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Sep. 21, 2019 | Saturday
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Niagara's History Unveiled: The famous Queenston peach
The 1939 brochure promoting the Queenston peach. (Kathy Thomas/Supplied)

This is written with special thanks to Kathy Thomas and to Ken Slingerland and his colleagues, who provided me with so much information.

When Queenstonian Kathy Thomas was in North Carolina last winter, she discovered a pamphlet written in 1939 about the Fisher or Queenston peach.

The name Fisher is well-known in Queenston. The Fisher Building took pride of place in the village for well over a century. It was identifiable in an 1839 print by British artist William H. Bartlett. The building, however, is believed to have existed at the time of the War of 1812. Although there are no registry records, probably because the property had been handed down through one family, it is believed that the Fisher family bought the 25-room building in the 1860s.

Earlier, in 1840, it had been the office of the Niagara Suspension Bridge Bank and, in 1901, the first telephone exchange in Queenston was housed there. Over its lifetime, the Fisher building, which was also known as the Ivy Block because of the Boston ivy that covered its sides, was the home of the Queenston Hotel, the Imperial Bank of Canada, a restaurant, a bakery and a store.

By the mid-20th century the building was owned by Niagara Falls entrepreneur Dr. Djamal Afrukhteh, who planned to use it as an art gallery. Unfortunately it was in terrible shape, so, after checking to see if it had any historical significance, he had it demolished. Neighbours considered it an eyesore and there was some concern for local children who liked to play in it.

While the building was important in Queenston, the Fisher family has a bigger, international claim to fame. They were the first to grow a peach variety that extended the growing season. Much of what follows came from a nursery catalogue that Kathy Thomas discovered in North Carolina.

The language in the pamphlet is delightful. It begins, “[I]n the very shadow of the Monument erected to the memory of one of Britain’s gallant heroic figures, General Sir Isaac Brock, and on the site of the first commercial peach orchard in Upper Canada, an outstanding Star in the Theatre of Peach Culture made its bow to a delighted Horticultural audience.”

The peach was “discovered” in 1934. It had been propagated at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Vineland, Ont. The peach ripened early, looked good and extended the season to eight weeks from five.

Before it was declared an outstanding “Star,” it was closely watched to make sure that the high quality was sustainable. It was later patented in the United States and registered in Canada. Four nurseries in the States and two in Canada went into the business of propagating the variety. It was officially named the Fisher peach.

C. Howard Fisher was the first to grow the peach at his Dulverton Fruit Farm. The farm was located on Niagara Boulevard, one mile north of Queenston, and was named after Dulverton, England, the birthplace of Fisher’s great-grandfather. The Fisher family had owned the land since 1882.

By 1939, Fisher claimed sales records showed the profits for his peach were much higher than that of any other variety on the Niagara Peninsula, and had been so since 1936.

In a 1941 publication called Bountiful Ridge Nurseries, the Fisher peach was praised for its high quality, its ability to be grown in any peach growing area, and the fact that it was easy to ship. The peach continued to be mentioned as a viable product into the 1950s, although it was no longer mentioned in publications by 1964.

The Fisher family were noted for their knowledge of peach growing and the Queenston peach was not the family’s first success. The following unsigned article appeared in The Canadian Horticulturist, Fruit Edition, Aug. 9, 1920.

Handling Peaches by the Carload

“I instruct my pickers to pick by sight, not by feel,” said Mr. Fisher. “A peach is ready for picking when the ground color takes on a yellowish tinge. The peach will mellow after picking.

