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Harvesting a Dream

author: Paul Dalby

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As far as a couple of city dwellers knew, the large derelict building they had just purchased in Grafton was simply a fixer-upper. But they sure got much more than they bargained for...

FROM THE OUTSET, Cliff and Yasmin Smith were confident that with time, patience, and of course money, the abandoned cannery could be transformed into their rural paradise.

“I came out with Yasmin and instantly fell in love with it, even though it was a wreck at the time,” recalled Cliff, 50, a graphics art designer. “On its own it would have collapsed. There was no floor in here, no windows or doors. The animals and the rest of nature would have just taken it back; nests and droppings were everywhere. Some people even thought it was haunted.”

But on that special day 10 years ago when they clinched the property deal, the Smiths had no idea they would also get a history lesson about Ontario’s farming heritage. The tumbledown building that stole their hearts was the former Grafton Station Cannery, a final remnant of a glorious past.

From 1904 to 1960, the cannery was the bustling heart and soul of the village, employing most of the local women on its production line and collecting produce from farmers for miles around.

Every summer for over 50 years, the village of Grafton always knew when its local cannery was back in full swing. They could smell it. Any breeze off Lake Ontario wafted a pungent aroma of the tomatoes cooking in the cannery’s giant steam kettles into every house.

The Grafton Station Cannery – and 150 other canning factories just like it – anchored small farming towns across rural Ontario and transformed agriculture from its self-sufficient but limited pioneer roots, into a new thriving commercial enterprise.

All of this has been a voyage of discovery for Cliff Smith: “Everybody has a story about the Grafton cannery building. If someone could ever collect the artifacts of the old cannery, I would be the guy to stage that exhibition here in the building,” enthuses Cliff.

MILLION-DOLLAR MAKEOVER

After the Smiths bought the cannery, it was two years before they raised the funds to go to the next stage. “But we just stuck with it,” Cliff recalls. “We measured it, had drawings made and then worked on getting all the necessary permits.We hired structural engineers and had soil tests done.” “I think on some level I knew this was the way to a new kind of opportunity down the road, although I wasn’t sure what,” he said.“Now it’s unfolding.”

His wife Yasmin, an osteopath, recalls that day vividly: “We actually came out to measure up the building in January. I will never forget the freezing cold.We huddled in one corner inside the building trying to get out of the wind howling through the empty windows. Like a fool, I had packed a picnic of grapes, cheese, bread and white wine. Our fingers were so cold we could hardly hold the glasses.What was I thinking?”

Today after a million-dollar renovation that would have challenged the patience of a monk, Cliff stands proudly in the centre of the exquisitely restored main cannery building. It has been transformed into a neo-modern gallery for elite European furniture. The irony of that transformation from heavy industry to lighter-than-air interior design is not lost on him.

“I have a hard time imagining what it was like in here when it was a real cannery,” he says, surveying the spaciously serene ground floor. “This would have been a real bustling place back in its hey-day.”

HOTHOUSE

More than just busy, the Grafton Station Cannery boasted indoor working temperatures not unlike a freshly stoked volcano. “It was really hot in there,” recalls 94-year-old Doug Johnston, a direct link to the cannery’s glory days. “I don’t think the women wore too many clothes but they all had to wear a big heavy apron on their front. And it was messy of course; the floor was covered in tomato juice and water,” said Johnston. “My wife Shirley tried working in the cannery while she was in high school but she didn’t like it all. After she took a secretarial course, she always worked at the cannery office.”

A man of many talents (farmer, insurance agent, town councillor), Doug Johnston still vividly remembers the cannery: “The women picked the tomatoes on the ground. They had a bit of a platform where they put them in a big kettle to steam them, then they took them inside where two rows of 25 to 30 women waited to peel the tomatoes. They got paid by the pail,” he said.

Doug Johnston’s family has farmed in Grafton since 1868. His first trip to the cannery came as a seven year-old boy riding shotgun on his father Thomas’ wagon, their team of two horses straining mightily to pull the load of 100 crates of tomatoes.

