Brantford During the Depression - Post 16

We have in Brantford, a microcosm, expressive in a way, of the whole Dominion of Canada, which is composed in part of great manufacturing and industrial centres, surrounded by great agricultural areas. - from Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s speech at the Brantford Armoury in 1930 in front of an audience of 5,000 and broadcast over a country-wide radio hook up, that opened his re-election campaign.

Brantford During the Depression

The bubble burst on 29-October-1929. That day marked the beginning of a long descent into misery and heartache for the working man. The stock market crash was the manifestation of an economic system that was unsustainable. The repercussions would be far reaching and long lasting. Boom and bust cycles have existed since the beginning of the industrial revolution but the world and Brantford never experienced a bust as was to come. Up to this time, the federal and provincial governments did not play a large part in the economy. They did not run any social programmes to speak of. No social safety nets were in place to ease the burden of those about to lose their jobs. The burden fell on the unemployed themselves and municipal governments. The most disadvantaged workers during this period were single men, because they did not have families to support; they were the first to be laid off, the last hired for civic relief projects, and allotted the least number of hours.

The stock market crash led to food lines and relief programmes becoming common as the 1930s progressed. The problems Brantford would encounter were exacerbated by a lack of diversification in the city’s industrial base.


The sudden drop in the stock market and the tales of gloom that followed caused the general population to reduce their spending. This happened in spite of the press, business, and government leaders telling the public that all was well and there was nothing to fear. On 25-April-1930 the Expositor wrote: The present is no time for pessimism in Canada. On the contrary, all the indications confirm the wisdom of those who have insisted that the present depression throughout the Dominion is merely temporary, and not justified by actual economic conditions.

The farm implements industry was impacted by the failure of the 1929 grain crop in western Canada. This directly led to a reduction in orders for both Massey-Harris and Cockshutt’s. Both companies asked the federal government to raise the tariffs on foreign made farm implements but the Liberal government of Mackenzie King took no action.

In September 1930, over 1,100 were unemployed in the City, the worst situation since 1921. The situation started to look promising for the farm implements industry when the new Conservative government of R.B. Bennett, elected on 28-July-1930, announced a 25 per cent tariff on imported farm implements. But a million dollar deal that Cockshutt had negotiated with the Russian government was lost when the federal government placed an embargo on Russian products entering Canada. In 1931, Cockshutt posted a $500,000 loss, Massey-Harris suffered a 50 percent decline in their business, and Brantford Cordage shut down indefinitely because they objected to new taxes imposed by the federal government.

During this time, the City worked feverishly to stimulate the local economy with various campaigns: Made in Brantford Week, Buy In Brantford, Spend for Prosperity, and Shop At Home, all designed to get residents to buy Brantford produced goods. In addition, the Industrial Commission continued their efforts to attract new companies to the city. This resulted in Kester Solder Company of Chicago, Sterling Action & Keys, Universal Cooler, Sonoco Products Company, Turnbull Furnace Company, H.E. Mott, W.J. Campbell Electric, and the Coca-Cola Company to set up operations in the City.

In 1933, some companies started to show improvement in their sales. The stocks prices of Cockshutt, Massey-Harris, Waterous Engine Works, and Brantford Cordage made appreciable gains and Harding Carpets posted a profit. Cockshutt managed to survive the Depression years because they employed tight money controls and added to their cash reserves during the 1920s.

By 1936, factories reported significant increases in their workforces. The federal government reduced the tariffs on farm implements but Cockshutt and Massey-Harris did not suffer from a drop in business as they expected. In 1937, Massey-Harris reported their first profitable year since 1929.

Cover of a brochure developed by the Brantford Industrial Commission designed to attract new industries to Brantford

Cover of a brochure developed by the Brantford Industrial Commission designed to attract new industries to Brantford

Goold, Shapley & Muir, a manufacturer of steel windmill towers and small stationary gasoline engines, struggled through this period. The company’s product line stagnated in the 1920s and the company did not come up with new innovations. The company soldiered on but the Depression took its toll and in 1934 the company was liquidated after 47 years in business.



Another company to close was Ruddy Manufacturing, formerly Ham & Nott. Ruddy produced refrigeration cabinets that were cooled electrically. Ruddy produced special refrigerators, cold storage doors, ice cream cabinets, and soda fountains. As the Depression took its toll on new store building and modifications, sales plummeted and the plant was closed in 1933. In 1937, the plant was reopened under new management and a new name, Ruddy Freeborn, as the business climate started to improve. 

