Tomato cannery kept Ashcroft alive

In the depths of the Depression, tomatoes replaced stagecoaches as town's economic engine.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

The whole town smelled of spicy catsup. The sound of the cannery’s whistle could be heard as far as Cache Creek, 10 miles away. The village on the Thompson River was geared to the single endeavor. Canning thousands of tons of tomatoes brought by wagons or trucked in from the farms from all directions.

Everybody who could work, worked.

Yet, these were hard times. The Dirty Thirties. But all the locals found work at the cannery. And scores of others who came up, some of them, probably, with their last dollar in their pockets, from as far away as Vancouver.

Ashcroft’s economy boomed for several months, from early summer to late fall, while other towns across Canada wallowed in the slough of the Depression. No euphemisms for this one, like “downturn”. Just plain old ugly, Depression.

And where was Ashcroft, pray tell? A village of less than a thousand then, buried on a trench in the heart of the Thompson River corridor, so far from the beaten track that it wasn’t even on some road maps.

But Ashcroft had always played a vital role in the history of the Cariboo.  From the mid 1880s, the town had been hewn whole cloth from a landscape that was about as bare and unlikely a stepping stone into anywhere. The ice age had scraped the volcanic overlay into a series of mesas, and the melting of the glaciers had scored the territory with a network of runnels of sand and gravel, the forms of which have been shaped by wind and weather for too many generations to count.

The village sprang up and grew. The CPR rail track cut right through the grid of the eight streets and avenues, became a transportation hub. Barns and stables stood alongside cottages, two churches, saloons and hotels. Horse drawn stage coaches and freight wagons plied the steep slopes and plodded through the long vistas of meadowland, forest, passing virgin lakes and streams, scarcely touched by humans. As far as Barkerville, and then, by river boat, to Fort George. Then a  fleet of Studebaker touring vehicles called the IT stage.

When the horse drawn era ended, the sawmill and lumber industry became the mainstay of the village and environs. And Ashcroft’s busy cannery provided work night and day through the 1920s, 30s, 40s and well into the 50s.

Girls could make $18 a week, peeling tomatoes six days a week. Peeling piece work. If you peeled fast, you made the dollars. You stood on your feet for 10 to 12 hours a day. Peelers in white aprons, white caps. And if you came from out of town, as many of them did, you slept in the dormitory down on Railway Ave., and you ate there too.

The late Kitty Key of Ashcroft and her husband Harry, both British born, cooked for the cannery cafeteria.

“They put me to work peeling tomatoes at first,” Kitty told the writer, “but I wasn’t any good at it. I wasn’t quick enough.”

So Kitty and Harry started the canteen, or cafeteria, which provided three square meals a day, sandwiches, baked goods and beverages. Kitty did all the cooking and baking. Remarkably, a life of that kind of toil seemed to demonstrate the old adage that “Hard work never killed anybody.” Both lived long lives in the village,  and were much loved by all.

The cannery warehouse was located just across the street from the cannery. Cans and bottles jostled along on the overhead conveyor belt from cannery to warehouse, a hop skip and jump from the rail track. It was a block-long wooden structure, flanked by wide wooden platforms. The cans and bottles were crated and shipped.

Much of it went by truck, and some of the truckers were remembered by the late Bill Baker of Cache Creek, whose father had pioneered the Loon Lake area. Bill worked as a warehouse man all through the 30s. He recalls pioneer teamsters, Phil Parke, Tom Stewart, Henry Leong, and Cliff Walker, to name just a few.

The Chinese hauled their tomatoes to the cannery from North Ashcroft by horse and wagon. Truckers, packers, peelers, the employment agency in Vancouver sent them up by the hundreds, where they had a pretty certain chance of finding a job. At least for those summer and fall months.

The cannery buildings had been owned by the BX Express company, but the buildings had been abandoned after horse drawn transportation ended. Then, a man named Willis West stepped into the picture, saw a golden opportunity. Bought the buildings, and opened the cannery. The year was 1925. And a new era of prosperity bloomed for the town.

The tomatoes were sorted at revolving tables where they were placed in large bowls. Then the tomatoes were taken to another table, where they were peeled. The peels were put in other bowls, and the residue hauled to the dump. The dump was a gorge just above the town, up Highland Valley way.

Girls were paid 30 cents an hour. Warehouse men were paid 35 cents an hour. Only about one-third of the peelers were local. The rest came from “outside”.

The whole area for miles around was geared to growing produce for the cannery. Even local ranches started growing tomatoes. But the biggest producers were the Chinese, who rented the land around Walhachin and Ashcroft.

There was scarcely a good patch of soil that wasn’t leased by the industrious Chinese merchant-farmers. They used indentured labor. Paying the fare of Chinese, housing and feeding them. Today, the practice would be considered little more than a form of slavery. Single men worked long hours in the fields. But locals worked for the Chinese too.

A vestige of this part of the town’s history remained even up until recent times, when Wong paid workers that harvested his tomato fields $10 a day right up until well into the 1970s.

The semi desert dry belt of the area with its long warm nights was ideal for growing produce. Potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkin. And the area’s potatoes became as famous as the Idaho potato. Spud City, as Ashcroft was called, produced potatoes for the CPR and CNR railroads for years.

Today, Ashcroft’s mesas have once again been transformed into verdant and productive produce fields. Those of us who remember the cracked earth and sage covered mesas before farming was resumed can’t fail to be impressed and heartened by the energy and determination that has created anew, an industry that, hopefully, will flourish for generations to come.

Esther Darlingon-MacDonald