Yarrow, British Columbia
Esther Epp Harder, Edwin Lenzmann, and Elmer Wiens
The Totem Tobacco Company's drying kilns on Sumas Prairie
The Tobacco Industry of Sumas Prairie
by Esther Epp Harder
After Sumas Lake was drained, the reclaimed land was not easy to bring into cultivation.
Some of it was planted with grass as soon as the land was dry in 1924. What was not expected was the jungle-like growth of weeds that choked much of the standing crops. Weed trees also shot up in the fertile soil and it took, not only cutting down the trees and weeds, but ploughing with 12 brush ploughs and 10 tractors that took three months to clear the 6,000 acres so they could be seeded in 1925.
There wasn't a rush to buy the lands even after the government lowered the price. Hop growers and tobacco growers were the major employers on Sumas Prairie. See the section on hops for more information and photographs.
Just two years after the hop yards opened, a group of tobacco growers became interested in the reclaimed land, indirectly as a result of a government initiative to plant a small experimental crop of tobacco on an unsold strip of lake-bottom land. This was seen by Imre Kocsis who had come to Canada from Hungary.
He persuaded some recent arrivals from Hungary to join him in starting up a tobacco farm on Sumas Prairie. None of them had much money to put into it, but together, they acquired 40 acres and in 1928 began their experiment.
Kocsis was the leader because of his good command of English, others were John Kovaks and Joe Egri. They were able to get some government funding but could not afford to build an elaborate processing plant and depended on air drying their first crop, results of this were not that good. They learned from their mistakes and not give up easily.
People saw the tobacco fields and became interested.
One was Colonel Victor Spencer of Spencer's Department Stores, in 1930 he bought 1,300 acres in the heart of the reclaimed land. The largest part of this land was planted with tobacco under the name of Canadian Tobacco Company, also, crops such as sugar beets and potatoes were planted and they raised beef cattle.
Above: 1937 - Tobacco leaves were picked by hand, placed on a
stone boat or rubber wheeled vehicle and hauled in to the tying station.
Left: 1937 - The tobacco leaves are ready for picking and processing
Totem Tobacco Company owned by Jospeh McKercher of New Westminster, a shingle mill owner was the other major tobacco grower on Sumas Prairie. He had a totem pole at the entrance to his farm for any passer-by to see. "He was a bachelor, so he had a bit of money," joked John Kovaks. He certainly had more money than the Hungarians so he could afford to pay for expert advice and was able to buy the latest equipment that he saw when he visited other tobacco growing places.
Tobacco was grown all over the prairie by various small growers as well as the two large tobacco growers. In 1936, four carloads or approximately 120,000 pounds of tobacco leaf
was that year's total production of the B.C. Tobacco Growers Association and the David Spence Tobacco Farms which was sold to the Canadian Tobacco Company at Chatham, Ontario.
1942- Some Yarrow girls on their way to the Tobacco farm.
Far left Annie Siemens, far right Lena Kroeker.
1942 - The tobacco-tying crew
At no time did Mennonites in BC grow either hops or tobacco, but both crops contributed to their livelihood for years to come.
Most Mennonite people did not drink or smoke and it was somewhat of an embarrassment to be involved in the production of hops for beer and tobacco for smoking…but there were no other jobs to be had and it was a question of survival during the Depression of the 1930's.
As the 1930's wore on, even the large tobacco growers failed to make a major industry out of tobacco… times were bad, but this wasn't the complete answer. There was a prejudice against western tobacco, anyone who thought of themselves as a tobacco expert, thought that the flavour of BC tobacco was somehow inferior to the old familiar brands.
What finally finished off the large companies was a natural disaster of catastrophic flooding on Sumas Prairie in 1935.
Everyone had assumed that flooding was a thing of the past, and no one had anticipated the disaster of the ice storm and the consequent failure of the pump station in early 1935.
The total tobacco crop on Sumas Prairie was reduced to 20 acres and it looked like this might be the end of tobacco growing here.
In 1936 there came a revival of the local industry. The large growers were gone, but some of the small farmers decided to get together and formed the Sumas Tobacco Growers Co-operative Association in May 1936.
The government supported them in paying for an experienced supervisor. One hundred acres of tobacco were planted that year and the planting was increased to 400 acres in 1937. Tobacco growing flourished for about 10 more years on Sumas Prairie. They had learned that there was no money in the manufacturing process so they opted to sell their sell their crop which simplified their operation to a purely agricultural level.
The tobacco crop in British Columbia had never been as large as the crops in the east, even in the peak year of 1941, only 640 acres had been planted… the experiment was not a total success, however, it had brought needed employment to Sumas Prairie and Yarrow.
