Yes We Have No Bananas

Janus looks at Cranbrook more curious orchard history

The subdivision of Appleland never quite came to fruition.

The subdivision of Appleland never quite came to fruition.

S pringtime, the snow is gone, the grass is green and the blossoms, the wondrous blossoms: lilacs, mayflowers, apple, cherry, plum, apricot, peach, pear, orange and — hold on, peach, pear, orange?

Not likely. Oh, there’s always an occasional local wonder-fruit, “I grew that lemon in my living room!” or “You’re drinking my grapes!” but Cranbrook as the fruit-growing capital of the west? Not likely.

Still, if you were inclined to believe what you read in the newspapers a century or so ago then anything is possible. Cranbrook, once a burgeoning boom town, was a much sleepier metropolis by 1908. Land sales were slow and construction was down. For those in the business of real estate a boost was necessary and that is precisely what appeared in the Cranbrook Herald newspaper, courtesy of a large advertisement on behalf of local realtors Beale and Elwell:

“160 acres of FRUIT LAND within five miles of Cranbrook — $20 an acre. 14 acres of FRUIT LAND one mile from Cranbrook. 400 trees already heeled in for planting in spring — $1,300.”

Fruit land? Cranbrook? Well, there’s a novel idea. The rather unlikely thought of growing fruit in Cranbrook as a money-making proposition was not an entirely new one, mind you, certainly not for the Herald. Editor F.E. Simpson had pushed the idea from time to time over the years, relying heavily on the efforts of William Hamilton, a rancher situated on a hill just west of the town.

As part of his ranch, Mr. Hamilton boasted a number of fruit trees, mainly apples, that proved reasonably productive over the years and this, along with a decent yearly strawberry crop, prompted the Herald in July, 1903, to declare that Hamilton “has made a great success of fruit farming and fully demonstrated Cranbrook as a great fruit section.” And again in 1904, “Hamilton … last year produced some of the finest strawberries and currants ever produced in any country.”

This notwithstanding the fact that one of Editor Simpson’s running jokes over the years was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Cranbrook district as “the banana belt.”

In general, the locals, both then and today, would concede that anyone in this area wishing to make a living growing fruit was nuts. Not the case, however, for those from afar who began to hear tell of the supposed great orchard possibilities of the area. The Herald stepped it up in April, 1908, saying “blessed with an ideal climate and soil, the Cranbrook district is rapidly becoming a fruit country. W. Hamilton has proved, even to the most skeptical, that apples, plums and pears can be grown … around Cranbrook. The great truth of ‘East Kootenay is a good fruit country’ shall be known throughout the length and breadth of the American continent.”

Great truth or not, the message took wings and local land sales took a decided upturn. Beale & Elwell advertisements proclaimed “Irrigated orchard lands sit directly south of the city. First-class growing soil. Excellently adapted for large and small fruit growing. There is no speculation on the weather … Five-acre blocks and a supply of water which belongs to the land and not to the owner of the land, so that it cannot be taken away from the land.” A unique view of water rights to be sure, never mind the weather.

A visiting reporter toured the Hamilton ranch in October, 1908, and wrote soon after in a Lethbridge paper that “The fine fruit farm of Mr. Hamilton’s showed convincingly that the district is suitable to the growth of all kinds of hardy fruits.”

Major land holder Hyde Baker subdivided 800 acres adjoining the townsite to the west into five-acre plots “Suitable in every way for fruit growing.”

In a bold, if not downright brazen move by parties unknown and with an accompanying editorial blushing with purple prose, a 320-acre block between Jim Smith and Elizabeth Lakes was declared “Appleland,” and sub-divided into the standard five-acre tracts.

“The ideal home which William Hamilton has made for himself at Sunnyside can be duplicated fifty times over in peace, ease and comfort at Appleland,” declared the Herald of March 18, 1909. “The other day another Wise Man from the East, said: ‘We will not feel the passing of the days till every little hill around us here will be checker boarded with rows of fruit trees … The apples from the states have not the flavor, the snap and vim of the Cranbrook varieties, and what means the making of the almighty dollar and the easy living is that your fruit will live, live, mind you, when the American stuff is dead … People mourn to think of the passing of the pine and the larch … Let them go and give room for their betters. A few hundred apple and pear trees means a home, and a man with his wife and bairns, happiness for all of them and prosperity in perpetuity for East Kootenay. That is what the Herald wants.”

It is easy to conjecture that by this time William Hamilton may have been experiencing some regret as his small ranch orchard became the very model of fruit growing in the area. Sadly, his produce did not fare well in the judging in the local Fall Fair that year. Every prize in every fruit category — apples, pears, plums and Italian prunes — was won by Creston entries, although George Tisdale of Wycliffe won first prize for his watermelon. It’s a wonder that land speculators didn’t create the sub-division of “Melonville” in honour of the fact.

It appeared Cranbrook was destined to become the Great Rocky Mountain Citrus Dream.

Next Week: The Seeds of Doubt.

With thanks to Wendy Walsh