Peaches have been grown on Mr. Fisher’s farm for more than 100 years, He showed me a field that had grown peaches almost continuously for over a century. There are trees there now of the Jacques Rareripe variety that are 17 inches in diameter near the butt and 35 years old. Mr. Fisher claimed that the first commercial peach orchard in Canada was established on this same farm before the War of 1812, by a Mrs. James Durham, a United Empire Loyalist. The farm was procured from the Crown in 1797, and peaches set out some time later. This should be an important contribution to the historical study of the peach in Canada. The writer remembers how difficult it was some 15 years ago, when he prepared an article on the peach industry for publication in a report of the Ontario Fruit Growers’ Association (1906), to secure authentic information respecting the early history of the peach in this country. Palmer and Harris’ bulletin on “Peach Growing in Ontario,” published in 1916, records peaches grown by a Mrs. Simcoe, Niagara, as early as 1793, but not in a commercial way. Gould’s book on “Peach-Growing,” published in 1918, quotes a reference to peaches growing in Southern Canada in 1748—but, was not “Southern” Canada in those days, under the French, somewhere down along the Ohio River? At any rate, it is all very interesting, and Mr. Fisher can produce deeds and records to substantiate his contention. Facts on peach history from other sources are requested for publication.

There is a vast difference, however, between growing a few peaches for home use, or even for market, a hundred years ago and growing peaches today for sale by the carload. Mr. Fisher grows the leading varieties, such as St. John, Elberta, and the like, and is always on the lookout for new varieties that will lengthen or fill in the season. He has about 2,000 trees of Rochester, the comparatively new, early yellow freestone.

Because peach farming was so crucial to the Niagara economy, its growth and harvest took a different slant during the Second World War. The young men of the region went to fight, leaving young women, the farmerettes, to look after the crop.

Former Queenston resident, T. Allan Clifford wrote in his memoirs:

Eventually, with an acute shortage of farm help, the YWCA opened up what became known as Farmerette Camps. The Y recruited young girls from some of the better boarding schools in Toronto and set them up in camps in the Niagara area. What a windfall for all the guys who were in their teens at the time! There was a camp of sixty girls a block away from our house, sixty more a mile down the road, and another sixty at St. Davids. It wasn’t all a bed of roses for me.

We had a hired man on the farm at that time and he wanted nothing to do with managing girl pickers on the farm. I was given that job. It was really tough to get these girls to pick fruit all day and then try to take them out at night. As I recall the only lever I had to get them to pick was to threaten to send them to work in the packing house where my mother was in charge and they did not like working for her.

Another story involving the girls who worked in the peach industry occurred during the 1950s. Canadian Canners in St. Davids employed young women to peel the fruit and cut out the pits for canning. They were paid per pit. One young woman found that some of the other girls were stealing her pits. She went to the plant manager, who made her supervisor of the others.

An email from Ken Slingerland brings the story into the present day. Slingerland worked in the soft fruit department at Vineland from 1975 to 2011. He wrote, “I know that we did not have the Fisher or Queenston peach at the farm based on my memory. So it likely was a local Queenston peach and was farmed there for 30-plus years. There has not been the Fisher peach being harvested for the Marketing Board since the late 1960s.

Any peach later than Elberta and many of the old V peaches were phased out as consumers wanted peaches in August and September rather than October. Consumers also wanted peaches with more red skin and firmer for shipping. Many of the old V peaches were soft and were used mainly for canning.”

In May 1998, W.R. Okie prepared the Handbook of Peach and Nectarine Varieties. In it, the Fisher peach was described as being attractive, with a yellow undercolour. The quality was good with a coarse texture; however, it was very susceptible to brown rot, and was by this time, too soft for commercial use. Slingerland says, however, that the remarks made in the latter part of the 20th century probably don’t reflect the peaches’ true value to the local growers some 60 years earlier.

Sources: Kathy Thomas, Ken Slingerland, Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, the Queenston Community Library, the Jean Huggins collection Niagara-on-the-Lake Historical Museum.

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To learn more about the topic of this story you can visit the Niagara Historical Society & Museum website at, www.niagarahistorical.museum, or visit the museum for yourself.

The Niagara Historical Museum is located at 43 Castlereagh St. in Old Town, in Memorial Hall. Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.

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