Depression-era Photo Inspires Road Trip

Alberta couples work, rely on kindness in cross-province trek

A lot of things can inspire people to accomplish tremendous feats and do something that is unique and definitely out of the ordinary.

As it turns out, inspiration can come from the most unlikely of sources.

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A generations-old photograph was the reason for an incredible cross-province road trip recently undertaken by two Alberta couples, with the goal of paying tribute to the trials and tribulations faced by people in the Great Depression years of the 1930’s.

fehr family depression
This iconic image from June 1934 served as part of the inspiration for an incredible road trip.

The photo in question, taken in June 1934 and published in the Edmonton Journal, is an iconic image from the Dirty 30’s that speaks to the impact felt by families at that time in history.  Abraham and Elizabeth Fehr, along with their seven children, stand in front of their old, road-beaten 1926 Chevrolet on a city street; their faces solemn and sober as they struggled with their daily reality of being broke, poor and hungry.

The Fehrs had loaded up their tired car and were bound for a return to their home in Hague, Saskatchewan after their hopes of a new start in northern Alberta were dashed.  But first, they had to pose for the Journal reporter’s now-iconic snapshot.

Eighty-four years later, Bart & Lisa Campbell and Fred & Teri Holt, both of Medicine Hat, embarked on their own trip on September 4, and for them it was all about authenticity; Bart & Lisa drove a 1926 Chevrolet similar to the model driven by the Fehrs, while Fred & Teri drove a 1929 Ford Model A.  Along the way, the couples met total strangers who became fast friends, and did work for people in order to receive basic necessities such as food, shelter and fuel for their cars; raising no money beforehand for the trip and trying to emulate how the Fehrs’ long journey would have gone back in 1934.

On top of the Fehr family photo serving as a visual launching pad, Bart was inspired to organize this journey after hearing stories of the Depression from his late grandfather, Henry Schmidt, who had grown up during those years and often shared stories with Campbell about life at the time.

As the Campbells and Holts made their way around Saskatchewan, it was evident to them that people really connected with what families went through during the Depression, and when the intentions behind their trip were told to those they came across, the support the couples received was phenomenal.

“I’ll tell you though, it’s really become a lot larger than just a long car trip!” said Bart, speaking to The Outlook after the two cars had arrived just outside of town on Tuesday, September 11.  “I really didn’t anticipate somebody wanting to join me and I didn’t anticipate all the acts of kindness.  It’s reached far beyond my expectations.”

Relying on the kindness of strangers in order to receive the basic staples of life might turn out to be a bit of a mixed bag for others, but Bart says people were more than willing to help out in any way they could.

“I was always trusting that the Saskatchewan people would help out, but I was unprepared for how incredibly generous and helpful they’ve been,” he said.  “It seems like as soon as we need our next tank of gas, somebody puts some in out of a jerry can, or a can of soup shows up or a loaf of banana loaf, or a place to sleep.  It just seems that people have helped us just on time with everything, and it’s unbelievable.”

Perhaps the biggest reason the road trip was so successful is that the Depression has a way of resonating with people, regardless of the age group.  The reactions that the two couples would get from people who wanted to learn about their journey ran the gamut of human emotion.

“That ranges from a broad scale,” said Campbell.  “There are people interested, like kids who just want to honk the horn, to 20-year old people who are fascinated by the car, then people who are in their 50’s who are inspired, and then people in their 90’s who obviously become more emotional with the memories they have.”

Not bringing any money with them on the road could’ve also spelled trouble, but everyone seemed prepared to work for what they would receive, lining up odd jobs and work assignments to help ‘pay their way’.

“We hear things like ‘You’re brave’ and ‘I couldn’t do that!’, and I will admit that that’s the hardest leap of faith to do it like that,” said Bart.  “Fred found us a job at a farm in Liebenthal to clean brush, and then we worked in Swift Current where Fred got a job at a body shop and I got a job at a scrap yard, and then we winterized a guy’s cabin at Elbow.”

Campbell said the biggest challenge on the trip was just dealing with the emotions that come with the entire experience.

