Sunday, 30 June 2013

My Wyatt Ancestry

Photo: William Wyatt III, 1798-1867
I was given one of my best birthday gifts ever on January 21, 2012 (my 60th birthday) when my wife and two kids purchased my own 90-day subscription to Here’s what I found out about my ancestry through the site, plus information that my mother and other family members uncovered through conversations and letter writing etc. over the years…

I actually traced my Wyatt line back more than 300 years to Philip Wyatt (1692-1721) and Joan Wyatt (1697-1748). Both were born and raised in Buckland St Mary, Somerset County, England and married there in 1718. They lived and died there.  They were my great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents. Now, let’s move ahead to their great-grandson and my great-great grandfather, William Wyatt III (1798-1867), a lawyer by trade, who had married twice and had 13 kids total. Whew! Big families back then. Up until the mid-1800s, the Wyatts had remained in that same part of England. But William’s kids soon changed everything. It was this generation that was bitten by the adventurous bug because most left Buckland St Mary for North America, never to return. My great-grandfather Arthur Percy Wyatt (1850-1938), born to William and his second wife, Grace, was the one who started my line of Wyatts.

Arthur, it turned out, first came to Canada in his late teens with his brother Charles  (who eventually settled in Ontario to stay), a couple years after the American Civil War ended in 1865. They both found work, but Arthur had to return to England several months later when his father had died. It seems, Arthur was the executor of the will. It apparently took years to settle all the legal matters. I’m reading in between the lines here… it may have taken a long time to iron things out because the older half-brothers and half-sisters were probably displeased with this younger whipper-snapper sibling being the executor. Just a thought. Anyway, Arthur stayed in England and from what I acquired from family sources, he took to “lawyering.”  Sort of. He settled down, married Fannie Trump and had three kids, Charles, Mabel and Percy, my grandfather. Arthur supposedly didn’t like desk work, taking to gardening and turning the soil instead. With a new, determined spirit in him, he returned to Canada in 1884 with his young family, worked in Ontario for a year, then headed West—Go West Young Man—to the Territories as they were called then, to where the present town of Broadview, Saskatchewan is today to become a wheat farmer. Six more kids came along, then Fanny died in 1895 giving birth to their last. Twelve years later, in 1907, a woman named Florence Ball came over from England to marry Arthur.

Now here’s our skeleton in the family. I’m sure every family has their own rough spots. From what I’ve heard, Arthur and Florence weren’t exactly the best natured people. In fact, my father told my mother on more than one occasion that he and his five siblings did not have a good relationship with their grandparents, especially Florence. Both were grumpy, miserable individuals. Too bad, because I grew up loving my three grandparents. (My grandpa Wyatt died before I was born).  Without going into any details, it seems that Florence was a real capital B. She didn’t like the climate or the people. When Arthur died in 1938, she returned to England shortly after. I bet the Wyatt family couldn’t get to the train fast enough to wave Bon Voyage

Within a few short weeks of accessing the website, I came across distant cousins (descendants of Arthur’s siblings) throughout  Canada, the US and Australia. Most of us stay in touch, too. They call my line the Saskatchewan Wyatts. During my ancestry research I also came across something interesting. There are stories out there handed down through the generations that the Wyatts of England are descendants of Admiral Adam Guyot, the man whom William the Conqueror hand-picked to lead his fleet of ships across the English Channel during the Norman-French invasion of England in 1066. Marrying one of William’s daughters and residing in England after the defeat of the British, as these stories go,  Guyot changed his name to Wyot. Over the years, the family name then became Wiot, Wiat, Wiatt and finally Wyatt.

In support of this, I found a book in the local library entitled English Surnames  by Charles Wareing Bardsley, published by Charles E Tuttle Co Publishers, Rutland, Vermont, USA, 1968. On page 36 is the following…

‘Guy’ or “Guyon” dates from the ‘Round Table,’ but it was reserved for the Norman to make his name so familiar to English lips. The best proof of this is that the surnames which it has left us are all but entirely formed from the Norman-French diminutive ‘Guyot,’ which in England became, of course, ‘Wyot.’ …The descendants of these, I need scarcely say, are our ‘Wyatts.’

Well. Who knows?
It’s speculative.

In the last year or so, I’ve come to the conclusion that the English are excellent record keepers. As for my mother’s ancestry, it doesn’t go back as far as the Wyatts because her roots are from mainland Europe. My mother’s maiden name is Oancia. Her father was Romanian, her mother was Austrian. Like Arthur Wyatt, my mother’s family took to wheat farming. Their part of the province was near Stonehenge, Saskatchewan. Her side can only be traced back to the early 1800s. Having to deal with all the wars and the communist Iron Curtain, many European birth and marriage records had been destroyed. And that’s a shame.