Rumblings of war in Europe resulted in orders to local firms from the Department of National Defence. Now the companies faced another problem, too many jobs and not enough men.


In 1937, Canada Carriage & Body Company, which was the renamed entity for the merged Brantford Carriage Company and Adams Wagon Company, became the first factory in the city to be organised by the United Autoworkers. However, the union had to withdraw its charter because of funding problems and because they received no support from the company to collect union dues. The union managed to again organise in 1942 and got the company to deduct union dues from the payroll, a first for a Brantford company.

The economic conditions were favourable to union organizers who provided workers with an alternative to company run unions. Workers felt that the companies were using the Depression as an excuse to reduce their wages and weaken working conditions. Labour unrest occurred at the Brantford Washing Company in 1935, Canada Car & Foundry Company in 1936, Dominion Radiator & Boiler Company and Kitchen Overall & Shirt Company in 1937, and with the projectionists at the College Theatre in 1939.

Relief Programmes

As the number of men on relief swelled in 1930, city council responded by arranging for public works projects that would provide employment, like they did during the economic downturn of the early 1920s. The relief burden was more than the City could bear on its own and measures were taken to reduce the relief rolls by disqualifying single men. Provincial money for public work projects became available in the fall of 1930 and these funds were directed to the construction of sanitary sewers and dikes along the Grand River. In November, federal funds provided assistance to begin work on the Canadian National Railways cutoff north of the city. Tracks were never laid along the cutoff. The intent of the cutoff was to allow through freight trains to bypass the city. The cutoff ran from Garden Avenue to Paris Road. Freight trains continue to run through the City along the CN mainline to this day. The work on the cutoff became the foundation for Highway 403 through Brantford which was built in the 1960s. The highway through the city opened on 31-October-1966.

In order to lessen the municipal relief burden, the provincial and federal governments began to cover one-third each of the relief to individuals for groceries, fuel, and rent. Although grateful for provincial and federal assistance, the City was determined to deal with its problems locally as much as possible.

By the summer of 1931, 1,900 men were on the relief rolls in Brantford and over 3,100 registered as unemployed, the fifth highest unemployment rate in Ontario, this, in a city of 30,000. In October, Brantford sent 140 men to work camps in northern Ontario to work on the Trans-Canada Highway. However by the spring of 1932 fewer than 25 Brantford men remained. The working conditions were horrible. In 1931, the City organised the Community League to oversee and coordinate all the relief agencies in the city regarding the raising of money for the relief effort. This was an arm’s length agency independent of city control. This model was initially so successful that it was copied and implemented by the provincial government. However, as the relief rolls swelled and the poor economic situation continued unabated, the social need outstripped the Community League’s ability to supplement and fund the relief effort, while at the same time trying to meet the directive from the Minister of Public Works to slash its inadequate relief allowances even further. In August-1933 the Community League disbanded. A more permanent solution was needed.

The Community League was superseded by the Brantford Welfare Board that was tied to the City’s administration. As always, fairness and favouritism became issues with the Board and abuse allegations where regularly raised diverting attention and resources to investigation rather than providing support.

Relief numbers declined significantly in 1937 and 1938 but rose again in the first half of 1939. Even though the number of families on relief was declining, costs continued to increase because the federal and provincial contributions decreased. Their funding decreased because the economy was improving. The relief rolls and costs began to decline after the outbreak of World War II; in 1940 there were 226 families on relief compared to 1,245 families in 1939.

Relief matters were complicated during the decade by the arrival of the unemployed looking for work. Early in the decade, transients were tolerated and supported with free meals offered at the Police station but by 1938 the local citizenry had become less tolerant and the free meals were discontinued. The transients were largely single men.

Civic Matters

In 1931, City Council reduced the pay of city employees by ten percent. In 1932, all honoraria for civic officials were eliminated, including the $750 that the mayor received. However in 1933, the mayor received a raise and councillors voted themselves an annual honoraria of up to $200. Councillors to this point in the city’s history had not received any remuneration. The City’s financial situation was made worse because as relief payments increased, the ability of citizens to pay their taxes decreased. As a consequence, the total amount of unpaid taxes continued to grow. By 1935, the situation had become so severe that efforts were taken to collect the tax arrears by appealing to the citizen’s sense of obligation and the implementation of an instalment plan. It also helped that, by 1935, the economy started to improve.

