A Trip Through Time in Boomtown September 6, 2016 · 11 min. read
As I stepped out the doors of the Boomtown Hotel, I walked into the year 1910.
Dozens of wooden shops lined the street before me, each identifiable by the signs that hung outside the door or by the words painted on their façade. Horses stood throughout the street, and a couple motorcars parked between them. A sharp, blue 1916 McLaughlin Buick was to my immediate left – a car that wouldn't be built for at least another half decade.
Boomtown is, unfortunately, a fictional town. Created by century old artifacts, Boomtown makes up the primary exhibit in the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon. Similar to the Deep South Pioneer Museum in Ogema, Boomtown's purpose is to recreate a time and place that occurred over a century ago.
In Boomtown there was no electricity, no water, no central heating and no air conditioning. Radios were still a decade away, and motor cars were very uncommon. If you wanted to go somewhere, you went by horse – if you went at all. It was a new era in the West, one that nobody knew where it would lead.
It's hard to imagine today, but thriving metropolises like Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary and Edmonton were once these small, single street communities. Buildings from this era can still be seen in small towns, but the demand for "progress" in large urban centers has seen artifacts like these destroyed. That the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon exists – and its affiliate WDMs in North Battleford, Moose Jaw and Yorkton – are a testament to how important to keep this history alive.
Boomtown contains over two dozen buildings, each one has its own story. One of my favourites was the RNWMP Detachment. Inside is a display which discusses the conflicts between the two officers stationed in Boomtown, with the younger officer's sloppiness bothering the older officer. This building also has a jail cell for guests to "lock" their children or parents inside.
Another building I found fascinating was the Wing Lee Laundry. Chinese laundromats like this would have been sporadic throughout the West. I enjoyed this building because the only Chinese laundromat from the early 20th Century I know of in Regina was destroyed during the Regina Cyclone. After seeing the building in person, it makes sense how a storm could have torn it apart.
I also recommend visiting the Funeral Home. Inside, the displays discuss various tragedies and the adjustments the funeral business had to go through to accommodate them. One of the most challenging was the Spanish Flu that ravaged the province in 1918. George Speers of Speers Funeral Home in Regina was forced to deal with storing over 50 corpses at his quarters. To accommodate all the families, funerals averaged only about 15 minutes.
At the half-way point of the museum is the Winning the Prairie Gamble Exhibit. This exhibit offers a five-minute film about a mother who is going to her new home in Saskatchewan for the first time. Her belief of an easy life in the country is shattered when she learns she will live in a house made of dirt, will have to deal with swarming mosquitos and blizzards – a weather phenomenon she has only ever read about.
The rest of the museum follows this fictional family through the struggles they and society faced from 1905 onwards. The family had to deal with a variety of problems such as dirt houses that couldn't handle prairie storms, crops that refused to grow, crooked grain inspectors and the deadly Spanish Flu.
As the 1920s ushered in, farm life improved dramatically. T. Eaton catalogue homes replaced sod houses were, crops were improved the new Marquis Wheat and machines replaced horses. At this time there was a debate if machine power exceeded horse power. The argument many farmers had was that every few years horses gave birth to more horses while machines couldn't give birth to more machines. While this is a laughable argument today, it very much divided farmers.
With better crops, better machines and new houses, farmers had time to themselves. This then lead to more luxuries like electricity and radio coming to the West. Cities also boomed, and black and white films became more and more popular. With time to spare and extra money, farmers could now take their children to movies and purchase food and goods not available in their own towns. The 1920s would end up being one the most promising times to be living on the prairies.
A decade later everything changed. The stock market crashed and the over producing of Marquis Wheat left the ground dry and barren. Dust storms tore through communities, blanketing out the sun and turning day into night. "[Dust] muddied the tea, soiled the soup, and added a strong earthly flavour to the stew", said one exhibit.
What crops weren't flattened by the wind were ruined by biblical sized plagues of locusts. Farmers would spray their houses with poison to keep the insects off of them, only to be covered by the bugs themselves.
With no money, and with relying on government assistance for food, farmers could not buy gasoline for their cars and equipment. The once defunct horses were then saddled up and pulled the machines along, doing the job they were deemed obsolete from doing.
Regardless of how much the farmers worked money just couldn't be made. A farmer's wife explained in a 1933 copy of The Nor'-West Farmer, "betwixt drought, depression and other contributory causes, our yearly income for the past five years can be fairly well represented by 'Zero-Minus'."
Care packages from the East then arrived in the prairies to help with the crisis. Often these care packages contained cod. By the time the dried cod arrived in the prairies, it was inedible. One recipe explains the quality of the fish:
"You soak the fish for several days, then pound it on a board for a few hours. Then you throw away the fish and you eat the board."
The 1930s would end with two major events. The first happened in 1938 with an outbreak of western equine encephalitis; a mosquito-spread illness that would kill horses during their sleep. The illness killed over 50,000 horses – an expense the farmers just couldn't cover. During harvest, many farmers pooled their horses together to get the job done.
The second event occurred during the harvest of 1939 with Canada joining World War II. Many farmers who had struggled for a decade to support their families saw this as a way to make money and joined the forces. Those that didn't join were asked by the government not to grow grain, but to raise pigs instead. Grain sales to Europe during wartime ceased to exist, and instead, meat was needed to feed the soldiers. This also gave the damaged soil more time to recover from a decade of abuse. This change in farming slowly healed the land and brought the prairies out of the worst economic disaster in history.
During the war, many farm equipment factories became vehicles and ammunition factories. Over the years outdated pre-Depression Era farm equipment failed. Instead of purchasing new equipment, advertisements urged farmers to repair it themselves, with statements such as "When we repair a mower, we help build a bomber". When the war ended, many farmers used their saved up money to buy new equipment and the industry boomed.
From then on, Boomtown and the Prairies would see its fair share of ups and downs. From foot-and-mouth disease to mad cow disease, to big yellow school buses replacing small white school houses, the West changed drastically after the war. Wheat was replaced with canola, lentils and mustard seed and farms quadrupled in size. While there are fewer farmers today than there was twenty years ago, they are making more food than ever before.
Going into Boomtown and the Western Development Museum, I had some knowledge of farming and the struggles of small town life. Upon leaving it, I realized I knew much less than I thought I did. I also had a much better appreciation for farmers and those who struggled to make the West the way it is today. While Boomtown might not be real, the stories within it are, and they are worth revisiting again and again.
Have you ever taken a trip through time in Boomtown? What did you take away from it? Let me know in the comments below!
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And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.
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