Nevertheless, her side is quite noteworthy. Two brothers in particular, Steve and David Oancia, both born and raised in the Stonehenge district (second cousins to my mother), are famous to a certain degree. Steve was a World War II bomb-aimer with RAF 617 Squadron , more commonly known as the Dambusters. Numerous books, movies and articles on those brave boys. The younger David was an overseas newspaper correspondent. While residing in China and working for the Toronto Globe & Mail, David was the first Western journalist to be allowed an in-depth interview with China’s communist leader Mao Tse-Tung some years after he had taken office. My mother told me once that in their prairie country school, while she and the other kids would spend recess outdoors, the non-athletic David used to stay inside and read, sometimes the dictionary. He didn’t like sports at all. He wasn’t very good at it, either, according to my mother. “But look where it got him,” she added, grinning.

Who says history is boring? I am proud of my Western roots. Good, hard-working people came before me to set excellent examples. Farmers. Tough men and women who put up with a lot over the years. Dust, drought, crop failures, freezing cold, two World Wars. Those who moved to the city, as my parents did, fought for better working conditions and wages for them and my Baby Boomer generation to come. My parents didn’t tolerate lazy kids. If we didn’t  have work, then we were to go out and find it. The government didn’t owe the Wyatts a living. Something my wife and I live by today, and so do our two kids. My dad once said, “Wyatts never give up.” In general, we Baby Boomers and the next generations to follow are reaping the benefits of the past generation’s examples.

History is all around us. We just have to go looking for it. For example, just this year I discovered another side note to the Wyatt family from some family memoirs that my mother put together in the 1980s. My grandma Wyatt, born Bessie Deeley in 1889, came to this country in 1910 from England with her parents and a sister to settle in Broadview. A year later, she married my grandfather Percy. The ship they had sailed on was the ocean liner RMS Empress of Ireland. On May 29, 1914, this same passenger ship--owned and operated by Canadian Pacific Steamships and on her 96th run between Liverpool and Quebec --was struck by the  SS Storstad, a Norwegian collier while steaming down the St Lawrence River. The Empress sank in only 14 minutes, killing 1,012 persons of the 1,477 aboard. The sinking is still the largest Canadian Maritime accident in peacetime. But the story doesn’t end there. When I found out that my grandmother sailed on this ship, I called my dentist, Steve Brooks, here in Burlington, Ontario. Steve is a scuba diver and for years now has had artifacts from the Empress of Ireland placed under glass in his business waiting area…artifacts that he was given permission to remove from the site. On the phone I started out by saying, “Hey, Steve, guess what? My grandmother came to Canada…”

And that’s as far as I got. Interrupting, he answered, “On the Empress of Ireland. No kidding?” He then informed me that I was the only patient in his almost 40 years of practice whose family member had sailed on the historic ship.

I urge everyone to research their own family background. It’s good to know where we came from. Why we are the way we are, and what happened within our families decades and centuries before us. Why? Because so much of the past has led to shaping our lives in the present day.  Check out your ancestry. What’s waiting to be discovered in your family tree?

Monday, 24 June 2013

The Broadview Buffaloes

1937 Broadview Buffaloes Photo taken in front of the Broadview CPR station, 1937.
Back row (left to right): Buck Eaton, John Isaacson (both pitchers from Winnipeg), Chris Edwards, Dick Webb, Gene Bremer, Mack Sinclair.
Front row:
Lionel Decuir, Red Boguille, Roy Scheppert, Kitchie Bates, Ronnie Bates (manager). (Photo by Thora Anderson, Broadview) 

Where’s Broadview? Who are the Buffaloes? Little did I know that a casual conversation with my father in 1975 would lead to a huge fact-finding undertaking on my part. At that time, my wife Bonnie and I were newly-married a few months and living in Regina, Saskatchewan. That September I went cross-town to visit my father. We were sitting at the kitchen table over a beer, and somehow got on the conversation of integration in the major leagues, and Jackie Robinson, when out of the blue my father said, “Did you know Broadview had an integrated ball team back in the 1930s? They were pretty good, too.”


Broadview was my birth place, as was my father’s. For those of you unfamiliar with the area, Broadview is a town of less than 1,000 people ninety miles east of Regina on the southern CPR line. But Broadview, how could they have fielded an integrated baseball team? It turned out, my father knew one of the locals named Chris Edwards who had played third base for the Buffaloes.  Later that day, I found Edwards’ phone number through information. My wife and I drove to Broadview a week later, met Edwards, and a friend of his named Bus Conn, who had also played on the team.  Thanks to Edwards, I got in touch with an elderly woman, Edie Maynard, a few days later. She, along with husband Frank, ran a Broadview hotel on the CPR line and helped to bankroll the team during the 1930s. At her house in Regina, Mrs. Maynard showed us the books she had kept for the team as its treasurer. One interesting expense was a $1,000 bond that the team had to pay at the international border to bring up the black players each year to play in Canada. It was then refundable upon return of the same players at season’s end. 