On 25-May-1933, the Governor-General, the Earl of Bessborough, officially unveiled the Great War Memorial, honouring Brantford’s war dead. Proposed shortly after the end of the World War I, the completion was a long time coming.

Although civic improvements projects were curtailed during the 1930s, the Parks Board continued their efforts to beautify the City and provide functional recreation facilities. In 1935, Tutela Park was changed from an active sports park to a passive beauty spot; sports events were moved to Earl Haig Park. Mohawk Park remained a popular attraction although as the decade progressed the park moved away from hosting sports activities to that of leisure and recreation. In 1938, serious consideration was given for the construction of a combined arena and auditorium but World War II intervened. This project would finally come to fruition in 1967, 29 years later, with the opening of the Brantford and District Civic Centre, largely underwritten by the Brantford Labour Council.

Schools in the City fared no better. Teacher’s salaries were reduced, school renovations were kept to a minimum and no new schools were built. School closures due to budget constraints were avoided. In 1935, the school board introduced a free swim programme for boys offered through the YMCA. The CBC began to broadcast education programmes on the radio and the school board embraced the radio as a teaching tool. Because of the unemployment situation, attendance at BCI increased and many students returned after graduation for more work-oriented commercial and vocational courses.

The Brantford General Hospital suffered through the 1930s with a chronic space shortage and lack of an isolation ward. A hospital expansion was proposed in 1929 but it was defeated by City Council because of the fear of an economic downturn. In 1938, the Sisters of Saint Joseph proposed building a 50 bed hospital in the City, but this was rejected by the City. Instead the City finally proceeded with an expansion to the Brantford General Hospital and in July 1939 sod was turned for the construction of what would become the Queen Elizabeth Pavilion. St Joseph’s Hospital was eventually built and opened in 1955.

Interestingly a motion was passed by City Council in December 1936 supporting the Eugenics Society of Canada’s call for the sterilisaton of the feeble minded.

Pastimes and diversions

Brantford had an active choir community of national and international renown. Brantford was known as the city of choirs. The Schubert Choir, conducted by H.K. Jordan, was recognised as one of the best unaccompanied a cappella choirs on the continent. The choir performed at Massey Hall and at the New York’s World Fair. The Canadian Choir, under the direction of Frederic Lord, was formed in 1930 and sang in Albert Hall in London and the Town Hall in New York City. Lord was the organist and choir director at First Baptist Church. Press reviews for both choirs were outstanding everywhere they performed, The Cockshutt Male Choir was organised in 1935 and was under the direction of Frank Holton. Holton was the organist at Wesley United Church. Holton also organised the Brantford Ladies’ Choir. Choirs were also organised in the city’s public schools.

The Brantford Boys’ Band was started in 1931 and gave their first concert in 1932. In 1933 the dormant Brantford Symphony Orchestra was revived for one concert. It was a 75 piece ensemble with 30 musicians from Hamilton, conducted by Harold Vansickle. The Brantford Music Club brought vocalists and musicians to town as did the Brantford Community Concert Association, and the Kiwanis Club sponsored yearly operetta productions. The Brantford Drama League emerged to sponsor drama festivals, run apprenticeship programmes for aspiring actors, and produce one-act and full length plays at its Playhouse in West Brant. During this period Brantford no longer had a suitable theatre to stage productions. The Temple Theatre, now the Sanderson Centre, was converted in 1930 to exclusively show movies. The Grand Opera House was demolished in 1931. Only the Brant Theatre, primarily a movie theatre, BCI, and the Armoury remained, inadequate as they were, to host theatre productions.

The miniature golf craze took the city by storm in 1930. This led to the establishment of seven courses in the city. Deteriorating economic conditions snuffed out this craze the following year. Roller skating became all the rage in 1933 to the point where skaters became a traffic hazard. In order to provide skaters with a safe area to skate, Water Street, between Market Street and the Lake Erie & Northern train station at the Lorne Bridge was roped off in the evenings. A refreshment booth and improved lighting were installed on the street. Chain letters were also a popular pastime.

Circuses were a popular attraction. Brantford had its own circus company for 22 years, the Y Circus. The company produced an annual Easter event that was the city’s biggest annual entertainment attraction. It attracted sold out crowds. The circus’ run ended in 1935 when its organiser, George Mosely, moved to Owen Sound.

