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A Fruitful Century

A New Organization for New Conditions

A fruitful century

The reorganization of the British Columbia Fruit Growers’ Association in 1910 was necessary because the fruit industry in the province had changed drastically in the decade since the turn of the century, and the Association had not been successful in adapting to the new conditions.

Of the 399,000 apple trees in British Columbia reported in the census of 1901, the majority were in areas of the province other than the Okanagan. But in 1911 the Okanagan had more than half of the increased number of 1,976,000 apple trees reported in that year’s census.

The Okanagan, which at the beginning of the century had been, apart from Lord Aberdeen’s Coldstream Ranch and a few other plantings, of minor importance as a fruit area, took off as the economic depression of the 1890s eased following the Klondike gold rush of 1898.

The Henry Walker orchard, Coldstream.Courtesy Vernon Museum and Archives

Surprisingly, it was a prairie man who first took advantage of the new conditions. J.M. Robinson came from Manitoba in 1897, to open a gold mine near Okanagan Lake. The mining venture failed, but Robinson was impressed by the fruit he saw. In 1898 he started selling fruit lands, at his new and enticingly-named settlement of “Peachland”, to wheat farmers from the prairies, who were excited by the combination of favourable climate, sport, and easy living. When he had finished selling the land available at Peachland, he moved on to wider fields, incorporating the Summerland Development Company in 1903. (Just as Eric the Red gave his snow-covered discovery the name of Greenland to draw the gullible away from Iceland, so Robinson gave alluring names to his settlements.) In 1907 he established the Naramata Development Company.

Others, noting the trend of the times, were quick to follow Robinson’s example. W.R. Pooley and E.M. Carruthers had been engaged in the real estate business at Kelowna since 1902, and in 1904 they combined with T.W. Stirling to form the Kelowna Land and Orchard Company, which bought 6743 acres from the Lequime family for $65,000.’ This land was quickly provided with roads and a modicum of irrigation, and placed on the market at prices from $100 to $200 per acre. In 1905 the Southern Okanagan Land Company, a similar enterprise, was incorporated to buy and subdivide the huge Ellis estate stretching south from Penticton to the American border. The great Okanagan land boom was on.

The speed with which the boom grew can be seen from newspaper reports. In the fall of 1904 it was modestly stated that “Land sales around Kelowna, Vernon, Summerland, and other points have been good”, but a year later the Vernon News could boast proudly that:

The influx of settlers during the past year, resulting from the subdivision of the big holdings, and the adoption of energetic and up-to-date methods of advertising and pushing real estate, has been surprising, and has resulted in a great increase in the total cultivated area of the valley.

Another illustration of the boom can be seen in the statistics of fruit acreage in British Columbia: in 1901 there were 7430 acres planted, in 1904 there were 13,340, and in 1905, a total of 29,000 acres were under cultivation. Almost all the expansion was in the Okanagan. “This increase in acreage for 1905 meant the planting of about 1,000,000 young trees.”

Angus Gray’s pruning team, Fintry, 1910.Courtesy Vernon Museum and Archives

Most of the first buyers were successful settlers from Manitoba and the prairies who had had Angus Gray’s pruning team, Fintry, 1910. Courtesy Vernon Museum and Archives enough of prairie weather. Later began the influx of English settlers, wooed by expensive advertisements appealing for British immigrants and promising high returns. Many of these settlers, who gave the Okanagan the distinct British flavour it held until after the Second World War, were younger sons of well-off families who hoped to establish themselves as country gentlemen on the British model, complete with polo and tennis matches, high tea, and private schools. They lacked the capital to do this at “Home”, but expected to be able to live thus in Canada. And if they could not, at least their failure was hidden from their relatives by several thousand miles. (The author’s grandfather had to work as a ditchwalker while waiting for his young orchard in East Kelowna to come into bearing, but a heraldic encyclopedia published in England at the time listed him as “Oliver Dendy, gentleman, resident in Canada”!)

