Drought of 1929 anticipated problems of 1930s along Grand River

Spring floods and summer droughts have been subjects addressed in this column over the years.

There were major problems in the 1930s that prompted actions leading to the construction of the Shand Dam, opened in 1942.

But there were other crises as well that had implications for those depending on the Grand River.

One of those was the drought of 1929. Problems that year were not widespread, but that year all the rain clouds seemed to skirt around Fergus.

The town and the area around it enjoyed a good drenching in early July. And that was it until well into the fall.

Storm clouds could be seen drifting by several times during the summer, but they brought no rain to the Fergus area.

Other areas in Wellington County received a little rain, but none had a drought as bad as that in Fergus.

By late August many people with private wells had run out of water.

They had to make do as best they could, relying on the kindness of neighbours who still had water.

Even the town of Fergus was under pressure.

The Fergus Public Utilities Commission instituted lawn watering restrictions, and by the first week of September the commission decided town water should be used only for cooking and drinking.

For washing and bathing it urged people to use the water in their cisterns.

The commission was silent on the course to be followed by those without cisterns, or those whose cisterns were depleted.

The situation seemed to be the worst in Fergus, though nearby places had also become alarmed.

They received a little rain from time to time from isolated showers, but at levels far below normal.

Guelph imposed watering restrictions and other measures to reduce consumption. Authorities became most nervous about what would happen should a major fire break out. There was not enough water in many towns to fight a conflagration.

To the north, August brought something not seen for three decades: bush fires in the Luther Marsh.

Large areas of the normally soggy swamp there dried out, and soon there were a half dozen fires smouldering through the bog.

By later August several of those fires merged, resulting in a blaze like that of the 1890s, when part of the marsh burned for more than two years.

Smoke was often visible from places 20 miles away, and on the first Sunday of September the smoke could be plainly seen, and smelled, in Fergus.

The hot dry weather continued through September, a month that usually brought a good rain or two.

Farmers despaired that their crops would be badly affected. In some areas the soil was like concrete, frustrating the attempts of farmers who wanted to do some fall plowing.

A few farmers managed to count one blessing: the dry weather had killed off a lot of weeds.

Not everyone minded the drought and heat wave.

Several contractors took advantage of the weather in late August to start new houses that they had not originally planned to build until the spring of 1930.

That was good news for Fergus, where the huge Beatty plant was in full-out production, and there was a housing shortage for those with families.

The two major house builders in the town, Sturtridge & Holiday and Batho & Co., both sold a couple of houses under construction in September, which would not be finished until year end.

Unlike many industrialists, W.G. Beatty had a great fear of fire.

His firm, in the early 1920s, had installed a steam-powered pump at the Grand River plant, now the Fergus Market. It could pump 12,000 gallons per minute, about three times the capacity of the municipal system.

It supplied an early sprinkler system inside the plant, and was connected to several outside hydrants.

With the water shortage in 1929, they proceeded with additional fire protection at the main plant on Hill Street.

Work was under way there by the beginning of November 1929. The new system included some 7,500 sprinkler heads.

Each would open automatically when the temperature inside the building reached a specified point.

To supply the system, the company did not rely on municipal water.

They commissioned their own well, deeper than the one supplying the municipal system.

The company announced that in the spring of 1930 a crew of structural steel workers began assembling a water tower for the company with a capacity of 125,000 gallons, more than twice that of the Fergus municipal water tower, and it would be 12 feet higher.

Though an independent system for the factory only, the Beatty system, as the result of an agreement hammered out by W.G. Beatty and councillor Ham, could be connected to the municipal mains to assure an almost inexhaustible supply of water should a major fire break out in the town.

Wags around the town of Fergus thought the fire protection systems under construction by the town and the Beatty firm were overkill and an unnecessary expense.

That fall a major fire to the north, in Durham, devastated part of the downtown, silencing the critics.

Firefighters there had been hampered by an inadequate supply of water.

The agreement made by president Beatty and councillor Ham included beefing up the system at the lower plant on the Grand River.

The big engine and pump in the factory would supply a new six-inch pipe in the bed of the river to hydrants on St. Andrew Street.

Beatty was happy to offer his system for use by the town, because a major blaze on St. Andrew Street could imperil the Grand River Beatty plant, which was downwind most of the time.

Fergus council, always anxious to avoid extra expense, dithered on the proposal for a few months before agreeing.

The benefit would be an enhanced fire fighting ability, plus a reduction in the fire insurance rates for part of the town, and for Beatty Brothers in particular.

In addition to enhanced fire protection, W.G. Beatty pursued another project during the fall of 1929: a municipal swimming pool.

Beatty was himself an enthusiastic swimmer, and he wished to have a good municipal facility that he could share with employees and residents of Fergus, and especially the youth of the town.

Work started in the fall of 1929, across St. David Street from the Grand River plant.

The swimming season would be greatly extended by supplying heated water from the boiler in the factory.

In late September construction crews cleared the land down to bedrock, and dug a tunnel across the street that would contain pipes between the boiler room of the factory and the pool. When completed, Beatty intended to donate the pool to the town.

The agreements of 1929 between Beatty and the town generated much controversy. Some believed that old W.G. and the town were co-operating to provide facilities that would be beneficial to both at reduced cost to the company and to the taxpayers.

Others insisted that Beatty already had too much power and influence in the town, and that his agreements gave him an undesirable and unwanted degree of influence with council and over the town.

But that, as they say, is a complicated story, best dealt with at another time.



Stephen Thorning