After what I had discovered then and many years later, leading up to 2013, the Broadview Buffaloes were probably not only the first fully-integrated baseball team in Canada, but a powerhouse on the prairies, a good decade before Jackie Robinson appeared on the scene.

Pre-1930, there were many documented cases of imported African-American ringers who came to Canada from the US to play here. In those cases, it was pitchers only, such as the legendary lefty John Donaldson, who had thrown for semi-pro teams in the Saskatchewan centers of Moose Jaw and Radville. One black pitcher, the rest were white seemed to be common.

Thanks to the many contacts over the past few years who have helped me in acquiring information, I never would have been able to put this article together.  My father, Chris Edwards, Edie Maynard, Bus Conn and others were very accommodating. The icing on the cake was Jay-Dell Mah’s outstanding website dedicated to baseball on the western provinces. Many of his accounts are from local newspaper archives. Try it at Warning to all baseball historians…it contains a pile of interesting reading that could take you hours. And the site keeps getting larger by the week.

To start off, the Buffaloes were a semi-pro squad, meaning the black imports were paid, while most of the local amateurs (who were still good ball players in their own right) weren’t. Competition on  Western Canada ball fields was tough back then. Every town and city wanted to win. And, from what I heard, side bets were very common. Broadview senior ball dates back to 1934 and 1935, when the town fielded an all-white team called the Red Sox. Independent of any league, they played the lucrative tournament circuit, as lucrative as prairie ball during the Great Depression could be. By 1936, still as independents, they took aboard twenty-one-year old, right-handed pitcher Gene Bremer and his catcher Lionel Decuir, two Negro League players who had come up with their Shreveport Acme Giants teammates to Winnipeg in 1935 for an exhibition series against future-Hall-of-Famer pitching great Satchel Paige and his Bismarck Churchills, a fully-integrated team across the border in Bismarck,  North Dakota. Between 1936-1938, the Broadview roster saw Decuir, Bremer and other blacks from the Negro Leagues, including pitchers Jimmy Miller and George Alexander, power-hitting Sonny Harris, and the versatile Red Boguille.  (According to Edie Maynard’s records, Bremer was paid $45 a month plus housing expenses his first year in Broadview). Some of the white locals who played good decent ball, besides Edwards and Conn, were Roy Scheppert, Kitchie Bates, Harold Horeak, Mack Sinclair, and Dick Webb. I know these aren’t household names today, but they were well-known players in the area. In 1936, the Red Sox won three major tournaments with their beefed-up lineup. On June 11, they took the Broadview Annual Sportsday Tournament beating the Moose Jaw Athletics 5-0. July 1, they won the Moosomin Dominion Day Tournament  by defeating Virden, Manitoba 9-3. July 22, they took the four-team  Yorktown tournament, beating the host team 8-4. Then, on July 31, the Buffaloes, with Jimmy Miller on the mound, made a real name for themselves by downing the famous House of David, the bearded white barnstormers from Benton Harbor, Michigan, in an exhibition game at Indian Head by a score of 8-5. 

In 1937, the Red Sox changed their name to the Buffaloes and joined the elite Saskatchewan Southern League, with the Weyburn Beavers, Notre Dame Hounds and the Moose Jaw Athletics as competition. The Broadview crew were runaway pennant winners with a 8-1 record, not to mention four tournament wins to their credit in La Fleche, Grenfell, Lemberg, and Regina where they whipped  the local Regina Pilsners 17-1. Do you think they were named after the beer? Eight days before, Broadview split the prize money with the Northgate (North Dakota) Yankees after the two teams had to settle on a 7-7 tie in Broadview due to darkness. The league did not have in-house playoffs that year, electing instead to compete in the provincials with the northern teams. But, out of the blue, Broadview was denied any post-season competition when someone ratted them out. One of their players had supposedly played professional the year before. Ironic, because there were pro ringers all over the prairies in any given year. Results of a  further  allegation revealed that the Buffaloes had been playing touring American teams without the proper SABA (Saskatchewan Amateur Baseball Association) permits.

