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Chapter 5

The Roaring and Windy 20's

T he farmer movement gained momentum at the turn of the century with the formation of grain associations and cooperatives, particularly the United Grain Growers Limited. And it made its political presence known when the Progressive Party was born. Dissatisfied with efforts by government to that date to create farm legislation, farmers took it upon themselves to take office. The Progressives were essentially small "l" liberals. The new party came into being in 1921, leaving not one prairie Conservative seat in the Federal Government.

In the years ahead, as farm numbers dwindled and urban centres thrived, support waned for the Progressives. Meanwhile, the Federal Government formed the Canadian National Railway and by 1924, the three Prairie Wheat Pools were born.

In 1920, Canadian wheat prices soared to more than $2.85 a bushel and the expansion mood was once again apparent. Manitoba's population was now over 610,000.

It was also a busy time for the Portage Mutual. Fulton died in 1920 and was replaced as President by Edwin Muir in 1921.

Repair crews or gangs were formed to rebuild destroyed or damaged buildings. As a result, costs of rebuilding various structures could be cut considerably and thus save money for the company and policy-holders.

In 1921, Robert McDermott of Edwin, Manitoba was elected a Director. Like so many of his associates, he served the company and community well. He remained as a Director until 1947. He served on the Rural Municipal Council from 1913 to 1923 when he became Reeve until 1925. He served on the Council again from 1927 and into the 1930's.

Arthur Gaye
Arthur Gaye
Arthur Gaye was hired in 1924 to work with the repair gang and remained with the company until 1959 as an Adjustor and Inspector. Gaye was an Alderman for Portage.

Business continued to grow and the company raised the cash commission for agents from 10% to 15%.

There was competition from other insurance companies, particularly the Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Company. The 1920's were an era of uplifted spirits for many. The motor car replaced the horse and buggy, rural telephones were commonplace and radio was just coming in.

Company Letterhead
Company Letterhead

However, unemployment was high and the post-war slump in agriculture and industry in general brought wheat prices back down below $2 per bushel again. In 1924, the Manitoba Cooperative Wheat Producers Ltd. was formed (Manitoba Pool Elevators).

Soil erosion was not a major topic of the day but a few farmers were beginning to experience it, especially during very dry springs.


Nowhere was the wind more on the minds of people than in and around Portage on June 23, 1922 and for much of the summer of 1922. A cyclone struck Portage and the surrounding countryside at 2:30 am. June 23, cutting a swath 180 miles long and 40 miles wide. Tremendous winds, huge hail, thunder, lightning and rain added to the threat. Billed by the Daily Graphic as the worst storm in history, the cyclone remarkably claimed only one life, but it wrought incredible property damage. The brave Farmers' Mutual, which had introduced wind coverage not long before, was about to totter under the claims.

Under construction and destruction in Portage
Under construction and destruction in Portage
The Daily Graphic: Devastation by Cyclone and Fire

The damage in Portage was incredible. Roofs were torn off houses and stores. The wind uprooted mature trees, twisting others like paper matches.Cars, box cars, and even houses were picked up and deposited in small pieces. Fires in several buildings including the Forsythe Elevator at the west end of Portage and the Premier Grain Milling Company, resulted in heavy property losses. Many businesses and churches were heavily damaged with windows, roofs and parts of the buildings gone. Along Main Street and Saskatchewan Avenue, debris and brick lay scattered about. Island Park was a gruesome sight with huge trees destroyed. The town power and telephones were not completely restored for days.

Common sight on Portage plains Merchants Hotel - Mayfair corner - Portage
Common sight on Portage plains Merchants Hotel - Mayfair corner - Portage

North and east of the city, farms were hit hard. Roofs of many barns were torn off, shingles and chimneys went missing and other outbuildings were damaged. Crops suffered hail damage.

The Monday following the cyclone, a special meeting of the Portage Mutual Directors was called to determine the extent of the damage and claims. A Reo truck was purchased for the repair gangs and the Directors went out in pairs around the countryside to adjust losses.

The gang - ready to go Windstorm gang at work
The gang - ready to go Windstorm gang at work

A motion was passed at one meeting to drop wind coverage due to the terrible effect on the company, but the Mutual's determination remained and the motion was defeated.

