Turn of the Century Life in Wetaskiwin

Pipestone Flyer

    There were a number of events that the 20th century will be remembered by. To name a few, there were a number of severe recessions, most notably in the 1930s and the 80s. There were devastating world wars, and men on the moon. There were  also monumental improvements in the standard of living of ordinary people. In 1900 the life expectancy was about 47 for a man and 50 for a woman. At the end of the century it was about 75 and 80. This improvement was fueled greatly by new inventions to make life easier.

    In the late 1800s in Wetaskiwin and anywhere else, horses provided the main form of transportation and “pollution”. A horse can produce 20 to 30 pounds of manure a day. If you were in a big city like Edmonton or New York, multiply that by a thousand and you’ve got a big mess on your hands. Never mind the fact that livestock would be herded through town on a regular basis. Once Henry Ford introduced his Model T car in 1908 things would eventually evolve into a more mechanized world. 

    In 1900 Wetaskiwin was a small developing village “striding into the 20th century with energy and optimism. Even the names of the streets, used since the townsite was subdivided in 1892 gave a certain amount of character to the community”. MacDonald Street (51st  street) was named for our first Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, Pearce Street (50th ave) for William Pearce the chief surveyor of the Northwest Territories. Alberta Street (52st street) for Queen Victoria’s daughter. There were streets named after Governor Generals. 

    Subdivided lots in town had 50’ fronts and were 150’ deep. Lots facing Railway Street were 26’ by 130’. “Streets were 66’ wide which suggests original planners made no provisions for major thoroughfares or business districts”. There were only two railway crossings at the time and as the village grew this would cause a bottleneck of horses and wagons, and you thought there were no traffic jams back then. The village council was made up of men who were interested in the progress of the community. One of their first motions at their first meeting was that “cattle and horses  be prohibited from running at large within the street area of the village between Nov.1st –May 1st each year. Business and trade would improve and more professional men settled in town. At this point in time woman were deemed unqualified. There was activism to change the plight of woman going on at the time, however it wasn’t until 1927 that the “Famous Five” woman’s group would challenge this in court arguing that woman were “qualified persons”.

    There were many stories of pioneer families eking out livings. “Henry Nelson and Sam Reist, living on farms a short distance from town, were very much in demand in the construction trade, and always busy in the village. Reist especially could not be idle, he had 7 children when he arrived from Iowa in 1900. Being a carpenter back then was not an easy occupation. Henry walked the 4 miles to town each morning, worked ten hours for $1.50 then walked home again”.

    People were forced to be innovators. There was produce that farmers wanted to sell but no market. John west took it upon himself to change this. One time “he took all the butter that came in and had a butter maker work it over and pack it into tubs that were then shipped to lumber camps in B.C.” Mr. West accepted as much produce as possible and stored it in a warehouse and sold it as he found a market. The farmer who produced these goods was given a credit note or store merchandise. There was no cash, but this was better than no market at all. Most new settlers had little or no money at all. Under certain circumstances one could obtain credit from the Federal Government, however the process was quite daunting, and interest was at about 30%. If you couldn’t pay your debt back, land and/ or livestock would be seized. The loan would be dated and stamped Wetaskiwin NWT. Yes Wetaskiwin was part of the North West Territories until 1905 when Alberta was created.

    Settlers new to the area went to great lengths to earn a few bucks, survival depended on it. “One such fellow took 25 sacks of potatoes to Edmonton and sold them for 25cents a bag. He then bought himself a new pair of much needed high top boots for $2.50, and had a few dollars to spare. Another fellow T.T. Jevne cut and sold cord wood to the mill in Wetaskiwin. Jevne knew that all work and no play made for a dull life on the homestead, so he used some cordwood money to buy his wife an organ. It was a great source of pleasure for the Jevne family and many others in the district. Gustav Schnee walked all the way from his Gwynne area home to find work in Edmonton. He was on the police force for a time at 50 cents a day, and even tried panning for gold in the North Saskatchewan River”.

    Working away from home though necessary to supplement meager farm incomes created other problems.  It meant extra work for the wife and family. In some cases it meant giving up the family farm as people would gravitate to the city because of more opportunities. At any rate, what the country lost the city or town gained. Those hardy hardworking pioneers shaped the county to what it is today. Such was life in the early days.

    References: Siding 16 Vol. 1, McCord Museum, The City of Wetaskiwin Archives 4904-51st.   archives@wetaskiwin.ca