By Jonathan J. Kalmakoff
While the Doukhobor connection to places like Grand Forks and Castlegar are well known, few today would associate them with Cranbrook. Yet for a brief period in 1925-1926, Cranbrook was the easternmost commercial outpost of the Doukhobor communal organization, the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB), in the province.
In the fall of 1925, after an impressive apple harvest, the Grand Forks Branch of the CCUB looked eastward to potential distribution points in the East Kootenay region to market and sell its apples. After unsuccessful negotiations with fruit sellers in Cranbrook to handle their fruit, the Doukhobors decided to establish their own branch in that city.
To this end, in mid-November 1925, the Doukhobors leased the former Cranbrook Cooperative Stores Ltd. (CCS) building on Norbury Avenue (now 24 10th Avenue South) next to the Canadian Hotel and across from the Star Theatre in Cranbrook. Built in 1910, it was a large two-story warehouse and storefront, with concrete basement storage located three blocks east of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) depot.
Within days, the CCUB shipped ‘several’ railcars of apples from its Grand Forks packing houses to Cranbrook. To give some idea of the volume, each CPR railcar held between 500 and 800 40-lb boxes of apples; and if 3 or more railcars were shipped, then at least 60 tons, and as much as 160 tons or more of Doukhobor-grown apples arrived in Cranbrook from their Grand Forks orchards.
In Cranbrook, a Doukhobor work crew (stationed from Grand Forks) unloaded the apples from the railcars at the CPR depot and transported them by horse and wagon three blocks east to the CCS building, where they were put into cold storage. From there, the Doukhobors sold and delivered wagon-loads of apples throughout the city and surrounding area. The distribution outlet was managed by Joseph P. Shukin, the BC Vice-President of the CCUB.
By conducting their own wholesale distribution, the Doukhobors were able to sell their produce to East Kootenay retailers and consumers at prevailing market prices while earning a larger profit margin than their competitors, since the apples were picked and handled by unpaid communal labour, and were sold without the intervention of middlemen or commission agents.
In this regard, the Doukhobors’ ‘tree to consumer’ approach was an early precursor to the ‘farm gate’ model of agricultural product marketing.
Pictured: Doukhobor apple advertisement, Cranbrook Herald, November 19, 1925 to January 28, 1926.
The CCUB Cranbrook outlet launched a major advertising campaign (somewhat uncharacteristic of Doukhobors) in the local newspaper, the Cranbrook Herald, between November 1925 and February 1926.
A listing of its advertised apple varieties demonstrates the diversity of the CCUB fruit-growing operation in Grand Forks: Northern Spy, Wagner, Spitzenberg Greenings, Ben Davis, Alexander, Newton, Baxter, Ontario, Rome Beauty, Snows, Jonathan and Delicious. A number of these varieties can no longer be found today. Prices ranged from $1.50 to $2.00 per box. Free delivery was offered to any part of the city.
Interestingly, the CCUB Cranbrook outlet also offered chicken feed for sale. This consisted of cracked wheat grains – milling waste generated from the CCUB flour milling operation in Grand Forks. In this way, the Doukhobors generated a revenue stream from an otherwise waste product.
By February of 1926, the CCUB Cranbrook outlet had successfully sold out its apple stock from the Fall 1925 harvest. The Doukhobors subsequently gave up their lease on the CCS building on Norbury Avenue and departed from the city back to their communal settlements in Grand Forks.
The CCUB never re-established a commercial presence in Cranbrook after 1926, opting for other marketing and distribution strategies instead. However, their brief tenure in that city demonstrated the nimbleness and practicality with which the Doukhobors approached their business dealings.