In July, efforts were made to rebuild reserves. The assessment levy was raised from 22½% to 35% on farm policies but stayed at 17½% on churches and schools. Later, company management would comment how loyal policy holders were. Many renewed and paid the higher assessments without complaint.

The cyclone had brought its own form of risk to the company. Many predicted it would go under. However, in the spirit that had brought the company its success to date, the Directors met with the bank to make provision to keep the company intact.

It needed cash to help pay for losses and it soon ran dry. Directors signed personal notes totalling $40,000 and singed over the premium notes to the bank.The levy was lowered again the following year but it had accomplished what the Directors intended. By late 1922, the loan was repaid and reserves available again.

When the dust had settled, the Portage Mutual was faced with 898 windstorm claims totalling $143,864. However, President Edwin Muir notes in the 1922 annual report that adding $191,300 for fire claims and $13,895 for lightning losses, the total claims paid out (less reinsurance coverage) totalled $317,605.21. The company had written $26.5 million of insurance amounts in 1922 and had a total insurance in force of $72,017,325 with over $1 million in assets.

One of the reasons the company was able to weather the storm of 1922 and a subsequent cyclone almost the same day one year later (in the southwest region of the province, with 522 claims, some left over from 1922) was the company's repair crews.

The gang - no job too big or too small
The gang - no job too big or too small

"A great saving was made", commented Muir at the same time. The estimate of the saving was several thousand dollars in the 1923 annual report which noted that in 1923 alone the repair crews had repaired and completed 186 buildings.

The year 1922 was also a historic one from a more positive side. Early that year, the first recorded meeting of twelve agents of the Portage la Prairie Mutual Agents Association was held. The President was R.G. Taylor, Swan River Manitoba. Also present were: E.W. Poole, J.A. McDonald, C.R. Campbell, J.D. Adamson, J.D. Goosen, A.L. Snyder , D.S. Sands, D.W. Yuill, R.H. Stevens and M.S. Hayward.

Agents of the company 1922

The association was established as a means to represent the agents in dealings with the company. As the years passed, the agents have held their meeting at the same time as the company's annual meeting and costs have been borne by the company.

By 1923, Portage's population had reached 6,500. The city was inundated by flood that year. The Assiniboine breached its banks and caused considerable damage. The flood peaked on Saturday, April 21. Both railways had major line washouts and the water flooded many Portage homes and businesses.

Competition from other insurance companies was evident at the end of 1923. "A lot of money spent on propaganda," Muir said in the annual report.

In 1925, Adjustor Lamont got an assistant, A.N. Gaye, and Keith Stewart was appointed as the local agent for farm business.

Agents (Brokers) and Agencies

It is fitting that this brief mention of the valuable agents and agencies that have been a major part of the company over the years, begins with Keith Stewart, first mentioned on a 1922 list of agents with his address as Westbourne.

In 1925, he moved to Portage to become the local agent for farm business and in 1934, became a Director of the company, a position he held for only one year, since a Director cannot also sell that company's insurance.

He did however, temporarily replace the Manager of the Urban Mutual, which by then was being run by the Portage Mutual Directors. He remained as Manager of the Urban Mutual until it was absorbed by the Portage Mutual in 1938.

Stewart was President of the Agent's Association for many years. The agency he founded, Stewart-Greenslade Ltd., is still thriving. Son Craig is currently the Portage Mutual's Agent in Minnedosa.

Another early agent was John Slater of Balmoral, Manitoba, whose name was mentioned in company records in 1893 and who continued to represent the company until his death in 1940. Slater was Honorary President of the Agent's Association. His son, Charlie Slater, is still associated with the agency today, called the Slater-Roy Agencies.

Another early agent in 1896 was David Lawson of Miami, Manitoba, also an Honorary President of the Agent's Association. In 1947, son Ralph took over and ran the agency until 1978 when his son, Clint, took over and is continuing the family business.

Roland McDonald of Roland, Manitoba was an agent in 1902 when his brother John McDonald assumed the job. He was followed by the latter's son Walter McDonald in 1927 who has been to 57 Agent's Association meetings ever since.

