land in the west—a land which supports one hundred thousand people and last year produced one hundred and forty million dollars’ worth of wheat, sheep, cattle, sugar beets, potatoes, peas, beans, corn and cucumbers. Lethbridge is the city that licked the drought.

Of nine hundred thousand irrigated acres in Canada, seventy-two percent are in Alberta, sixty percent are within one hundred miles of Lethbridge —and the ditch is still advancing. Eventually Alberta hopes to have two million four hundred thousand acres under irrigation. The life-giving water begins its journey to Lethbridge in trickling Rocky Mountain streams. It swells into the Waterton, St. Mary, Oldman, Belly, Milk and Bow Rivers. It bides its time in quiet reservoirs like the seventeen-mile storage basin of the St. Mary River Dam, forty miles southwest of the city. Then it hurries through meandering canals, hurdles gullies and ravines in huge pipe-shaped siphons, gushes into thousands of field-side ditches and finally, through gravity flow and sprinkler pipes, gently gives itself to the t hirsty land.

In Lethbridge in summer the drab Alberta prairie suddenly changes into small lush farms laced with blue ditches or bathed in the silvery mist of irrigat ion sprinklers. The city itself is flat and green, with thirty thousand trees planted by hand forty-three years ago and watered from an irrigation ditch which at that time ran down a main street. Today the streets flow with prosper-

ous businessmen and farmers who have never known a crop failure. In the Thirties, while most prairie farmers searched the sky for rain, Lethbridge irrigation farmers simply looked to their ditches. The city has no more natural rainfall than any other prairie town. Its main crop, the sugar beet, needs about thirteen inches of water during July and August. For half a century Lethbridge has averaged only t hree and one quarter inches of rain during those two months. But the sugar beets flourish because with irrigation the farmers create the equivalent of a ten-inch rainstorm every midsummer.

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How Lethbridge Licked the Drought


Lethbridge is Canada’s irrigation capital mostly because it got a head start fifty-five years ago through the wisdom of its pioneers. In 1877 a band of Mormon set tlers led by Charles Ora Card went to farm the country south of Lethbridge and soon clamored for irrigation such as they’d known in their native Utah. Charles Magrath, Lethbridge's first mayor, quickly realized the value of the ditch, sold the idea to his father-in-law, Sir Alexander Galt, a father of Confederation and a local coal and railway magnate.

Galt decided to link land settlement with irrigation and won support from Hon. Clifford Sifton, then federal minister of the interior. Magrath went to Salt Lake City and persuaded Mormon settlers to move north and help build irrigation ditches in return for farmland. In 1899 Sifton opened t he headgates for the first true irrigation system in Canada.

In the beginning it was thought farmers would pay for the ditch but it soon became obvious that large-scale irrigation was too expensive. And, as farmers still point out, nearly everyone in an irrigation community benefits from the water whether they farm or not. So now, in the Lethbridge area’s latest project, the provincial and federal governments share the cost of construction. The farmer concerned pays the province an initial fee for his right to use the water and he also pays a yearly levy which covers the cost of maintenance.

By 1901 there were thirty-six hundred irrigated acres near Lethbridge. By the Twenties several separate irrigation schemes had sprung up. In the Thirties destitute Saskatchewan farmers trekked along the highway from Medicine Hat and gazed enviously at farms like that of Nephi Jensen, who lives thirty miles east of Lethbridge. Jensen, who’s still lean, dark-haired and youthful-looking at sixty-one, was one of the first irrigation farmers in the district. Like others under the ditch, he made a living during the depression.

“Dry-land farmers were pulling out all around me,” he recalls. “I remember one poor fella from Saskatchewan who ran out of gas outside my place. He had his family and everything he owned in a beat-up ear and trailer. I gave him a can of gas and he kept on going. If it hadn’t been for irrigation I’d have been just like him.”

Around Lethbridge the federal government is now helping finance the thirty - million - dollar St. Mary - Milk River development. The project, with its half-mile-long St. Mary River Dam, the largest earthen dam in Canada, will ultimately water a half million acres. The federal government is paying about fifty-five percent of the cost and Alberta the remainder. The province will recover some of this by charging farmers ten dollars an acre for the initial water rights. Year-toyear maintenance will be paid for, as in most irrigated areas, by an annual levy of about one to three dollars an acre on the farmers concerned.