By 1938, the Broadview Buffaloes were now making a name outside Saskatchewan. A July 13, 1938 Winnipeg Free Press article reported, “A baseball classic of note is scheduled for Moosomin ball park…when the cream of western senior ball teams meet in the $300 tournament …Broadview Buffaloes, with colored players from the Southern States, are a mighty machine that is tops in the Saskatchewan Senior League right now.”  The Buffaloes didn’t win that tournament, finishing third. But they did win a number of other tournaments and important exhibition games, including another Broadview Sports Day Tournament on June 16 by thumping the Northgate Yankees  12-4. Eight days later, they won a 16-team tournament in Watson, Saskatchewan by defeating the hometown team 2-0. Then they won the Dominion Day tournament in nearby Norquay. That summer, the Buffaloes beat the powerful Grover Cleveland Alexander House of David team twice. And the minor-league San Antonio Missions and the colored House of David squads once each.  By this time, a strange thing was beginning to materialize. Broadview became too good of a team and the fans stopped coming out. When the 4-team Southern League play finished on July 31, the Buffaloes won another pennant finishing 16-5, while the closest team to them was the Regina Senators at 9-9. After the bad blood from the year before, Broadview decided to bow out of the 1938 playoff picture and continued on the tournament and exhibition route into August, before calling it a season. After three impressive years, two of those in the Southern league, the Broadview Buffaloes disbanded. Their run was over.

Several of the white players left to join other prairie teams. Most of the blacks returned to the Negro Leagues. Lionel Decuir caught for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1939-40, where Satchel Paige was a teammate.  In 1942, Sonny Harris found his way to the Cincinnati Buckeyes, which moved mid-season to Cleveland. His teammate, Gene Bremer, was the most successful of the Buffaloes imports. Born in 1915 in New Orleans, Bremer was not a big man at 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, but he could throw hard, using a zero windup and a fastball that may have hit the low 90s.

Then tragedy struck Bremer in late-1942, when he suffered a fractured skull in a car accident that killed two of his Cleveland Buckeyes teammates. Taking a year off from baseball in 1943 to recover, Bremer came back and still pitched well. He was a 4-time Negro League All-Star in the years 1940, 1942, 1944, and 1945, which meant he appeared in 4 East-West All-Star Games, the black equivalent to the Major League All-Star Game. The games were held in Chicago, usually before big crowds that saw 50,000 enthusiastic fans on more than one occasion. Bremer was talented enough to play with and against such mega stars in these games as Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson, Roy Campanella, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, Sam Jethroe, Ray Dandridge and Double Duty Radcliffe. As part of what may have been the first fully-integrated team in Canada in the mid-1930s, he was set to perform the feat again a decade later when a war-time rumor was making the rounds…Bremer and two teammates, Parnell Woods and Sam Jethroe, were going to sign with the American League Cleveland Indians. But, it never happened. Otherwise, Bremer might have been a two-time trail blazer on both sides of the border, an accomplishment beyond anyone’s comprehension. Bremer retired as a Buckeye in 1948. He died  in 1971 at the age of 54, while a Cleveland resident. 

My father sparked something inside me that day in 1975. Ever since, I’ve been hooked on the Broadview Buffaloes.  Were they really the first fully-integrated baseball team in Canada? Many people, including myself, seem to think so. But I do have an open mind. I’d like to hear from anybody who has information otherwise.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Avro Arrow Blunder

Photo: Canadian Department of National Defense
The all-Canadian Avro Arrow fighter-interceptor of the 1950s made us proud. But when the John Diefenbaker Conservative government scrapped it in early 1959, we could only hang our heads in shame. What was the Avro Arrow…how good was it…and what caused its demise?

After World War II, Canada--believe it or not--had the 4th strongest air force in the world, behind the Americans, the British, and the Russians. Ah, the good ol’ days. By 1947, the Royal Canadian Air Force was in search of a new jet fighter-interceptor made for our unique and particular needs. This was the Cold War. The Russians were a very real threat over the North Pole. This new aircraft had to perform a specialized role to defend the 4 million square miles of uninhabited land over the Northern reaches. The fighter had to have considerable range, two engines, and advanced radar. It had to be highly-armed, and have a crew of two—a pilot and a navigator. Air Marshall Wilfred Curtis of the RCAF was appointed to form a team in search of this special aircraft.

As Curtis soon discovered, neither the British nor the Americans had any such aircraft on squadron, in production or even on the drawing boards. So, Curtis recommended to the federal Liberal government lead by Louis St Laurent that the Canadians themselves should build it. And…we did build it. The contract was given to AV Roe, otherwise known as Avro, at Malton, Ontario for the air frame. Orenda, also at Malton, received the contract for the engines. The aircraft was the CF-100 Canuck, affectionately tagged “The Clunk.” But by the time it saw squadron service in 1953, it was already obsolete due to the quickly-changing times. With its straight wing, the Clunk couldn’t even reach Mach 1.

We Canadians now needed an updated fighter-interceptor, faster and more powerful with a surface ceiling of 75,000 feet and a speed of at least Mach 2, along with the other mentioned requirements, such as two-man aircrew, two engines, and advanced radar. So, the Liberal government decided that $100 million tax dollars would be set aside for this project. Once again Avro and Orenda were given the airframe and engine contracts. This was how the futuristic delta-winged CF-105 Arrow came into being. Also, the new engine would be a much more powerful one, designated as the PS-13, soon to be known as the Iroquois, a power plant that would set the aviation world on its ear.

