Wednesday, 19 February 2014 13:26

Exhibition shows city life in Swift Current a century ago

Written by  Matthew Liebenberg
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What was life like in Swift Current exactly 100 years ago when the community became a city?

This question will probably be in the minds of many modern-day residents during the centennial celebrations and it is one the Swift Current Museum is answering through its new exhibition — 1914: Life in a new City.
An opening reception for the new exhibition took place Feb. 5 and those in attendance received a guided tour from Stephanie Kaduck, the museum’s education and public programs co-ordinator.
“We wanted to do a couple of exhibitions that were related to the centennial and so the first one was 1914,” she said.
She curated the exhibition and read through the newspapers from 1914 to collect information that is used with photographs from the same era.
“Actually in this exhibition there’s limited text and a lot of things that (have) been clipped right out of the newspaper because you can see people’s language and the way that they thought much more clearly by reading what they are saying and thinking,” she explained.
The exhibition highlights various aspects of life in the city a century ago, from details about the infrastructure and business activities to the clothing styles of residents and the variety of entertainment and recreation activities in the community.
Kaduck has great admiration for the people who lived in Swift Current during 1914.
“I think that the people who lived then were pretty remarkable, pretty strong and able to take negative circumstances and move past them,” she said. “The city was a treeless mudhole with some beautiful buildings going up and it was wickedly cold.”
While it would have been interesting to visit the city in that era, she would not want to be a resident of Swift Current at that time.
“They had some nice advantages,” she said. “They had their bread and their milk and their meat delivered to their house, but that hauling the water from the creek to wash my clothes, that’s not really someplace I want to go.”
It would not take long for a new inhabitant of Swift Current in 1914 to realize the city was experiencing a boom. There were four hotels, five churches, seven lumber yards, nine banks and 12 wholesale warehouses.
The community received 100 bags of mail per day and more than one million bushels of wheat was shipped from the area annually.
Kaduck was struck by the number of amenities in this small prairie city and the busy social life of its residents.
“They had in some cases more of certain types of businesses than we do now,” she said. “It was a really, really active place and how could people who were working six days a week partake in these activities but they did. The photographs show they were right out there at every event.”
The city’s population was young and there were two men for every women. People worked 12 hours per day for six days a week, often involving physical labour.
There were more than enough activities to keep residents entertained when they were not working, including concerts and silent films at local theatres, an annual fair, visiting circuses, picnics, garden parties, ice cream socials and community suppers.
They were community oriented and most residents only relied on the local newspapers for information.
“They would have the odd headline in the local papers that had to do with somewhere else, more so when the war started, but it was really about what people were doing and what teams were winning and the local crime and things like that that filled the newspaper,” she said. “People paid attention to their families and they paid attention to their community.”
For Kaduck, the most surprising detail from her research was the high number of families who only had one living parent, which was around 20 per cent.
“Probably farming accidents and illnesses,” she said. “They had typhoid epidemics and diphtheria and tetanus and measles and scarlet fever and all those things that we take for granted aren’t lurking. There wasn’t penicillin available, so when people got sick they often died and women died in childbirth on a fairly regular basis. ... Lots of children died.”
The incorporation of Swift Current as a city was not the only event that made 1914 a landmark year.
Canada already went into a recession in 1913, but the effects of the economic slowdown was only felt in Swift Current by the middle of 1914 as several local building projects came to an end.
After three years of good weather and bumper crops, there was a drought in 1914 and an almost total crop failure.
“They had all these huge business projects and people were rolling in dough from three years of bumper crops and then all of a sudden the carpet was sort of pulled out from underneath the community,” she said.
The final event that had an important impact on the city was the outbreak of the First World War at the end of July. Hundreds of men left shortly afterwards to join the war effort and by the end of 1914 the future looked much more uncertain for the new city.
This exhibition will be on display until March 29. Another centennial related exhibition will take place from May to August. It will cover the entire 100 years of the city’s history with highlights from the different decades.
“We’re going to have some interesting and maybe excitingly surprising artifacts,” Kaduck said. “We’ve got something special coming.”
Towards the end of the year there will be an exhibition about the military history of Swift Current that will cover the period from the South African War (1899-1902) to the present war in Afghanistan.

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