Results in the Lethbridge district in the past have more than justified the expense. Only about three percent of Alberta farmland is irrigated but this yields more than eight percent of the province’s agricultural produce.

Land that once sold for around thirty dollars an acre is worth up to three hundred dollars irrigated. Dry-land areas in southern Alberta average less than four people to the square mile. In completely irrigated districts, the population averages thirty people per square mile. Sometimes it even exceeds thirty. The Lethbridge northern district, a two hundred and fifty square mile area, had three hundred farm units and fifteen hundred people before irrigation. In less than twenty years under the ditch it grew to one thousand farms and ten thousand people—or forty to the square mile.

Generally speaking, irrigation farming means more physical year-round work than large-scale mechanized wheat farming. For one thing, handweeding and topping of beets is more laborious. For another wheat farmers are virtually wheat “miners” who work their crops to the exclusion of other activity through spring, summer and fall, and then do nothing in the winter. Irrigation farming requires feeding of cattle through the winter since it’s planned on a well-rotated year-round basis. But there are compensations.

Around Lethbridge, for example, increased population has given the farms rural electrification and paved or graveled roads. Many farmers install pressure systems with gravel filters and have running water in their homes. Nearly every farm has its own small “dug-out” pond which waters livestock and doubles as a swimming hole.

Irrigation has dressed up the prairie. The farms usually have green tree belts and bright flower gardens. Canals are sometimes lined with shady willow trees which become as thick and troublesome as weeds. Farmers can swim or boat on the reservoirs. Duck hunters are in their glory. For a while, one man near the St. Mary River Dam owned a pontoon-equipped airplane and used the dam as his airstrip.

Without irrigation security, Lethbridge itself would be just another prairie city. As it is, years of steady farm income have made it rich, comfortable and complacent—traits rare in prairie agricultural centres.

During the depression Lethbridge had the highest retail trade of any city its size in the west. Today its ninety wholesale and five hundred retail firms sell sixty million dollars’ worth of clothing, groceries, machinery, electrical appliances and furniture in a year. On Saturday afternoons its hundred-foot-

wide streets are jammed with traffic and its normal population of twenty-six thousand is swelled by shoppers from forty or fifty miles around. Its homes are well-painted and its people welldressed. In 1949 and 1950 Lethbridge had the highest per capita income in Canada. In 1951, the last year on record, the city slipped to ninth place but still averaged $3,271 a taxpayer. .Sixty people in the district own airplanes.

There’s a seven-hundred-thousanddollar recreation centre which superintendent of recreation Lome Davidson, a transplanted Vancouverite, calls the finest in Canada. It has a swimming pool, club rooms, two auditoriums, Little League baseball park, soccer field and a curling and skating rink which members call North America’s largest ice surface under one roof —35,424 square feet. In fact, quiet, contented Lethbridge would be somewhat stuffy if it weren’t for barbecues, the Kainai Indians and Senator William A. Buchanan, publisher of the Lethbridge Herald.

Lethbridge adopted the barbecues when Harry Hargrave moved there a few years ago from Medicine Hat. Hargrave, a tall scholarly looking employee of the local Dominion Experimental Station, was raised on an Alberta ranch and has made western folklore his hobby and barbecues his specialty. At the July 1951 opening of the St. Mary River Dam he supervised the feeding of two thousand guests at a flying club barbecue.

For such occasions Hargrave and his helpers dig a pit about six feet deep, heat rocks for ten hours on a nearby grill and, when the rocks are glowing red, tumble them into the hole and cover them with sheet metal. Twentyto forty-pound chunks of beef—boned, rolled, salted, coated with flour-andwater paste and bundled in cheesecloth and clean burlap—are tossed on the makeshift oven. Another sheet of metal goes on top, the pit is banked with earth and everyone sits down for eight hours to work up an appetite.

At a 1947 barbecue for the Agricultural Institute of Canada, Hargrave withdrew the beef at the appointed time and found it raw. He hastily re-covered the pit and gloomily eyed five hundred drooling delegates, standing around with their oversize hamburger buns hanging out. Half an hour later he tested the meat again. This time the air was charged with the tantalizing aroma of juicy roasts. Hargrave’s reputation as master of the barbecue was saved.