By 1954, the Iroquois was running on its own power before the new aircraft was even ready. In 1955, the Liberals placed a contract for more Iroquois development. Later in the year, a six-engined  Boeing B-47 bomber—on loan to us--complete with American crew, tested the Iroquois in flight thanks to Orenda inserting an engine frame on the rear fuselage. The crew were impressed when they throttled back their six engines and let the Iroquois, all by itself, power the bomber through the air. The Iroquois’ 20,000 pounds of thrust had more thrust than four of the American engines combined. After this test, events moved along in a rapid order…

June 10, 1957—the Conservatives led by John Diefenbaker came to power with a minority government. The first Tory government in two decades.

August 27, 1957—the Russians test-launched the world’s first ICBM—intercontinental ballistic missile.

October 4, 1957—the first Arrow—RL-201—rolled out during a major ceremony at Malton, attended by federal and provincial dignitaries and viewed by thousands. This was the first of five aircraft that were used for testing. Without a prototype, Avro had gone right into to production, saving the taxpayers millions. Unfortunately, that same day, the Russians stole the show with another aviation first by launching Sputnik, the first space satellite. The size of a soccer ball, it circled the earth every 95 minutes. Both the space age and the missile age were now suddenly upon us, with the Russians taking the lead.

March 28, 1958—the first flight of the CF-105 Avro Arrow with the American-built Pratt & Whitney engines.

March 31, 1958—Diefenbaker’s Conservatives gained a whopping majority government in the federal election where they took 206 of 265 seats, a record victory at that time.

November 11, 1958—test pilot Spud Potocki took the Arrow (still with the American engines) to Mach 1.98 during a one-hour flight, the fastest the aircraft had flown in its 70 hours of testing to date.

February, 1959—two of the powerful Iroquois engines were finally being fitted into Arrow RL-206 Mark II, the newest version of the Arrow, to be ready for testing in a few weeks. The goal was to break the world speed record for aircraft at that time which was just over Mach 2, set by an American-built Lockheed C-104 Starfighter.

February 20, 1959—the day known as “Black Friday,” John Diefenbaker rose in the House of Commons and announced the sudden and severe cancelation of the Arrow and Iroquois programs, thus sending 15,000 Avro employees out of work, along with another 15,000 technicians employed by 2,500 subcontractors in the US and Canada. Overnight, 30,000 were without jobs.

April, 1959—came the ultimate indignity. Upon orders from the paper-pushing aristocrats in Ottawa, the five completed Arrows plus the aircraft on the assembly line in the Avro hangar were torched to pieces by acetylene torches, then shipped down the QEW to Waxman’s in Hamilton where these awesome, ahead-of-their-time aircraft were melted down to make something that Canadians could probably be a lot more proud of, like pop-up toasters.

Only a few of the best technicians and engineers wound up in places like Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas and the US Space Program where they helped to put the first men on the moon a few years later. Meanwhile, AV Roe struggled on with a depleted staff building a top secret Vertical Landing and Take-off aircraft (basically a flying saucer) for the US Army. I guess nobody told them the British were working on the Harrier, a versatile aircraft still in use today. Avro also tried aluminum boat building. Wow! Now that’s Canadian for yuh, eh? Both projects fizzled out. The once-proud AV Roe Canada finally had to close its doors in 1962. Orenda engines still survives today, without any Iroquois engines, which were also melted down at the same time the Arrow was.

So, why was the Arrow scrapped? Was it money? Was it politics? Was it military reasons? Was it the missile and space age suddenly thrust upon the 1950s? Was it the Americans?

Let’s look at money. The original estimate for Arrow development was placed at $100 million by CD Howe, the Liberal Minister of Defense Production. By 1955, the feds projected $300 million in total development costs, plus another $1.5 billion to equip 15 RCAF squadrons with Arrows by the early 1960s. By the time Black Friday hit, $335 million had already been spent on the Arrow, with an additional $87 million for the development of the Iroquois.  If the escalating costs for the Arrow seemed such a factor to the newly-elected Conservatives, they should have thought the whole thing through before they scrapped the project.  First, it cost $25 million to torch and haul the Arrow away, then eventually over $500 million to replace the Arrow with American-built fighters (C-104s and F-101 Voodoos), and finally $270 million to purchase the Boeing Bomarc missile from the Americans in the early 1960s to defend our North. Of the 220 C-104s we received, half of them crashed, leading them to be nicknamed, “The Widowmaker.” The Voodoo, on the other hand, was too slow. And the Bomarc was an American dud that even they dropped soon after they had sold it to us. And we went ahead and kept it for several years! By the early 1960s it appeared that it cost the taxpayer more money to scrap the Arrow than it was to keep it.