Angus Gray’s pruning team, Fintry, 1910.Courtesy Vernon Museum and Archives

To exploit the new bonanza, land companies sprang up rapidly. In 1906, the Coldstream Estate was formed into a limited company, and offered irrigated land for $150 and up per acre, with easy terms of payment.’ The Central Okanagan Land and Orchard Company paid about $100,000 for 1665 acres near Rutland in the fall of the same year. The South Kelowna Land Company was formed in 1908, and by 1912 held about 6000 acres of land with irrigation works worth around half a million dollars. Belgian capital of about $950,000 came into the valley, founding the Land and Agricultural Company of Canada at Vernon in 1907 and the Belgo-Canadian Land Company at Kelowna in 1908. Many other companies were formed, and the Okanagan swarmed with real estate agents. In this confident atmosphere, expansive advertisements were issued, pamphlets and even books were published extolling the qualities of Okanagan fruit lands, and prices were pushed up and up. By 1912, irrigated land was running at $200 to $400 per acre, and bearing orchards might fetch anything up to $2000 per acre. The success of the Okanagan developments soon inspired imitators throughout the rest of the Southern Interior-anywhere which could be promoted as being within the “Dry Belt”, and some localities even beyond. The Thompson Valley, Lillooet, Revelstoke, the shores of the Arrow and Kootenay Lakes, Creston, Grand Forks, the Similkameen Valley, even the lower Fraser Valley and the Saanich peninsula, were all offered as fruit lands, totalling probably 100,000 potential acres of fruit in all.1 The grandiose but doomed development by the Marquis of Anglesey at Walhachin on the Thompson River, which later failed spectacularly during the First World War, became a sort of legend in the B.C. interior. Even the Windermere district in the Upper Columbia Valley, which is now considered suitable only as livestock land, was promoted by the CPR as a “Little Dry Belt” adapted for mixed farming and fruit growing. Unfortunately, not all real estate agents were scrupulous or honest in their dealings. The British Columbia Royal Commission on Agriculture in 1912 commented that:

The injury that many individuals have suffered and the harm to the reputation of the Province that has real-estate operators misrepresenting essential conditions such as soil, climate, irrigation, land clearing, and earning-capacity affecting the value of the land, have been pressed strongly upon us for consideration.

Vignette: Early Spraying

Percy Mason, a young British immigrant working on an orchard at Salmon Arm, wrote home to his mother in Epsom on May 25, 1914:

Yesterday was Victoria Day, public holiday but we worked. Busy spraying the orchard to kill any insects. The spray is made up of arsenate of lead, lime & sulphur & stuff called black leaf, all of which makes a lovely concoction. Since Saturday the colour of my face & hands & clothes is greenish yellow and I smell strong of sulphur. It’s an awful stain to get off. To spray the orchards we use a big tank on wheels pulled by a team of horses. The spray is pumped from the tank by gasoline engine power, through two bamboo rods with a nozzle on the ends-attached to lengths of hose about 30 feet in length. The rods are about 16 ft. long. One man to each rod, one man to drive the team & one man to attend to the engine completes the outfit.

The stuff is driven through the hoses onto the trees at 260 pounds pressure . . . .

I’ve got used to the job and rather like it, so long as the wind keeps down. If there’s a wind it’s a terror, as the spray stings quite a bit, especially if it gets into your eyes.

Spraying at Bellview orchard, Coldstream, about 1930.Courtesy Vernon Museum and Archives

Percy Mason, like so many of the young Englishmen who came to British Columbia in the early years of this century, answered the call of his “Mother Country” when the Great War came. He enlisted in the Second Canadian Mounted Rifles, trained at the Vernon Army Camp, and was killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

There is an anecdote told by several oldtimers which, although obviously apocryphal, magnificently illustrates the lack of scruples on the part of some land agents. According to the story, a new settler was looking for land, and was offered two places, one on the East Kelowna bench and one in Rutland. The prospective customer said to the Rutland agent, “I like your price, but this place is so rocky, and that one up on the bench has such nice fine soil, not a rock around.” The agent’s quick reply was, “That’s why you should buy this land. Up there, the first big wind that comes along will blow out your whole orchard, but down here the trees have something to hold on to.”