“We picked tomatoes every week and it would take two trips down to the cannery to deliver them,” he said. “We grew four-acres of tomatoes on our family farm opposite the arena. As kids, we always stayed home from school to help pick the tomatoes. Boy, I hated picking tomatoes. I thought when I  took over the farm, I was never ever going to grow tomatoes. But of course I did.” On many days, the local farmers’ wagons were lined up all the way back along Station Road, waiting to pull onto the weigh scales with their bounteous cargo. The first shift of the day usually started work at 5 in the morning, but the peaks of the harvest usually dictated the length of the workday. An 18-hour shift was commonplace.

Once the tomatoes had been peeled, they were sent to the canning section upstairs where they were sealed into individual cans, placed in wire baskets and lowered into huge 1,000-gallon vats of boiling water to cook. Later the cans would be transferred into one of the two barns (now only one still exists) to cool off before being loaded onto a Canadian Northern Railroad train (later CN) on the cannery’s own siding.

One of the few remaining cannery workers is “Closin’ Joe” Rider, now an octogenarian, so-named because as a manager with Canadian Canners Ltd., he closed down countless canneries over his career. In his self-published autobiography, The Way It Was, Rider writes extensively about his life working in the cannery industry. Rider said in an interview: “Everything about the cannery was stressful; the heat from the cookers and steam boxes, wet floors, long hours and the noiselevel. Production lines moved quickly. Some people got dizzy from the motion and I'm sure some women did not get enough rest as they had families to look after. Standing for eight hours feeding a moving machine is hard on the back.”

NEW HAZARDS

Industrial canning was brand new technology for a population raised on eating vegetables and fruit in season, but the introduction of canned food was not without its challenges. Canneries had to overcome such common hazards as exploding cans, botulism, and lead poisoning.

The cannery companies had to convince the mostly illiterate customers in the early 1900s that canned food was not only wholesome and nutritious, but also safe. Their marketing solution was as simple as an eye-catching label that kept words to a minimum.

“Lots of fine artists were looking for work in southern Ontario, including the Group of Seven, and some of their members got into lithography and graphic design,” explained Saya Moren, an art historian who wrote a special report on the canneries for the Canadian Museum of Agriculture. “The new canning industry brought with it a lot of work,” Moren said. “And I think the artists brought their artistic sensibilities to the labels. When I saw the labels, I thought they were really beautiful and really detailed and carefully done, and I wanted to find out more.”

Dr. Louise Elder, a former research scientist, wrote in a 1986 history of Canadian Canners Ltd.: “Most of the Group of Seven artists were employed by lithographers, and their wages enabled them to paint for pleasure on the weekends.”

In his autobiography, A.Y. Jackson described his experiences working for a lithographer at the age of 13. “Mostly we designed labels for beer bottles and tinned vegetables,” said Jackson. “The hours were long and the wages were low.”

Unfortunately the artists were never allowed to sign their work, so we’ll never know which of the labels were created by famous artists whose art would sell in later life for millions of dollars, not just the price of a can of tomatoes.

CHANGING THE LANDSCAPE

Like most of the small town canneries, the success of the Grafton Station Cannery after it opened in 1904 – one of seven factories including Colborne and Port Hope owned by the Frankford Canning Company of Trenton – quite literally changed the landscape.

During the 50 years before the cannery opened, Grafton’s most successful crops had been grains and barley sold to the distilleries. The farmers’ first priority was feeding their families (who were also their farm workers). The canneries brought some security to the lives of these farmers, who were able to sell an entire crop harvest in advance to their “new customer”.

Farmers around Grafton were quick to seize on the prospect of steady income and switched to growing tomatoes, peas and corn, as well as soft fruits like raspberries and peaches to sell to the canneries. “Cobourg to Prince Edward County area was just a plethora of canning factories,” says Professor Ken McEwan, an expert on farm economics at the University of Guelph. “Because farmers were using horse and wagon back at that time, transportation dictated the canneries had to be in close proximity to the orchards and fields, and that’s why there were canneries in so many small towns. The other component with fresh fruit was the need to actually keep it fresh, in terms of colour, flavour and quality.”

HOMEGROWN

The new homegrown industry traces its roots back to the 1880s in Prince Edward County. When nursery salesman George Dunning visited the World Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, he was intrigued by the canning process exhibited at the fair. Six years later, Dunning partnered with Wellington Boulter, and the pair opened Ontario’s first commercially successful fruit and vegetable cannery in Picton.