“The largest challenge is really just dealing with the emotions; the huge emotions that some people have with the Depression years in Saskatchewan and thinking through their own challenges,” he said.  “The second challenge is just dealing with our emotions in accepting peoples’ random acts of kindness.  I have probably 10 or 15 acts of kindness come my way every day, and it’s so emotional that it’s hard to sleep.”

Right now, the impact of the 10-day trip hasn’t hit any of the travelers yet, and Bart says it’s something that he needs to reflect on in the future ahead.

“I know that it’s going to, but we’re so much in a bubble right now living this experience that I think when I start to reflect in the weeks after it’s over that it’ll hit me,” he said.  “I think it’ll take time to soak in, maybe even months after.  It’s just been incredible.”

For the Holts, being on a trip such as this is something that has altered their perception of others in their daily lives.

“It’s been a real education, it’s been very humbling, and it’s been quite an experience emotionally, with ups and downs,” said Teri.  “I’m really glad that we’ve done this because it’s been inspirational and life-changing.  I’ll tell you, when I see somebody now sitting on the side of the road with their little cup out, I’m going to think twice about passing them by and not helping them.”

fred holt fehrs
Fred Holt poses with Marilyn & Ken Fehr, who gave Fred & Teri a place to camp out for the night at their home in Outlook. - Teri Holt

Fred and Teri stayed behind to spend the night in Outlook on Tuesday, camping out at the home of Ken & Marilyn Fehr and having dinner with Howard & Lori Janzen.  Coincidentally, Ken happens to be a distant relative of the Fehrs depicted in the photo.

“We went over to Lori and Howard’s for supper, and so all four of us walked over from the Fehrs over there to eat,” said Teri.  “We’d actually met him on a motorcycle down by Kenaston, but he’d left his helmet on.  So then when Marilyn said, ‘Let’s all walk over there for supper, they invited us’, he said when we got there, ‘Yeah, I was talking to you over on the corner, don’t you recognize me?’”

Fred and Teri also lined up some work for themselves, fixing up a fence and a broken gate at the Fehrs home and also heading over to another resident’s home to tend to her garden.

“We’d like to thank the Fehrs and the Janzens, as well as Nancy Carlson,” said Teri.  “We went and dug weeds for her yesterday.  Right when we left the gas station, we went straight to her place.  She saw the sign on the front of the car, ‘Will Work for Food and Gas’, and asked if we’d come and do it for her.”

fred nancy
Fred helps Outlook resident Nancy Carlson tend to her home garden. - Teri Holt

Although the Holts’ participation in the road trip ended in Outlook and the couple returned home to Medicine Hat for unexpected reasons, they loved their stop in town and felt that the essence of this amazing journey paying homage to the hardships of the 1930’s was captured while staying in Outlook.

“We want to thank everyone in this town for putting up with us, haha,” Teri said with a laugh.  “This was like the best stop on the whole trip.  Everything just fell into place like we hoped it would.  We’re sitting at a gas station and someone comes up and asks us to please come and work in their yard.  This was just the best day for us, and exactly what we’d hope would happen.”

As for the Campbells, they continued on until the big day had arrived and they had finally reached their destination.  On Saturday, September 14, Bart and Lisa rolled into Warman to meet with surviving members of the Fehr family who were in the 1934 photo.  Upon meeting Abraham Fehr Jr., Agatha Fehr and Helen Wiebe, who were four, three and six years old respectively in the photo, there was a lot of emotion conjured up as the journey had come to an end.  The siblings even climbed into the car and were instantly brought back to the 30’s, remembering that long, arduous car ride back to the family farm in Saskatchewan.

Although the trip has come to an end and the true emotional impact may not be felt by the Campbells just yet, they posted the following on their Facebook page:

“The trip to Diamond House Care Home in Warman was short and ended in more hugs, smiles, laughs, pictures, and tears. It was so great to see Abe, Helen, and Agatha climb into Stella and reminisce. Their trip was very memorable as they remember it like it happened yesterday!

It was so nice to see the Fehr family come together to celebrate their history and this story.

As our part of this journey is over, it will take a few days to process everything that has happened along the way. In a few days I will try to put in words what this journey has meant to us. It was a life-changing experience and will never be forgotten.”

A unique and emotional experience such as this just goes to show that you never know what kind of power there may be in something as innocent as an old photograph.

© The Outlook

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