The year Saskatchewan hit its all-time low point
Seventy years ago this summer, Saskatchewan was the reluctant host to a visitor from hell. What came calling was hell itself, here on earth. It was hot. If records are made to be broken — box-office movie sales, housing starts, even the lifetime passing and rushing standards set by Roughriders Ron Lancaster and George Reed, Canadian football marks once considered untouchable — it remains a marvel that the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada has stood now for a full generation: 113 F (45 C), the mercury’s peak at the Yellow Grass and Midale weather stations on July 5, 1937.
What the statistic alone doesn’t tell is the story of a province at its bleakest.
In June 1937, Saskatchewan had every reason to call it quits. Almost a decade of drought had parched the southern grainlands and already what little crop had been seeded was lost in dust. That the price of wheat futures had climbed to $1.48 a bushel was irrelevant, a mean prank to a farm region with its lowest level of spring precipitation in 60 years. A 10-minute cloudburst in Yorkton, a weather event that in 2007 would be considered a typical afternoon, was major news in The LeaderPost. The farmer’s worst foe, the drought — the drouth, as it was then known — had even turned on its fellow enemies of agriculture. “At Arcola, Stoughton and surrounding districts it has been reported that the grasshoppers are starving,” said the paper. “There just isn’t a thing for them to eat. They are in the flight stage but due to lack of nourishment it is doubted if they will have the strength to fly out of the drouth-stricken country. CPR train men report that the tracks are covered with grasshoppers crushed by the trains.”
Wascana Lake was shrinking, worrying Regina authorities about both water quality, for swimmers, and quantity, for municipal systems. Lake of the Rivers, near Oxbow, had evaporated, and farmers there combed the lake floor for old buffalo bones, at $12 a ton their first decent harvest in years. At the dry bottom of Lake Johnston — Old Wives Lake — reporters chased unfounded local rumours of an old brick well left by the survey expedition of John Palliser, ironically the very explorer who predicted no man would ever successfully farm the prairie drylands.
By the end of June, daytime high temperatures in southern Saskatchewan were consistently reaching the high 90s F, the mid-30s C. A baked, broke province of grain farmers, their crops beyond salvage, turned to Saskatchewan’s summertime diversions, its fairs and sports days. Baseball in particular drew record crowds to July 1 festivities, despite the heat — 7,000 in Moosomin, 1,500 in Bethune, 2,000 more in Rouleau.
“They left their cares at home, tightened their belts in preparation for another hard winter and went out to enjoy themselves on the holiday,” reported the sports section of then-editor Scotty Melville. “They joined thousands of city residents in celebrations that ... gave the rest of the world further cause to marvel at these men of the prairies, men who have taken the knockdown punch four, five, six times.
“Dominion Day, 1937. No wheat. But sportsmen by the thousands. Sportsmen who can take it.” But sportsmen, the farmers, had little inkling how much more in the next few days they would have to take. Dominion Day was a Thursday. That weekend came the inconceivable: Yet higher temperatures.
Sunday set all-time records. All-time records lasted only overnight, shattered on Monday.
In the late Monday edition of The Leader-Post, on a day when the current news cycle might otherwise have demanded more attention to a city-wide plebiscite in Saskatoon rejecting daylight saving time, or to faint radio signals detected in the south Pacific and thought to be those of aviator Amelia Earhart, missing since Friday, all that really mattered was the heat.
Asphalt streets turned gooey. Candles felt limp on fireplace mantles, curling over on themselves, wicks pointed down. Gramophone records melted in storefront displays. Chickens, and henhouses, had to be cooled down with a spray of water, and still birds suffocated. Even with fans blowing full blast, grocers lost most perishable produce.
“Those who went to the beaches to cool by swimming were surprised at the temporary effect of the water,” said the paper. “Swimmers found that after leaving the water for not more than 10 minutes, they were sweating again while lying on the beaches. They perspired before their bathing suits had started to dry. For fair-skinned people the day was bad. Many, despite the use of oil and other preparations, found their necks and backs blistering while most of the weekend beach visitors stayed in shade all day, leaving the sunny sands forsaken until evening.”
Automobile radiators boiled over, or their rubber tires softened in the heat and failed. One man reported seeing 34 motorists struggling with flats on the road from the city to Regina Beach.
Hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk? One Weyburn resident reportedly tried: “It evaporated and dried up before it had a chance to cook.” Hot enough? It was hot enough for almost everyone, mad dogs and Englishmen included, if not golfers and soldiers. In Estevan, a city that one year earlier had tied the Canadian all-time heat record at 110 F (44.3 C), 100 men of the South Saskatchewan Regiment were ordered to march, as scheduled, through town to the train depot during the height of the afternoon heat, on their way to training at Dundurn. “They looked anything but comfortable in their khaki breeches, high-necked coats and ponderous knapsacks and caps.” Meanwhile, at the provincial sand-greens tournament at the Lynbrook course in Moose Jaw, “golfers plodded on the championship trail in spite of record-shattering heat.”
Naturally the heat stirred atmospheric patterns for stormy weather later in the afternoon.
“The terrific heat brought no longlooked for rain in its wake but it did bring a dust storm of almost cyclonic fury raking up dust and dirt that blotted out buildings only a half mile away. The dust swept through wideopen windows of heat-tortured homes to coat furniture and floor.” The “cyclonic wind” destroyed a barn and sheds near Uren, and fanned a fire that eventually burned out 12 square miles of bush and pasture near Qu’Appelle. An unnamed Leader-Post correspondent, on the road with a photographer to document the drought, filed his report from Shaunavon: “It was 103 in the shade if you could find any shade ... a sun blast leaving in its wake a seering, seething wind that picked up the alkali-laden silt and drove it across farmland and highways in a pall that blotted out heaven and earth and hope, and scorched into useless stubble a crop which had at best promised only need and feed for the needy.”
At the end of the day, Regina had a new record high temperature of 111 F (43.9 C); Moose Jaw and Estevan likewise of 110 F (43.3 C); Assiniboia of 109 F (42.8 C), Fort Qu’Appelle of 112 (44.4 C), and of course Yellow Grass and Midale’s historic mark, challenged only by reports of a federal reading in Weyburn, never officially calibrated or confirmed, of 114 F (45.5 C).
In 1937, the wheat harvest in Saskatchewan averaged a measly 2.7 bushels an acre, barely a quarter of the pathetic yields recorded in any other Dustbowl year, a 20th of a decent crop now. In later years, survivors of late June and early July 1937 would recall the time as hot, yes, dry, yes, dusty, for sure, although not so much as an exceptional period, but as one stretch in the continuum of the miserable 1930s.
Much would change after July 5, 1937, however, and quickly. In only two years Canada would be at war, and in Saskatchewan the rains would come, restoring the Bread Basket.
Still, it seemed Saskatchewan had to hit bottom before it would ever bounce back. If nothing else, a record day for heat, the hottest day Canada has ever known, marks that nadir in provincial history.