Sometimes the meat is basted with a fiery sauce but this isn’t essential. “Barbecued beef really doesn’t need any improvement because all the natural juices are retained,” says Hargrave. “You don’t even need prime beef. The toughest old cow will come out tender if she’s barbecued.”

The Kainai, probably the only band of white Indians in Canada, is more exclusive than a barbecue but equally colorful. It consists of men who have been made honorary chiefs of the Blood tribe, which has its reservation south of Lethbridge. Living membership is restricted to thirty-five.

It was organized in 1950 by Ernest R. McFarland, a wealthy, restless businessman whose hobby is putting Lethbridge on the map. As president of the Royal Canadian Flying Clubs Association, a vice-president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, a director of the National Air Show and member or executive of a half dozen other local or national organizations, McFarland junkets back and forth across Canada spreading the Lethbridge gospel so ardently that Premier Joseph Smallwood of Newfoundland once dubbed him “Mr. South Alberta.”

Senator William Asbury Buchanan has probably done more than any other man to promote Lethbridge, through forty-nine years of championing irrigation in the Herald. Buchanan stepped off a train from eastern Canada in 1905 in the midst of a Lethbridge dust storm. He promptly moved on to Calgary and Edmonton, but returned to buy an interest in the weekly Herald. By 1907 he owned it and had so impressed the town with his journalistic ability and community spirit that a local banker stopped him on the street one day and asked, “Why don’t you make the Herald a daily?”

“Haven’t the money,” said Buchanan.

“Well, why didn’t you say so before,” demanded the banker. “I’ll loan you the money.”

Buchanan went on to become a federal MP, a senator and one of the best-known newsmen in the west.

At seventy-seven he has the tireless energy of men half his age. Last fall he had a serious abdominal operation. Three weeks later he was home, peppering his staff with notes. A week after that he was back at his desk every morning, keeping an eye on southern Alberta and marveling at its progress.

“One night this fall, at a convention, the city gave each woman a shopping bag full of Lethbridge products,” muses Buchanan. “Sugar, flour, canned peas and corn, tomato juice, things like that. And I thought, ‘What a transformation from 1905 when there was nothing here but coal.’ ”

Coal is still important to Lethbridge although everyone tends to forget it. Six hundred and fifty miners live in the city, work in nearby mines and draw an annual payroll of around two million dollars. Lethbridge was founded on coal by Nicholas Sheran, a blackmustached Civil War veteran who came to Canada for gold in 1872 and stayed to dig coal from the steep hills around the Oldman River. The coal is a type of hard coal called sub-bituminous.

The Indians called the site Steep Banks but in Sheran’s time it was known as Coal Banks. Then Sir Alexander Galt formed a coal company with William Lethbridge of Devonshire, England, as first president and in 1885 the new mining settlement was named after Lethbridge. Today coal production has slumped before the competition of oil, natural gas and propane gas. But Alberta’s coal resources are enormous. Around Lethbridge alone there are seven hundred million tons in reserve.

“Coal will come back when the supply of oil and gas is exhausted,” prophesies John M. Davidson, manager of a local colliery. “Someday the pipelines that carried oil and natural gas will carry similar products made from coal.”

Meanwhile, the silver-grey greentopped sugar beet is by far the most important single item to Lethbridge pocketbooks. Sugar beets respond to fertile, well-prepared irrigation land better than any other crop. They will grow in a variety of soils, and are a good “cleaning” crop—farmers clean the weeds from among the well-spaced beet plants whereas the same weeds would swamp wheat.

Sugar beets, ranging from three to eight inches across the crown and eight to fifteen inches long, produce an average two hundred and seventy-six pounds of sugar to the ton but as much as three hundred and twenty pounds has been obtained. At the factory they’re washed, shredded, soaked under pressure in diffusion tanks where the pulp is separated from a sweet juice. The pulp is salvaged for cattle feed. The juice is purified and evaporated to produce crystalline sugar and the residue is whirled out of the thick molasses in centrifugal drums.

Housewives Oblivious

Beet sugar is sold mainly in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Alberta produces nearly half the beet sugar in Canada which means about one-tenth of all the sugar consumed in the country. There is no difference between beet and cane sugar but there’s a superstition among housewives that beet sugar will not preserve fruit.

