Three hundred years ago, there were no orchards of peaches, cherries or any type of fruit tree and no vineyards in the Niagara-on-the-Lake region.
The first Europeans to arrive in the Niagara region were the French who occupied the east side of the Niagara River, what is now the United States. The French encountered an Indigenous people, on the west side of the river, the Attiwonderonk, whom they named “la Nation Neutre” because they were “neutral” during the wars of the Haudensoaunee (Five Nations of Iroquois), and the Wendat (Huron).
The Neutrals were primarily farmers, fishermen, game hunters and gatherers (wild berries and grapes). The land in the NOTL region was perfect for their farming with the hot summers, mild winters, sufficient rainfall and well drained soil. They planted in the traditional method used throughout the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes regions, the “Three Sisters” method.
This method saw the fields cleared and then planted with three different types of seeds; corn, runner beans and squash. The corn grew tall enough for the beans to climb up them while the squash covered the ground below to hold in moisture.
With the arrival of the Europeans in the 1600s, the fur trade flourished but it created massive rivalries amongst the indigenous nations. Many nations wanted full control of being the middleman between the French and the tribal nations in southern Ontario. The “Beaver War” in the 1640s saw the Haudensoaunee destroy the Wenro, Wendat, Petun, Erie and Neutral Nations.
In 1726 the French had established a permanent fort, Fort Niagara, on land then claimed by the Seneca. During this period, the lands on the west side of the Niagara River were used for farming to supply the fort with fresh food. It is possible that some fruit trees, found years later, might have been planted as well.
By the end of the American Revolution in 1783, 80,000 Americans (United Empire Loyalists) left the United States. Of that number, 50,000 Loyalists settled in Canada where free land grants were offered by the British government.
The Loyalist who had arrived at Fort Niagara, were soon crossing to the east side of the Niagara River, land grants in hand, to build new homes and to farm the land. The first crops planted were wheat, oats, barley and corn. It is speculated, that a few fruit trees were brought over as well by Loyalists for their own private gardens.
However, it must be noted that in the diary of Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of John Graves Simcoe, Lt. Governor of Upper Canada (1792-96), while they were stationed in Newark (NOTL), was an entry written in 1792: “We have 30 large May Duke cherry trees behind the house and three standard peach trees.” These cherry trees were quite large which might suggest that they were possibly the trees that the French had planted many years before.
In 1792 the Niagara Agricultural Society was founded under the government of Lt. Gov. Simcoe. It was the first of its kind in Upper Canada, with its main purpose to promote and expand farming in the region. The original founders were made up of merchants, politicians, clergymen and a few gentlemen farmers.
By 1794 the importation and planting of fruit trees was in full swing. Commercial fruit farming was officially in Niagara-on-the-Lake. While farming was thriving the Niagara Agricultural Society folded in 1805.
It was in the 1820s that a group of regional farmers developed the new Agricultural Society, one that was more cognisant to the development of farming and in particular tender fruit orchards.
The 1880s saw the Niagara Peninsula region below the escarpment become Ontario’s largest (and still is) tender fruit growing area. Tender fruits include peaches, nectarines, apricots, pears, grapes, as well as sweet and sour cherries.
Grapes grew wild in the Niagara Peninsula prior to the coming of the Loyalists and would have been harvested by Indigenous people. Another entry in Mrs. Simcoe’s diary stated that Captain Smith made wine from wild grapes and “it turned out very tolerable wine”.
Imported grape vines came to Ontario as early as 1811 by German settler Johann Schiller, who planted them on his farm in Cooksville.
By the turn of the 20th century there were over sixty private vineyards and cottage wineries in the NOTL region but prohibition in the early part of the century stymied the growth of the industry. By 1960 there remained only six wineries in operation.
The vineyards we see today are quite young with the majority having been planted in the 1970s. Inniskillin received the first winery licence in Ontario in 1974. Ontario now produces 71 per cent of wine in Canada.
Large scale fruit farming was restricted to a seasonal market, lucrative but not long term sustainable. A new method of not only getting fresh fruit to markets but also to produce a product that consumers could put away for winter use was needed. Canning was the answer.
Canning was a relatively new concept. First started in France in the 1790s, many methods were experimented with to preserve food. Glass jars with specialty lids, clay pots with wax seals or tin canisters, hand cut, with small circular discs (lids) soldered in place, usually using lead, were all experimented with.
The first successful canning factory to process foods at a commercial level was in Boston in the 1820s. The actual term “can” was an abbreviation of the word canister, which not only was a noun but became a verb as well “to can”.
The first cannery in Ontario was established during the 1870s in the Picton area. By the 1880s there were many canneries in the NOTL region.
St. Davids had several canneries, one of which was owned by the Lowry family. It was called the Lowry Grist Mill and Cannery, built in the 1890s. The cannery preserved all varieties of tender fruits from the region. Today the Cannery Park Housing Development occupies the original site of the canning factory.
NOTL (Old Town) had a huge cannery in operation canning peaches and tomatoes from the 1890s to 1957 when it finally closed its doors. The Pillar and Post Hotel took over the site. You can still see upon entering the lobby the wonderful beams of the old factory.
In the 1940s the Niagara Canning Company was establish by Peter Wall and the Mennonite Community. Unfortunately by 1948 the cannery went bankrupt. Today you can find the remains of the buildings when you visit Strewn Winery.
By the 1980s most canneries in Ontario had been shut down.
Besides the growing and canning of the tender fruits, which in itself is labour intensive, many auxiliary industries developed. A basket factory was located down near the docks. Willow trees, used in the manufacturing of the baskets were planted near the factory. Several of these trees are still growing in the dock area and can be seen to this day.
Transportation developed quite rapidly with the railway lines being brought right into Niagara-on-the-Lake. The steamships on Lake Ontario also came to NOTL, meeting up with the train’s schedule to transport the fresh fruits to Toronto and markets beyond. These two means of transportation expanded the market for the farmer’s fresh fruit immeasurably. Now we have the transport truck industry that relies on the tender fruit farmers for business.
The Niagara Peninsula, between the escarpment and Lake Ontario produces the largest amount of Ontario’s tender fruit. Ninety-four percent of Ontario grapes come from this region. Peaches are at 90 per cent, plums 80 per cent, sweet cherries 75 per cent, pears 72 per cent, and sour cherries 60 per cent.
From a few peach trees brought over to NOTL and planted in 1793, the Ontario tender fruit industry is now worth over $100 million.
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.
Ascenzo is a regular Niagara Now contributor. Her full profile can be found here.