Also, long before Black Friday, the French government had signed an agreement with our government for the purchase of 100 Iroquois engines. But the fine print stated that if the engines were not delivered, the French would still be paid. Oops! One hundred engines at $250,000 each meant $25 million of our tax money going to the French for a product they didn’t receive.

Then comes politics…the Diefenbaker Tories made a statement in late-1958 that they would give the House of Commons a review of the Arrow and Iroquois programs by March, 1959. AV Roe saw this as an opportunity and took matters into their own hands. They wanted that world speed record held by the Americans and they knew they had a good shot at it. I don’t think the Feds wanted that test flight to happen. I believe they had to scrap the Arrow before the originally-promised  March review date because if the Arrow Mark II did break the record, the Tories would look awfully foolish canceling an aircraft that had just broken the world speed record.

One of the excuses that the Tory government used for scrapping the Arrow was that they couldn’t sell it to the Americans or other NATO countries. The Tories failed to realize that the Arrow was designed for us…to defend our country…those uninhabited areas to the North.That was the original plan. The Americans wouldn’t buy any fighter from us, not when they had so many of their own. And the NATO countries, with the Russians on their doorstep, were after short-range, low-flying aircraft. They didn’t need a long-range interceptor like the Arrow. But would breaking the world speed record have changed their minds? I like what AV Roe’s chief test pilot  Jan Zurakowski said after Black Friday…”No one buys a new fighter until it’s operational and on squadron.”

The Conservatives also fed us the line that the Arrow was obsolete and that un-manned missiles were the future. If it was obsolete, then why did they destroy it and not leave a trace? Then they told us it was Top Secret and shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. Huh? So, was it that good or was it obsolete?

You know, if Diefenbaker had only taken a tour of the AV Roe and Orenda plants at Malton and had seen first-hand the pride of the workforce…the hard work…that went into the truly Canadian project. But he didn’t. Pure and simple, his election mandate was cut and dried. Put a halt to the expensive government programs that the Liberals had started after World War II. Little did Diefenbaker realize that by killing the Arrow, he was killing his own political career. The Toronto-area workers formerly employed at Avro and their families spoke out at the ballot box well into the 1970s. It took two decades for the Conservatives to gain back ridings they had lost in 1962, when the next federal election came up. That time around, Diefenbaker won, but in a minority situation. Ontario did him in. After that, Dief wasn’t taken too seriously on the federal scene. No fan of John Diefenbaker, my dad summed him up best by calling him an old blowhard.

Before we pile too much blame on the Conservatives, let’s take a good look at the St Laurent Liberals. They were just as ill-advised when they did away with the twin-engine Avro C-102 Jetliner, an airplane of many firsts. In 1949, it was the first jet transport plane built and flown in North America. It was the first jet transport to fly over 500 miles per hour, and it was the first jet to carry mail, when it made a run from Toronto to New York City. Like the Tories with the Arrow, the Liberals didn’t know what they had with the C-102. In 1956, they destroyed the one and only prototype. The reason…the CF-100 Canuck was having too many production problems that needed Avro’s attention.

Since researching for my novel on the Arrow more than twenty years ago, I’ve met some people in the Toronto area who had worked at AV Roe in the 1950s, when the world stood up and took notice of us. I spoke to two technicians recently. One connected with the Arrow. The other with Orenda, and the Iroquois engine. Both are long retired and getting up there in age. But their memories are intact. They’re proud of what they had accomplished so long ago, as were the other AV Roe people I’ve spoken to over the years. They all have one thing in common…you can still see the burning in their eyes when the name John Diefenbaker is mentioned.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Regina - The Motor City

General Motors Assembly Plant. Regina, SK, 1928.
(Canadian Public Domain)
If not for the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression that followed, Regina, Saskatchewan may be more commonly called the Motor City today. And not the Queen City, as Reginans know it.

The Roaring Twenties was the happiest of times. World War I had ended. The soldiers were back home living it up. Stock prices were rising. People had money and were spending it freely. Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic. Babe Ruth was the biggest name in sports and the best paid. There was jazz music, flappers, and bootleggers like Chicago’s infamous Al Capone. While Canada saw only two prime ministers in office in Ottawa, the United States saw as many as four presidents elected to Washington. Nearly everyone had a radio, this before TV. Trains were the way to travel great distances and to transport goods and raw material across North America.

In Canada, there was a huge demand for our homegrown raw material, wheat and lumber in particular. The third most-populated province at the time, behind only to Ontario and Quebec, Saskatchewan was riding on its own wave of prosperity with its agriculturally-based economy. Financial indicators showed Saskatchewan to be an area of unlimited potential. Third in GDP and due to soaring wheat prices by the end of the 1920s, Saskatchewan’s per capita income made it one of the richest places on earth. The capital city of Regina—named after Queen Victoria —witnessed a construction boom. The city was growing rapidly. By the end of the 1920s, the Queen City had over 50,000 residents. There were restaurants, shopping centers, and 6 downtown movie theatres .

