Growing and packing fruit for the world

Linda Jenkins shares the history of a former fruit storage and packing house in Vernon

Between 1910 and 1965

Between 1910 and 1965

This former fruit storage and packing house at 3203-28th St. has served the community for more than 100 years. It has gone through many incarnations, being built in 1913 to serve as a storage and shipping facility for the Vernon Fruit Union. The industrial frame vernacular building is now known in part as the Case Furniture Gallery which has the south two thirds, and as Briteland Holdings in the north one third. The building is one of the earlier examples of storage and packing house facilities as used in the Okanagan.

The building stored all manner of produce, from potatoes and onions to fruit and other vegetables. There was also an elevator and conveyor belt system to move the produce from floor to floor. With the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks running right by the rear of the building, it was easy to load the boxcars from the storage.

The property was originally part of the CPR stockyards in the early years until it was leased for the storage-packing house about  1920. First use was by the Vernon Storage Company, an affiliate of the Vernon Fruit Union. This was followed by the Mutual Fruit Company in the late ‘20s and by Browne-Lander in the ‘30s. It appears to have been purchased by Dolph Browne in 1942 when he operated the packing house and was utilized by him until 1960. About that time Archie Fleming Wholesale occupied the south end. Antique Imports followed in part of the building, and was further followed by Sandy’s New and Used Furniture. Briteland Farm Supplies moved into their end in 1985. Case Furniture Gallery and the Case family took over in 2009 in the part they are now occupying.

Commercial fruit growing was started in the Okanagan in the early 1890s with Lord and Lady Aberdeen on their Coldstream Estates. By 1893 Lord Aberdeen had 900 acres under cultivation and other farmers were soon buying  the subdivided lands and were planting out orchards. Add to this the Land and Agricultural Company’s  large acreage in the BX District.

Very quickly the sheer volume of fruit being produced required storage facilities to be created, and markets found for the produce. Fruit and produce, including hay,  was shipped to mining towns in the Kootenays and  the Prairies. In the 1890s peaches were fed to the hogs since there was no way to bring the fruit to the market. In the ‘20s the fruit was so plentiful that the markets were flooded. Co-operative marketing came onto the scene and this too experienced many problems and failures.

Gradually the storage facilities were improved and strict quality grading gave the Okanagan fruit access to markets in the U.K., the States and Canada. Fruit growing used to be the Okanagan’s main economic driver.

One of the cultural footnotes that came out of shipping fruit in wooden, 40-pound boxes, was the colourful labels used to identify the product. Between 1910 and 1965, the fruit was shipped with beautifully designed paper labels affixed to a box end; they were a distinctive and colourful depiction of life in the Okanagan. Some brands used were Silver Star by A. T. Howe, Ogopogo Brand by B.C. Fruit Shippers, and the OK Brand used by the Vernon Fruit Union and the Associated Growers of B.C. The Valley’s main overseas market was the United Kingdom, and terms denoting the Empire were British Columbia Apples, Canadian Apples, and the use of a star symbol with EMPIRE imprinted thereon. Who would have thought that shipping apples to parts unknown would have the effect of bringing  new settlers looking for a more interesting lifestyle to the Okanagan.

Transportation started to change after the Second World War with the advent of trucking and the new highways. Along with this came tourists and fruit stands. In 1976, more than 60 per cent of valley peaches were marketed by fruit stands. With improved road access to the Okanagan, tourists were flooding in to enjoy our climate and lakes, our fruit products, and our enviable lifestyle. The Okanagan became a mecca for retirement living, and the increased need for more land to build housing forced the orchardists to cut back on production. Land in orchards has declined 10 per cent each decade since 1960. The high cost of land, and the conversion to housing and industry, has further pushed the orchardists’ ability to make a viable living at growing fruit.

Dennis and Marion Case, and daughter Jody with husband Brad Swartz bought the old packing house in 2009. The family has a long record of running successful businesses in the community, having previously owned Ashley Furniture Stores in Enderby and Kelowna.

The family undertook a complete renovation of the building, a massive undertaking  requiring a total overhaul of all the plumbing, electrical wiring systems, repouring and leveling three floors of concrete, re-insulating, and modernizing the systems. Great effort was put into retaining the charm and original architectural details. The original exposed posts and beams were restored, and interior brickwork preserved. There are many places where workers have carved their initials into the beams, or the wood is notched with imprints of where the workers held their knives. Even two original walk-in safes that were bricked into the wall are still on display. Original apple boxes, and the haybaler, and the elevators and conveyor belts were donated to the historical society.

The renovation took almost a year, and now the building is open for business as Case Furniture Gallery. It is a stunning example of how a solid building can be restored and retain its charm and purpose. Dennis Case says he has always liked old buildings with character, and also was attracted to the industrial look of the building which is much in vogue today.

The building’s original character and strength has inspired a wonderful transformation for a modern business, that will be part of Vernon’s landscape for many years to come.  The building turns 100 years old this year, so drop in and enjoy a tour of Case Furniture Gallery, dressed up in a fine new (old) style.

Linda Jenkins is with the Heritage Advisory Committee of Vernon. This article was edited by Ken Ellison, with assistance from the Greater Vernon Museum & Archives staff.