Affairs were actually so bad that even promoters felt constrained to warn the public about cheats and frauds. For example, J.S. Redmayne, who wrote a book praising the new fruit lands, explained at length about dealers who offered bargain-price properties which were no bargains, and finished up by saying, “I feel that the foregoing remarks are necessary for the guidance of the English fruit farming settler coming into a country where every second man he meets on arrival is probably a real estate agent in disguise!”

But even the legitimate land companies were often guilty of misrepresentation, whether deliberate or not, presenting isolated examples of high profits and low costs, overestimating the fruitfulness of the land, and providing insufficient utilities. The companies constantly emphasized the vast sums that they had spent on irrigation works, but the amount of water supplied was often pitifully inadequate. In the Kelowna area, for example, the companies provided only twelve inches of water per acre per year, which they considered, together with rainfall, sufficient for orchards. This was enough to keep the young trees alive, but it was nothing near the quantity required for good bearing orchards. The modern recommendation for furrow irrigation, the method then in use, calls for 22 to 45 inches of irrigation annually.

Promoters of Okanagan lands continued to boost their holdings, promising great profits:

After a maximum of five years, I understand the settler may look forward with reasonable certainty to a net income of from $100 to $150 per acre, after all expenses of cultivation have been paid.

Steam tractors, Walhachin, 1912.Courtesy PABC

Some advertisers went higher, speaking of income from a ten-acre orchard as £600 or even £700 ($3000 or $3500) per annum.1″ But by 1911, scepticism was rising, particularly among those who found that the land they had bought did not match up to the promises. One man, who had bought an orchard from the Coldstream Estate, sold out and returned to Britain in 1911, reporting that:

It was impossible not to be struck with the obvious, shall I say, lack of riches everywhere. I met man after man, some of whom had been fifteen or twenty years in the country, but never a one of them had done much more than keep his head above water.

Picking Jonathans, Pridham’s orchard, Kelowna.Courtesy Kelmona Centennial Museum

The sceptics were vindicated in 1912. By this time many of the new orchards were coming into bearing. A heavy crop in British Columbia coincided with similar heavy crops in Washington and Oregon, and the result was that the usual markets on the Canadian prairies were glutted with the American surplus at low prices. British Columbian fruit, which came onto the market later than the American crop, was put at an enormous disadvantage. According to Raymond T. Hicks, manager of the Kootenay Fruit Growers’ Association:

The infant fruit industry of British Columbia is crumbling on its none too strong foundation . . . and grim failure stares the growers full in the face. . . . With the exception of apples, not a single fruit grown on British Columbia lands this season has brought back the cost of production to the grower, and the fruit yield this year has been the best in the history of the province. . . Apples so far are returning to the grower the cost of production and no more.

As far as land sales were concerned, the damage had been done. Although the promoters tried to keep the boom going, the customers no longer appeared. Conditions were aggravated by the collapse of the province-wide real-estate and investment market at the beginning of 1913, as world-wide financial recession set in.22 After 1912 land sales dropped off to almost nothing, and the land companies were left in severe difficulties, for few of them had sold more than a third of their irrigable lands.23 They had been depending on the revenue from land sales to pay for the building and repair of their rather makeshift irrigation works and now, with sales dwindling, they still had to maintain these expensive systems for settlers who had already bought land, and who had been promised cheap water as an inducement to purchase.

Not everyone saw the collapse of the land boom as unfavourable. New plantings ceased, and many orchards on unsuitable land were abandoned, particularly when many of the young English settlers left to fight the Empire’s war in 1914. The Deputy Minister of Agriculture of British Columbia said:

The cessation of real-estate activities is having a good effect, and tending towards the settlement and development of our vacant lands, and towards more genuine farming, and therefore increased production.

Despite the shortcomings of the land promoters, they performed a valuable function in the development of the Okanagan Valley.25 They changed the complexion of the land from extensive to intensive agriculture, and firmly established orcharding as a major economic activity. The fruit industry of the Okanagan had grown to the point where it accounted for most of the province’s output, producing in 1913 over twenty million pounds of fruit, worth more than $640,000 to the growers.26 Fruit growing had become the established and important industry of the Okanagan. And growers’ attitudes and expectations for many years were set by their desire to regain the lost prosperity and recoup their investments. They had a long wait; land values did not return to their 1913 levels until the mid-1940s.