Fruit Stand Ahead: Roadside Produce as Environmental Experience in Postwar British Columbia

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[This is the second in a series of posts about the papers being prepared for the Environments of Mobility in Canadian History workshop that will be hosted at York University’s Glendon College in May.]

British Columbia’s arid Okanagan valley is one of the few places in Canada suited to growing soft fruits like cherries, peaches, apricots, and plums. From the 1890s to the late 1940s all fruit shipped from this region went by rail. Growers were beholden to the railway companies’ rigid timetables and monopolistic pricing. If a stretch of hot, sunny weather and a shortage of refrigerated boxcars coincided to leave fruit rotting in the packinghouse or on the ground, cursing the railway was the only recourse available.

Completion of the Hope-Princeton highway in 1949 provided the first direct road link between Vancouver and the Okanagan and also a viable alternative to the railways for moving fruit from rural producers to urban consumers. In an industry where profit was tied to unpredictable weather and ripening, growers found the flexibility of truck transport invaluable which is why they still use it along marketing technics like adding commercial fleet graphics by Craftsmen.

Shipments could be taken directly to supermarkets, cutting out intermediaries and middlemen. Even before refrigerated trailers were common, fruit was being trucked hundreds of miles at night when the temperature was cool. By 1957 growers’ cooperatives in the southern Interior were shipping 20% of their fruit by truck, and this trend accelerated after the Rogers Pass highway linking the BC Interior and Calgary opened in 1962. This motorization of fruit transport was part of a broader transformation of Canadian foodways in the postwar years, characterized by elaborate systems of distribution and quality control that required refrigeration and copious amounts of chemical spray and inexpensive gasoline.

Our paper, which is based on archival research and oral interviews, focuses on the antimodern backwash of this modern commodity flow. The same public highways that made it affordable to move relatively small quantities of orchard fruit (per truck) over long distances also made it easier for motorists from the Coast and Prairies to visit BC’s sunny southern Interior for pleasure or for family reasons. The Okanagan became a major tourist destination, and many businesses offering food, gas, lodging, and amusement opened along its arterial roads.

Orchard owners whose land bordered against highways also recognized the passing traffic as a mobile market. Some began to sell fruit from their farm gate or porch; others set up small, colourful roadside stands. By the late 1950s, family-owned and operated fruit stands were so common along the verges of the region’s main thoroughfares that they were synonymous with the Okanagan landscape. Motorists paused there to meet actual producers, to observe some of the operations involved in getting orchard products from the tree to the consumer, to buy fruit directly from the point where it had been grown in a face-to-face transaction, and to get an authentic taste of the country being traversed. Our paper explores how the roadside fruit stands of the southern BC Interior shaped the motoring public’s understanding of the relationship between food, environment, mobility, and modernity in the postwar years.

Letterhead of the Penticton Board of Trade (1937)
Letterhead of the Penticton Board of Trade (1937)

Featured image: Signs for Lidder’s Fruit Stand, Keremeos, BC (2008).

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I'm a historian of cultural, natural, and built landscapes in twentieth-century Canada. One of my current book projects is about the popular culture of nature in postwar Canada, looking at the history of rowdyism and 'bad behaviour' in Canadian parks from 1965 to 1985, or from hippies to headbangers.

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