As for the surrounding Saskatchewan countryside, the first generation of car owners on the prairies were the many prosperous farmers, who viewed their new purchases not as luxuries, but as necessities. Now they could take their products to market, visit family and friends, and sometimes just go out on a darn-good joy ride. Why not?  They worked hard. By 1928, over 120,000 motor vehicles were registered in Saskatchewan, with more than 100,000 of those cars. Based on projections, Regina’s population was expected to reach 75-80,000 by 1935.

In this environment, General Motors of Canada appeared on the scene. On June 1, 1928, they officially proposed a massive business venture for the city and the province. To meet the heavy demand for new cars in this promising province, they decided to build a car assembly plant in the northeast edge of town at Winnipeg Street and 8th Avenue, in an area called the Wholesale District (the Warehouse District today). The plans were drawn up by the Hamilton, Ontario architectural firm of  Hutton &  Souter. GM purchased 38 acres at $1,000 an acre to start it off. GM Canada’s vice-president and general manager H. A. Brown, said that Regina was a “logical distribution area” due to its location on the prairies. He also expected 12,000-20,000 cars a year coming off the Regina line once it was up and running. 

Founded in 1908 in Flint, Michigan by William C. Durant, as a holding company for Buick, General Motors had been growing steadily over the years. Later in the year, it purchased Oldsmobile. Then the next year, Cadillac, Elmore, and Oakland motor companies, among others. Half-way through 1911, Durant established Chevrolet Motor Company. Pontiac joined the mix in 1926. Up to 1928, General Motors was second in global car sales around the world. From 1931-2007, it led every year internationally, the biggest of Detroit’s Big Three. By 1928, GM Canada had already produced over 500,000 cars to date back east, mostly in Oshawa, Ontario where they had first set up their Canadian head office in 1915. Now with a plant in the centrally-located Canadian prairie city of Regina, GM would corner the market on car assembly in the country.  However,  Oshawa had probably realized that should their experiment work, then the other car companies—Ford and Chrysler in particular--would see the advantage in having a plant in Regina and copy them.  A future  “Detroit on the prairies” appeared on the horizon. The future seemed that bright.

The plant’s location in Regina was well thought out. It faced 8th Avenue which was the front street for the city’s Wholesale District. Winnipeg Street on the eastern side was the main traffic artery in and out of town. Two railroads, CNR and CPR, served the plant.  The Wholesale District was a unique multi-purpose community of offices, warehouses, and rail lines. By 1924, 22 rail lines ran in and out of Regina, the same lines that connected businesses to one another within the city. In the era before massive trucking, there were oftentimes as many as 50 arrivals and departures each day of trains carrying goods. Millions of dollars worth of groceries, dairy products, hardware, and building supplies left at a steady rate from Regina warehouses.   The area also held a network of homes, shops, restaurants, pharmacies and a school, all directly tied into to this local community. The homes were self-sufficient, one- and two-story affairs, with vegetable gardens and livestock on the property. It was one, big happy family. 

GM started construction July 10, 1928. The city and province were excited beyond belief. This was too good to be true. GM would put Regina on the map. Over 10,000 applicants applied for the new jobs. Completed within six months, at a total cost of $1.5 million, the project covered 370,000 square feet of floor space in its buildings. It would be the largest industrial plant in the province. The assembly building and offices covered more than 2 large city blocks, while the total property covered 11 city blocks. The manufacturing area itself was 800 by 400 feet, or 7 acres of floor space. The conveyor belts alone stretched a mile and a half.  Over 25,000 panes of glass went into the building of it. The roof was 35% glass and the walls 80%. A quarter-mile of rail track was spread out inside the building.

December 11, 1928, the day the plant opened, Regina’s Morning Leader wrote… “Five months ago came the most important announcement for Reginans since the war…the decision of General Motors of Canada, Limited to locate a western headquarters assembly plant in the capital of Saskatchewan. The announcement meant a giant industry for Regina. It meant the employment of 850 workers. It meant the coming of other industries…and other workers. Since that time a dozen new industries have located in Regina. Nearly 50 factory and warehouse buildings have been constructed here in 1928. Building permits total more than for any twelve months since the cyclone year. The year has been one of unusual importance to Regina, and important development hinges about the coming of General Motors.” 