By the 1890s, Boulter had gone solo, and launched his world-famous Lion Brand of canned fruit and produce. He eventually became known as “the father of commercial canning in Canada”.

Up the highway in Brighton, grocer Sam Nesbitt opened his first cannery in 1895 and would later launch the very first laboratory to test for food safety of canned products. A decade later, Boulter and Nesbitt would become the driving forces behind a Canadian co-operative uniting all the small independents in an attempt to survive intense American competition.

The new consortium evolved into Canadian Canners Ltd. They went toe-to-toe with their adversaries but ultimately were out-manoeuvred.

The Americans had already seen the future of food processing: industrialization and centralization. They built a handful of vast, highly mechanized canning plants across the States, dropping the price of canned food. The smaller Canadian canneries tried in vain to compete by stressing quality.

In August, 1908, Canadian Canners Ltd. sent out a sharply worded letter of warning to all their managers and to each employee, including Grafton, on this very topic. The letter reminded each one that, “Competition in our business has become very keen, which necessitates the packing of goods at the lowest possible cost of production, and of a much higher grade than has been put up heretofore.” In a blunt footnote, the letter cautioned: “In future if results are not satisfactory, there will be no opportunity given to him (the employee) to resign but he will be dismissed.”

Veiled threats aside, Canadian Canners Ltd. were slowly losing the battle against their American competitors. By 1951 they had only 50 canneries left in Canada, including Grafton Station, and they were ripe for the picking. In 1955, Canadian Canners Ltd. reported sales of $42 million while their American neighbours, the California Packing Corporation’s sales rang in at $250 million.

“In 1956, Del Monte (the California Packing Corporation) gained a controlling interest in Canadian Canners Ltd. after which many canneries soon closed,” said Guelph University’s Ken McEwan. “If you’re part of a multi-national, decisions get made in Pittsburg and in California, not here. And this modern world made it difficult for Canadian Cannery to survive.” Add to that, the increasing popularity of refrigerators and freezers and the result was an industry in decline.

END OF THE LINE

Grafton Station Cannery was closed down by its American owners in 1960, leaving an entire community in a state of shock. The cannery had been the biggest employer.

“There was no warning; they were doing well,” said Doug Johnston.“Del Monte bought them out – all the Canadian businesses – and closed them down.” “We fought the closure,” he said. “I was part of a group – prominent villagers and farmers – that went to Toronto to talk to the Ministry of Agriculture and we went to Ottawa to talk to the ministry there and we got nowhere. Didn’t do us any good at all.”

The storied life of the Grafton Station Cannery might have ended right there. CN ripped up the railway siding and in many other towns, canneries were bulldozed to the ground. But more by careless neglect than careful design, the Grafton Station Cannery withstood half-a-century of abandonment until Cliff Smith rode into town on a proverbial white charger.

By this time, half the original cannery building had been demolished, the office building was gone and one of the two barns had been carted away for its barn-board. But Smith recognized the bones of the old building – huge timbers thicker than a man’s body were still there, waiting to be rescued while willfully holding up the decaying fabric.

“My wife said, ‘Listen it’s your project; your idea. I’ll support you all the way but you don’t have to tell me all the details. Spare me,”’ Smith says with a slow smile. “When the real terrible stuff was happening, I just left it out.”

Over a decade, Smith has weathered more ups and downs than a carnie working on a big dipper. His graphic design business, tied to independent book publishers, took a big hit in the second millennium from the arrival of box store bookshops and online publishing. It was time for the self-described “pretty clever kid” to reinvent himself.

Forming a new company called Augustus Jones, Smith has persuaded seven clients, including furniture design companies in Belgium and Italy, to support his vision of the Grafton Station Cannery as a contemporary furniture showroom artistic showcase.

“The whole notion is that I want it to look like a house that is being used all the time but the furniture is for sale all of the time,” he said.

But Cliff Smith’s vision for the old cannery goes beyond furniture. He gave a hint of this when he unveiled the cannery in this year’s Doors Open Northumberland event. Smith believes his artfully retooled industrial building could become a resource for community events, weddings, professional gatherings and musical concerts – maybe even outdoors movie nights on the lawn, using the barn wall for a screen.

“The building is a nice backdrop in every respect here,” he says. “It’s quite a story, don’t you think?"

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