Once Philip Baker, president of the Alberta Sugar Beet Growers Association for the past seventeen years, took some beet sugar to a sceptical Edmonton retailer.

“Just don’t tell the women this is beet sugar,” said Baker. “If you have a single complaint you don’t have to pay us a cent for this order.”

There were no complaints. The retailer even took some home to his wife, who didn’t know it from cane sugar.

Baker, a big man with a slow grin, has doggedly backed the sugar-beet growers since the association was formed in 1925. Once, when the organization couldn’t get bank credit, Baker borrowed money for it on his own note. He is also president of the Canadian Sugar Beet Growers and an expert on water conservation. He was awarded the Coronation Medal for his contribution to agriculture and is now retired. Beet growers have a relatively happy working arrangement. A farm ?r is guaranteed a set price per ton for all the beets raised on his acreage. The price is determined each spring in negotiations between the sugar company and the association. Over the past five years, it has ranged from thirteen to eighteen dollars a ton. The payment is spread out in five installments over the year which gives the farmer and the district a steadier income.

Machines are now available for most of the labor but they are expensive. Olaf Olson, who farms a four hundred and eighty acre beet and tomato farm east of Lethbridge says his sugar beet digging machine cost about sixty-five hundred dollars. Olson keeps a stock pile of three-thousand-dollars’ worth of spare parts in case of breakdowns.

Because of the expense, small farmers like Sam Haucka, an RCAF veteran near Taber, thirty miles east, do their own weeding, thinning and topping by hand. Haucka, starting from scratch on bald prairie in 1950 has carved out ten acres of beets, fifteen acres of corn, built his home and planted four thousand trees in three years.

Established farmers often hire immigrant labor: Czechs, Slovaks, Scan-

dinavians, Netherlanders. These people produce incredible success stories. Their employer provides them with lodging, they live cheaply, work perhaps eighteen hours a day, save every penny and eventually buy their own land. Fifty to sixty percent of the irrigation farmers in Lethbridge district started out as hand laborers.

Frank Rabusie and his wife, who went to the Lethbridge area from Czechoslovakia in 1929, worked sixteen to eighteen hours a day for six years in the sugar-beet fields. Then they began to buy land. Today they are worth more than one hundred thousand dollars, with a home in Lethbridge and a fully - mechanized four-hundred-acre farm near Raymond.

“Irrigation pays off if you work at it,” says Steve Houlton who was born in England, and has grown beets for twenty-seven years without a crop failure. “I know a man who started hoeing sugar beets around 1927. Three years ago he made the final payment on a thirty-five-thousand-dollar farm and now, I guess, he’s worth seventy thousand dollars.”

As well as sugar beets, most farmers grow vegetables, alfalfa, oats or barley. Then in the fall they buy lean cattle from ranchers, fatten them in open feed-lots on hay, grain or beet pulp and sell them for a profit in the spring. The manure makes excellent fertilizer for the beet fields. Thus the farmer doesn’t depend on a one-crop economy.

In such diversified year-around farming his labor and equipment costs are high. He may not get rich as quickly as the wheat farmer who strikes a few good years but his future is sure. Thus Lethbridge, the service centre, makes money every year.

A. E. Palmer, retired superintendent of the experimental farm who went to Pakistan in November as an irrigation expert, says, “Suppose a farmer raises twelve tons of beets to the acre on twenty acres and sells them for fourteen dollars a ton. Let’s say his labor and other costs average eighty dollars an acre. He’ll only net about seventeen hundred dollars from his beets. But his gross return is nearly thirty-five hundred dollars and most of that is spent in Lethbridge.”

The first 1953 beet payment last fall was about three and a quarter million dollars and eighty-five percent of the money was spent in Lethbridge, according to Philip Baker.

That’s why Lethbridge prizes every muddy ditch, talks about a population of seventy thousand within twenty years and honors the memory of every pioneer who had faith enough to nurse the city from dry land, through coal, to water. There’s a park named after Sir Alexander Galt; a cairn honors Nick Sheran and his first coal mine; a new drive is named after Charles Magrath (although most streets and avenues in town are numbered) and a portrait of bearded William Lethbridge hangs prominently in the new city hall. But nowhere is there a memento of Capt. John Pa 11 ¡ser. As far as Lethbridge is concerned, the gloomy prophet couldn’t have been more wrong. ★