Ready for the meticulous work of manufacturing cars, the plant saw its first all-Saskatchewan-built Chevrolet car roll out on December 11, 1928. It was no mediocre Chevy. It was powered by the very first Chevrolet six-cylinder engine ever made in Canada. The plant general manager, US-born and raised 42-year-old  Harry J Aughe, could not have been more proud.  He had headed West from GM Oshawa to oversee the Regina project. He had been previously-employed in Detroit by the treasury department of Chalmers Motor Company, a once-thriving auto company that had built luxury roadsters. According to information that I received from Aughe’s grandson, Peter Black, living in Connecticut,  Aughe enjoyed Saskatchewan and developed quite a love for the native Indians, inviting a number of them to the plant’s opening.  

For the next year and a half, two shifts of 850 employees in a non-union environment--the unions didn’t arrive until almost ten years later--wheeled out 150 cars per day, a rate of one every 4 minutes.  Cars were then shipped to parts of all four western provinces. Everything was moving full steam ahead, until October, 1929. Then it happened. On the 28th, the Stock Market lost $16 billion dollars, as investors panic-sold their stocks, followed by another $14 billion worth of selling the next day. The Market could not recover, ushering in the infamous 10-year-long Great Depression that affected all Western economies. Banks collapsed, prices of goods bottomed out, and manufacturing came to a standstill, the North American car industry included.  The prairies were especially hard hit by a decade of drought and plummeting grain prices. Thousands of people left Saskatchewan, never to return. 

Regina’s GM assembly plant couldn’t escape the financial climate and closed its doors in August, 1930. They reopened in March 16, 1931 with a cut staff, adding Oldsmobiles, McLaughlin-Buicks, Pontiacs, and Maple Leaf trucks to its assembly line. H. A. Brown had arrived from Oshawa ten days before to supervise the reopening of the plant. “We have not lost faith in the Regina plant nor the West,” he informed the Leader-Post newspaper. “We are still of the opinion that Regina is the logical place for our plant.” But he would not predict how long the plant would stay open because GM would probably lose money for several months in the start-up. Plant general manager Harry J Hauge told the Leader-Post  that all the 200 men working when the plant closed in 1930 would be rehired, plus another 150 in a month. The plant started up all right, but closed again by the end of the year. It only got worse.

The plant didn’t open again until 1937, when it first appeared that the economic conditions had improved somewhat. Oshawa saw a “new faith in Regina,” as they called it.  Due to changes in manufacturing vehicles in Detroit and Ontario over those 6 years, equipment was updated to the tune of $700,000, including a better ventilation system that was necessary for the 500 new employees on the floor. It took 3 months for 400 men to finish the work, where $175,000 went into labor and $525,000 into materials. Overall payroll would be $50,000 per month. Plans were to build 10,000 cars and trucks for the 1938 year to supply the 4 western provinces. Coming off the line would be 2 types of Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac cars, plus one line of trucks and one line of Buicks. They would now ship as far west as Victoria and as far east as Winnipeg. The plant was divided into two divisions. One for the chassis, the other for the body. Mid-1939, the plant closed again then reopened October 24 for the 1940 production year, with only 100 men on the job. This number increased daily until 550 men worked the floor building Buicks, Chevrolets, Pontiacs, and Maple Leaf and Chevrolet trucks.

By 1941, the Great Depression was a horror from the past. Now two years into World War II, the Dominion of Canada took the plant over and turned it from civilian to military production, where anti-tank gun carriages, Oerlikon gun parts, 2-pound anti-tank guns, and 6-pound anti-tank guns were being assembled. After the war, the Department of National Defense used some of the buildings until 1967, when the province took it over and rented it out to several companies. 

I have been fascinated by the General Motors Assembly Plant for a number of years. My parents bought a house on Edgar Street in 1957, within walking distance of the site. Also, I worked in the Warehouse District for Bapco Paints back in the early 1970s. I know the area. Now living in Ontario, I went back to Regina in 2010 for a family reunion. It was gratifying to see things were hopping on the busy roadway corner of Winnipeg and 8th.The old GM Plant looked great.  The main office building stood strong and majestic with the old GMC letters still visible on the front stone overhead.  It was occupied by a number of businesses. Many of the smaller outbuildings still stood, but the water tower had been long gone.  Nothing has changed in the 3 years since, according to my family and friends residing there.

What would Regina be like today had the New York Stock Market not crashed in 1929? Would we see General Motors or Detroit’s Big Three of Ford, GM, and Chrysler running the province’s economy as it does in Detroit? Would that be good or bad? As I’ve seen out East over the years, many of the Ontario car towns, such as Windsor, Oshawa and St Catharines, are too tied into vehicle production to survive when the economic downturns and temporary and full-scale plant shutdowns come. Mass unemployment is a result.  Diversity is probably still the best.

Regina’s General Motors Assembly Plant is one of those dots in history that leaves you wondering, “Oh, what might have been.” What if  it had succeeded? Would it have benefited the city and the province? We’ll never know unless another car company attempts such a venture again in the future.