Workers at one of the accommodation huts at the relief camp at the Kitchener airport.

New Creston Museum exhibit examines Great Depression

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“Attracting and keeping customers in tough economic times.”

“Competing businesses in other communities.”

“Juggling rising wage costs and taxes.”

“Poor returns on locally-produced goods.”

“High unemployment rates.”

“Devolution of federal and provincial responsibilities onto municipalities.”

 

Are these the headlines of today — or of 80 years ago?

In researching the Creston Museum’s newest exhibit, staff and volunteers have had to remind themselves many times over the winter that they were, in fact, reading newspapers from the 1930s.

The exhibit, called “Getting By … and Coming Through,” is all about the Great Depression in the Creston Valley, and opens May 12 with a special reception from 1-4 p.m.

“It touches on the big things we’re all familiar with — relief projects, migration from the Prairies, things that we’ve learned about in school or remember hearing about from our parents and grandparents,” said museum manager Tammy Hardwick, “but it looks specifically how these national conditions manifested themselves in the Creston Valley.”

The 1930s were a decade of startling contrasts. It was a time when local fruit production and quality were as high as they have ever been — but prices were so low that farmers often lost money. Some people were managing quite well on their own farm production; others barely survived at all. There was no money circulating, and yet there was enough to undertake some huge projects such as diking the flats or building a hydroelectric dam. Many businesses closed because they couldn’t afford to keep operating; many others started up and thrived.

“It’s a fascinating time period,” said Hardwick. “We started with the general belief that Creston was doing OK during the Great Depression, and people who were here at the time have largely confirmed that — if you had a farm, you could usually get by. But the key words there are ‘usually’ and ‘get by’ — not everyone did manage, and there was certainly no safety margin.”

One family, for example, moved to Canyon from Saskatchewan, lured by the promise of productive agricultural land. Within a few months, the parents and their 11 children were starving: their new farm didn’t produce enough for them to eat, and they didn’t qualify for relief because they hadn’t been in the province long enough.

“As we’ve tried to show in the exhibit, there were two realities in the Creston Valley during the Great Depression,” said Hardwick. “There was the reality of making do, and persevering, and optimism that things were improving. And then there was the other reality, this one very dark, and very harsh, of a struggle for mere survival, of desperation and hopelessness. The difference between the two — the line that separated one group of people from the other — was unbelievably thin.”

 

— CRESTON MUSEUM

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