The City’s swimming pool at Earl Haig Park was closed in 1930 due to a spinal meningitis outbreak then remained closed thereafter because of the difficult financial times the City was experiencing. So citizens returned to the river to swim and beach areas were developed in West Brant, Eagle Place, and Holmedale. A proposal was made in 1939 to reopen the pool but the costs were deemed too high.

Brantford had professional teams in both baseball and hockey but both teams folded in 1930; the baseball team midway through its season. Sports continued to thrive at the amateur level. Brantford’s most successful hockey team during this era was the Brantford Lions who won their junior B group in 1937, 1938, and 1939. The team was coached by Tommy Ivan, who left to coach the Chicago Black Hawks. Jack Sewchuk went on to play for the Boston Bruins. My father played on this team in 1939.

Brantford Lions Jr B hockey player, my father, John Jackowetz, 1939. Photo was taken on Usher St. The Broad St hill is in the background.

Brantford Lions Jr B hockey player, my father, John Jackowetz, 1939. Photo was taken on Usher St. The Broad St hill is in the background.

The Maich brothers, Joe, Bill, Don, and Peter, dominated in the boxing ring. Bill won the Canadian amateur heavyweight championship in 1933 and went on to represent Canada in the British Empire Games in England in 1934.

Brantford Street Railway

During the 1930s, a battle was fought between those that valued and wanted to keep the street railway and those that thought of themselves as progressives that wanted to convert the system entirely to buses. The increase in automobile ownership and the Depression were contributing to a decline in the ridership and revenue of the street railway. These events eventually wiped out the intercity radial railways. The Brantford & Hamilton Electrical Railway which opened its line between the two cities on 23-May-1908 made its final run on 30-June-1931. Transportation service between the two cities was replaced by buses.

In October 1932, a two month trial of bus service was implemented and all street cars were withdrawn. After the trial, citizens voted two to one to return to street car service.

In 1934, the street railway, hydro, and water commissions were merged into the Public Utilities Commission. One aesthetic result of the merger was the elimination of innumerable poles carrying hydro, telephone, telegraph, and street railway lines. The proliferation of poles along Colborne Street was such that residents referred to it as Poleborne Street.

In 1936, the slow implementation of buses to replace street cars began. The future was buses, not street railways. The route along Market Street to Terrace Hill Street was switched in buses. In 1937, buses began running to West Brant, the street car tracks to Mohawk Park were removed, and the street car barns on Brant Avenue were remodelled to accommodate buses. In May 1938, a bylaw to replace the street cars with buses was again defeated. Finally in December 1939 a bylaw calling for the gradual motorisation of system was approved. The street car made its last run on 31-January-1940. It is interesting to note that street car systems that were common in Ontario municipalities and largely removed during the 1920s and 1930 and now making a comeback.

Law enforcement

The last person hanged at the Brantford Jail was Joseph Bomberry in 1932. He was executed for the murder of his common-law wife.

The raising rate of automobile ownership added new problems for police to deal with. Traffic accidents, Highway Traffic Act charges, and gasoline theft where new and growing problems. Downtown traffic and parking were also significant problems for the City and the police. Drivers charged with certain types of careless driving began to be referred to as Brantford driving by the police magistrates across southern Ontario. To combat the challenge of the automobile being used more regularly in criminal activity, two-way radios were introduced in police cars in 1937.

The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, A Film

In 1939 Twentieth Century-Fox released the movie The Story of Alexander Graham Bell. City Councillors were outraged to learn that no scenes of Brantford were included in the movie and only one passing reference to Brantford was made in the film. City Council called on the Ontario Censor Board to ban the film unless changes were made to give Brantford its due regard and place in the story. The Censor Board ordered the temporary suspension of the film on 18-April. Twentieth Century-Fox then cancelled all bookings of the film in Canada. They then added a prologue to the film for Canadian screenings which included two shots of the Bell Homestead, two of the Bell Memorial, and a scroll which contained a statement by Bell that the invention took place in his father’s home (the Bell Homestead) in 1874.

Movie poster - The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1939

Movie poster - The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1939

Royal Visit

On 7-June-1939 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Brantford on their 1939 Royal Tour. A fifteen minute stopover at the CNR train station was reluctantly granted after fierce lobbying by civic officials and Brantford’s M.P. W. Ross Macdonald. Over 50,000 people showed up at the train station, some as early at 2:30 in the morning to catch a glimpse of the royal couple. In a break with protocol the couple refused to sit in the chairs provided for them so they could better experience the visit.