There have been many odd holidays in Canada. While many are still celebrated, there was one from the early 20th century that was truly unique.
This holiday, known as Gopher Day, dates back to May 1, 1917, when thousands of school children from 980 schools around the province, took part in the first Gopher Day in Saskatchewan.
This may seem an odd reason to take children out of school, at least these days, but back then gophers posed a severe problem for farmers. It was estimated at the time, gophers were destroying about 250,000 acres of crop each year. To slow the destruction, the Government of Saskatchewan tasks children with eliminating gophers. The government also estimated that half a bushel of grain was saved with each gopher killed.
Over the course of the day, students went out with poison, traps, guns and snares and exterminated 500,000 gophers. Charlottenburg School, located between Quinton and Raymore, earned the distinction, and the Gopher Shield, for achieving the most tails. Each tail earned a child one cent.
This was not the first time that government organizations offered money for gopher eradication. Luseland did the same thing in 1915 when they offered a bounty of 1.5 cents per tail for all gopher tails brought in between April and May. A bounty of one cent was paid in June. In all, 32,922 gopher tails were turned into the RM office. Unfortunately, this policy was also abused by residents who cut off the tails of the gopher, but released the gopher, negating the entire purpose of the bounty. The practice didn’t do much to get rid of the gophers as 1,000 bottles of strychnine were ordered by the RM that same year.
In the 1919 Gopher Day, it was decided to present the six children who had the most kills with a Shetland pony. Those who were runners up would receive everything from registered pigs to baseball suits.
In the 1920 Gopher Day, school children killed an estimated two million gophers.
John Hannotte of Canwood, Saskatchewan related his experience on one such Gopher Day.
“There, with pails of water drawn from the nearest slough or ditch, the gophers were flushed out to be dispatched with a blow on the head as they emerged from their flooded burrows.”
He stated in his recollection that in some years, the bounty was extended to other creatures as well.
“Bounties were also granted for pair of crow feet, or even the eggs, which were blown empty, to be retained until surrendered for the bounty.”
Some school children became budding entrepreneurs, or con artists, depending how you look at it. According to Alex Riley, who grew up near Maxstone, it was not uncommon to kill gophers in the months previous and then present gopher tails from months ago to the government agent for the one-cent bounty on Gopher Day. It is not hard to see why children did this. Clifford Watson of Oxbow claimed he and his brother collected 1,700 tails on Gopher Day (or at least through the year) which they traded for three cents a tail. This allowed them to buy a saddle and bridle from Eaton’s.
Communities were very much in favour of the entire day. In Macoun, the Board of Trade recommended to village council that the day be declared a holiday and that all businesses close at 6 p.m. They also asked that the entire community cooperate in the effort to exterminate the gophers. The community of Paswegin distributed one kilogram of gopher poison free of charge for each quarter-section of ratepayers on May 1 and a bounty was given of two cents per tail brought in by children. The tails were counted by the secretary-treasurer of the community.
The Redvers Observer reported in 1917 that “efforts are being made in this province to have Tuesday, May 1 declared a public holiday so that all employees and others may trap, shoot, kill, poison. Anyway the day off and round up the gophers. It is known as Gopher Day you wish but give your employees the day off, provided they use the day in this way. The employer will benefit more thru the destruction of gophers than the individual. If the overseers and reeves act accordingly, there will be fewer gophers, maybe none.”
As for teachers, they were often given the task of keeping score for the students on Gopher Days. Mary Johnson, a teacher at Macrorie School, said that she enjoyed teaching, but the only problem was “the nauseating task of counting decaying crows’ legs and smelly eggs which could break. The gopher tails were not so bad but legs…”
Sometimes, when there was no provincial Gopher Day, individual towns would host their own derbies. Indian Head held one such derby in 1926. At that derby, 6,100 gopher tails were gathered and 4,600 crow eggs.
Schools would do the same some years. In the Norway Valley, one school offered one cent per gopher tail, one cent for a crow egg and five cents for a pair of crow or magpie feet.
Naturally, the consequential effect of Gopher Day was not assessed, or even thought of. Magpies ate the poisoned bait left for the gophers and their population was decimated. The long-billed curlew and the swift fox came close to extinction for the same reason. With the loss of many prairie chickens and grouses, weeds, insect pests and diseases began to sweep across the prairie. It is estimated between 1926 and 1931, the loss of spring wheat crops due to the impact of an explosion of insects cost the Saskatchewan government $54 million.
Information for this piece comes from the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Indian Head: History of Indian Head and District, Life As It Was, Faith, Hope and a Homestead, Prairie Progress Commemorating The Macrorie District, Plowshares to Pumpjacks, A History of Paswegin, Precious Memories of Time, Furrow To the Future, Luseland Hub and Spokes,