Company records show that W.H. Stevens of Fannystelle, Manitoba maintained an agency in that community in 1907. His son, R.H. Stevens, took over in 1917 and his grandson, W.H. Stevens, has operated it from 1978 until the present.

An agency that has been faithful for nearly 50 years, through two generations, is the Gaetz Agencies in Leduc, Alberta. The first agency contract was signed with Claire Gaetz in 1934.

Another long standing agent was J.D. Adamson who retired in 1954 after sixty years as an agent.

These have been only a few of the many agents and agencies that have been and still are a major part of the company's success. Today, the company has 650 agents in eight provinces.>

Down on the farm, in the mid-1920's, grain prices rose somewhat and farmers began investing in "new-fangled pieces of equipment." In doing so, their risks increased. The Wall Street's stock market crash in late 1929 heralded the end of the roaring 20's and start of what was to become the dirty 30's.

Bye 1928, world wheat production soared and prices fell below $1 per bushel in 1930. This surplus would be carried through into the 1930's until poor crops reduced the supply.

It was time for The Portage Mutual to look to expanding its policy horizons from essentially a fire insurance company for local farmers to a company offering insurance throughout the province. The Company wanted to go beyond its borders and expand its product line. It was a time for forming future strategies and, to do so, the company had obtained licences and was beginning to write policies in neighboring provinces.

Directors' Report

The Directors' have pleasure in submitting their Thirty-ninth Annual Report, showing statements of the Receipts and Expenditures of the Company as at the 31st December, 1922, together with the Assets, Liabilities and Summary of business for the year ending on that date.

During the year policies were issued for $26,503,633.00 being an increase over the year 1921 of $1,544,993.00. This increase is highly gratifying when we take into consideration the tremendous competition for farm insurance that took place after the cyclone of June 23rd, and also the reports that were scattered broadcast to the effect that this Company had gone under, in other words "was broke."
In Force
The total insurance in force now amounts to $72,017,325.00.
The assets of the Company now amount to $1,041,918.37 after allowing $13,181.00 as a liability for cash premiums.
Claims to the enormous amount of $349,059.26 have been paid to our policyholders during the year; Fire claims amounted to $191,300.17. Lightning claims to $13,895.04 and Cyclone and Windstorm claims to $143,864.05. The Company received $31,454.05 from re-insurance, thus reducing the total amount to $317,605.21. These fire claims are by far too great, most of them were caused by carelessness and could have been prevented. It is entirely up to the policyholders themselves, as the smaller the loss ratio the smaller the assessment.
The lightning losses were the same as in 1921, only two dollars difference. The Cyclone and Wind losses were practically all caused by the cyclone of June 23rd, a day long to be remembered in the history of this company, fortunately the loss was not as large as at first estimated but goes to prove the necessity of Windstorm insurance in this Province.
We would like to take this opportunity of thanking our policyholders for the way they have stood so loyally by the Company, in not only renewing their policies but in paying the increased assessment. This increase of assessment was necessary on account of the enormous loss claims, caused mostly by fires. We at one time were under the impression that the claims from the cyclone would amount to a far greater figure, but the matter was handled as efficiently as possible, and mostly by our own repair gangs, consequently a great saving was made. It was also imperative that sufficient money be collected so as not to impare our small cash reserve, as this is required to offset the liability of the insurance carried: viz $72,000,000.00.
Staff &
We wish to record our appreciation of the Management, Staff and Agents for their faithful services during the past, and especially for their splendid work during the crisis caused by the cyclone, and trust that we may have their united co-operation for the future to make this Company an even greater success.

E.H. MUIR, President

On Parade 1925
On Parade 1925
Staff - Mid 20's
Staff - Mid 20's

Manager and Staff

Back row- A.H. Thorpe, Stratton Whitaker
Second row - Marjorie Baker, Vera Fryer, Edna Crosson, Nettie Nicholson
Third row - Lillian Stephens, Doreen Bonny, Bessie Beach, Myrtle Rose

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Please note: The information provided within this page was originally published in 1984. Any "current", "new", "present" or other such references within this information were correct in 1984 but are not necessarily so now.
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