R.H. Clemens, the first agricultural representative appointed by the province for Wellington County, has been mentioned several times in this column.
From his office in Arthur he directed a number of programs during the 1920s and 1930s to help farmers increase the efficiency of their practices and to introduce new crops to raise their incomes.
He was also an advocate of programs in the schools to encourage students to stay with agriculture as a vocation. No government official since that time has had the public profile and influence that Clemens cultivated locally.
In the winter of 1931, Clemens suggested a campaign against jack rabbits. Those were not the cute animals that some people kept as pets, but rather they were an introduced species that promised good profits to those raising them for the table. Inevitably, some of them escaped from confinement in the late 1920s. Within a few years they had multiplied – like rabbits, so to speak – and had become a pest to farmers.
In February of 1931, Clemens issued a report claiming that jack rabbits were responsible annually for $50,000 of damage to crops and trees in Wellington County. In purchasing power, that would be equivalent to a couple of million dollars in today’s money. He suggested that farmers could reduce the damage to their property with a systematic and organized program of hunting the pests. The rabbits would also be a welcome and free addition to their dinner tables, Clemens said.
He claimed that virtually every farmer in the county suffered damage to a greater or lesser extent. He was especially alarmed at the damage the rabbits were doing to trees. Many farmers lost fruit trees in their orchards when the rabbits stripped the bark off the trunks. When snow was high the rabbits reached up into the trees, nibbling at smaller twigs and eating the bark on the branches.
Of further concern was the damage the rabbits did to trees planted for reforestation. Clemens had been very successful in convincing farmers to plant trees as windbreaks and on poor quality land. By the late 1920s they were planting 150,000 trees per year, provided free by the forestry branch. By 1931, depending on the locality, rabbits had destroyed between five and 50 per cent of those trees.
As he often did, Clemens proposed a competition, organized on the basis of school sections. Each school section would be responsible for organizing the hunt in its area. There were about 150 schools sections in Wellington, and Clemens believed that the rabbit could be significantly reduced with an annual hunt. Organizing on the basis of school sections would provide both a friendly competition and complete coverage of the county. The teacher at each one-room school would be responsible for registering participants and counting the hares, which the hunters would bring to the school at 5pm the day of the hunt.
The teacher would count the hares, and report the results to Clemens’ office in Arthur by telephone. The hares would then be distributed for table use, and the results would be reported to the various weekly newspapers in Wellington.
Although Clemens was not able to organize a rabbit hunt on a county-wide basis, his efforts did encourage a number of men and boys to undertake their own hunts. In 1931 there was a huge population of hares.
Many hunting parties and individual hunters bagged upwards of 100 hares on a single day. For many families those hares provided a welcome variation from the usual menu during the Depression. And the hunters also succeeded in reducing the numbers of a destructive pest that had virtually no natural enemies.
During 1930 and 1931 the hunting of rabbits had become much more common than previously. Rather than sport, for most of those hunters it was done out of necessity.
By the beginning of 1931 the effects of the Depression had become undeniable. Layoffs and shorter hours were common at many plants. New businesses rarely started up, and virtually no business was hiring more hands. The result was a mounting population of unemployed and increasing numbers of people seeking aid.
Governments at all levels were slow and reluctant to offer help, and local governments were perhaps the stingiest. Reluctantly, many municipalities engaged men on various “make work” projects. It is unlikely that any of those programs would have been undertaken were it not for a 50 per cent subsidy from the senior levels of government for labour costs.
Fergus qualified for the program early in 1931 with a plan for a water main extension on Union Street. It would be dug by hand, and to avoid paying money to slackers, the town paid the labourers on a per-foot basis.
The ditch was five feet deep. Before the first week was over all but three of the dozen men employed on the project walked off, complaining that the soil was hard and almost impossible to dig, and that they encountered large stones that made the work difficult. There were so many unemployed in the town that other men soon took their place.
Fergus council later added a couple more projects to extend water mains. The work had to be done quickly. The subsidy would be only available until March 1, and council did not want to be responsible for the cost on its own. The extension of the water mains resulted in lower fire insurance costs for those along the line, and that partially offset the cost to taxpayers.
Elora council also doled out welfare very reluctantly. Those receiving assistance had to sign a promise to repay the money, either in money or in work for the village.
Nichol Township also received a number of requests from residents for assistance. Virtually all were from Salem and Lot 18. Several councillors privately admitted the township had made a mistake not approving the annexation of those areas into Elora several years before.
East Garafraxa council worked itself into a frenzy over the old age pension, which at that time was a very modest sum given to those over 70 who qualified through a means test, with a portion of the cost met by local government. Councillors believed that far too many people were drawing the pension – and surely many of them were not qualified. Council passed a resolution asking the authorities to investigate, and to have all future applications referred to themselves for final approval.
Nature gave the municipalities a break by providing a very mild winter. That meant lower costs than usual for keeping roads open and downtown sidewalks cleared. Little snow fell in January and February of 1931, and therefore no one was hiring men to shovel snow. In previous years many men and youths had supplemented their incomes by shoveling snow for the municipalities and the railways. There was nothing to collect in 1931.
To the criticism of several editors in Wellington County, elected officials did not seem to extend the economy measures to themselves. With three exceptions, all members of county council attended the three-day Good Roads Convention at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. Most vocal of the critics was Hugh Templin of Fergus. Several commentators wondered publicly if county council should not be abolished if it could not be reformed in the interest of economy and efficiency.
In cutting off relief programs on March 1, governments believed, or attempted to convince themselves, the Depression was merely a seasonal blip. As they were to find out, the worst was yet to come.