1942 - Above: Franz Schwaerzle in front of a tobacco kiln
1937 - Right: Tobacco planting on Sumas Prairie
There are still a ruins of some of the tobacco drying kilns on Sumas Prairie, but most of the land is now in other kinds of farming such as dairy, blue berries, tulip and daffodil bulbs and flowers.
The Keis Sumas Prairie Tobacco Farm
The Keis family came to Sumas Prairie in October 1938 and bought 20 acres on Marion Road. They had their first tobacco crop on 10 acres of tobacco in 1939. They also started a small dairy herd. Later 1939, they bought another 20 acres of land and rented 10 acres from Spencer's Tobacco Company.
Dairying and tobacco brought more prosperity and in 1940, they grew 20 acres of tobacco. Picking tobacco was a very menial task, mainly done by women and children.
In 1942, the Defence Department built a landing strip for the Cornell training planes from the Abbotsford air base to practice landings and take-offs. This strip took part of the home farm and cut off Marion Road to the west.
Tobacco fields on the Keis Farm
Tina Schellenberg, Margaret Herperger, Mrs. Keis
Chilliwack Progress February 13, 1946 p1
Want Experimental Plot
Sumas Tobacco Crop Marketed at $50,000
A total of 154,000 pounds of tobacco grown by member of the Sumas Tobacco Growers Association was marketed in Eastern Canada for an average price of 32 cents a pound it was reported at the annual meeting last week.
Twenty-five additional acres will be sown in 1946, bringing the tobacco plantation on Sumas Prairie to 155 acres.
J. Kovacs, RR2 Abbotsford was elected president; J. Egri, RR2 Abbotsford, vice-president; R. Walter, Jr. RR3 Sardis, secretary; J. Werner, RR3 Sardis, and L. Kish, RR2 Abbotsford are directors. At present there are nearly 20 members.
Acreage planted to tobacco was less than in former years, however, those present pondered the problem of increasing their per-acre production and general efficiency in order to make tobacco growing more profitable, in order that members might purchase more land. It was felt that if profits could be raised, the growers could offer better prices for idle lands and in that manner the industry could be built up.
The annual financial statement given by Secretary-treasurer, R. Walter Jr. showed that the organization had a satisfactory bank balance after all fertilizer, twine costs and other expenses had been paid.
Rudolph Walters, Sr., Co-op president, reviewed the financial statement and gave a brief resume of the tobacco growers' plans for the current year.
John Kovacs, who accompanied the growers' 1945 shipment of flue-cured tobacco, to the plant of the Imperial Leaf Tobacco Co. in Quebec, told members that company officials had informed him that the firm would buy all of the tobacco grown by the association "for at least the next three years."
G.E.W. Clarke of the provincial department of agriculture spoke briefly, outlining various methods for the control of mosaic and other diseases which affected tobacco plants. He agreed with several members of the organization that the growers would be greatly assisted if an experimental farm or an experimental plot was established in the Sumas area.
Les Eyres Speaks
Congratulations on the progress made during 1945 were offered by Les, Eyres, MLA for Chilliwack riding who said that he would approach officials of the department of Agriculture for the establishment of the experimental plot which was requested by the members in a resolution passed during the meeting.
Mr. Eyres urged the growers to study the methods of eastern Canadian tobacco growers who had been in the business for a long time and had gathered a great deal of information. While urging the farmers to cut down the cost of production, he said that he was not unmindful of the fact that the growers were entitled to a good standard of living.
Referring to a statement that an eastern tobacco firm would be willing to establish a tobacco processing plant in British Columbia if the growers could produce a one-million pound crop annually, Mr. Eyres urged the members to take the matter up with the B.C. Department of trade and industry in the hope that a factory for B.C. might be given every consideration.
Members generally agreed that it would be impossible to secure the processing plant under present conditions, as there was little hope of any large increase in the amount of land used for tobacco growing.
Chilliwack Progress Wednesday November 27th, 1946
Dispose of Eastern Crop
85 Million Pounds Tobacco Bought
Sumas tobacco growers will be interested to learn that a total of 85 million pounds of Ontario's current tobacco crop has been taken up by the buying companies according to estimates of tobacco officials last week.
When the market first opened last week that was firm steady purchasing with resulted in 60 million pounds being bought the first two days. However with the better quality crops off the market, sales became lower and at the present there are a number of growers with poorer quality crops who seem reluctant to accept the offers of the buying company representatives.
The market in the "old belt" in Essex County opened practically all of the two and one-half million pounds in that district was purchased in the morning, the remainder being taken up in the afternoon. Highest price for any single crop in Essex was 41 cents with the low figure being 24 cents.
To date the top price paid for any single crop in the "new belt" which comprises Norfolk, Oxford, Elgin, Brant and Middlesex counties, has been 45 cents, the lowest price being 25 cents.