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August 17, 2010
Charlie and the Giant Peach ...
... And the Wayward Cherries: A History of Oliver Ranch. (Now known as Brock Farm)

(In the photo below: workers at a South Okanagan peach packing plant.)

Oliver Ranch History:
As I Remember it in 1943

by Morrie Thomas

The early history of the Oliver Ranch goes back to the 1930's with Charlie Oliver. He was, I believe, a chemical engineer, and a member of the Oliver family who played a major role in the early development of New Westminster.

Charlie was well known in Penticton as the founder of Oliver Chemical -- a company that made lime sulpher spray and contributed it to Penticton's ambient atmosphere every spring. He also pioneered the early development of sprinkler irrigation using aluminum pipe. (Some of the Oliver couplers are still in use today.) In addition, he also had an irrigation coupler plant in Lethbridge, Alberta.

The Oliver Ranch was originally purposed as a disposal for the slag from this lime sulpher plant. Charlie would haul the stuff back and forth in a leaking dump truck, leaving a trail of slag all the way from Penticton to the ranch, where some traces of the huge piles remained for years.

He also created the irrigation system for the orchard by building storage dams on Clark and Allendale Lakes. Les Clark was one of the early employees at the ranch. The Lindsay family also played a role in the development of the orchard in the '30s. It was irrigated by ditches, until the '50s when the sprinklers were developed using aluminum pipe. The city of New Westminster had installed a water system using hand riveted steel pipe shipped from England circa 1880. In 1945 this pipe was replaced and Charlie with his connections brought this used pipe up to the ranch and installed the gravity water system from Shuttleworth creek that supplied the pressurized water to one of the first sprinkler irrigation systems in the area. Some of this used pipe was also used in the first turbine water system for Okanagan Falls. When this system was replaced by pumps and wells, Thomas Ranches purchased the pipe and used it for the first pressurized irrigation system on their ranch.

I believe that there was 110 acres of fruit trees planted on the property, including: cherries, peaches, apricots and pears. At one time it was even said to be the largest soft fruit orchard in the British Empire.

The orchards came into full bearing in the early '40s. Along with the orchard, Charlie had also built a packing house. All the able-bodied males of the day were in the armed forces, so the available workforce was composed of local women and children. Between the orchard and the packing house, there would have been approximately 80 people working on the ranch in 1943.

One of the varieties of peaches which came into production at that time was the Candoka peach -- a peach with two serious drawbacks. Candoka was so large and heavy, the weight of them broke down the trees, plus they bruised easily, and thus were difficult to ship to market. To solve the shipping problem, all available teenagers were hired to work in the packing house folding large egg carton-type cardboard containers. As big as these containers were, each carton could only hold four of these huge peaches. My sister Dolly, cousin Ginny and I moved up to the ranch into one of the many picker cabins and were part of this early orchard experiment, which did not prove successful, and the Candoka peach disappeared.

Eventually the production of the orchard overwhelmed the capacity of the packing house and it was closed and all the fruit was shipped to Kaledon.

Working on the ranch was a dream for the teenaged boys of the area, as Charlie had the tractor dealership for both Caterpillar and John Deere. We had nine new tractors on the farm that we were "braking in", mostly after working hours. This was stopped quickly when the foreman, who lived in Penticton, came back after supper one night and put a stop to the tractor races.

Calls were put out around the province for pickers and some of the responders were married women and their children who arrived from Trail to spent the summer working on the ranch. One family were the Goldsburys, who remained and became part of the community.

Due to the lack of male workers, I was promoted from packing house worker to tractor driver, and my job was to lay out and pick up the fruit boxes for the pickers. One day before the cherry picking started, Charlie came along with a can of yellow paint and a brush and took me out to the cherry block.

The two main varieties of cherries were Bings and Lamberts, with a few Deacons scattered throughout the orchard. Charlie had a map of the plantings and we proceeded to mark the trees with yellow paint. "B" for Bing, "L" for Lambert, and most important, "D" for Deacon. Those trees were used to polinate only, as their fruit did not ship well and spoiled easily.

The women orchard workers (my mother being one of them), arrived to begin the picking and they were instructed to keep the three varieties separate (as designated by the paint marks) for shipping to Kaleden.

Now, Charlie was a very excitable man and displayed his emotions very vocally when he became agitated. A short time after the cherries had been shipped, he drove up to the orchard in a cloud of dust, leaped out of his car and started screaming at my mother and the other pickers. Then he tore through the orchard firing everyone in sight, followed very meekly by Jeff Garland, the packing house manager from Kaleden.

Bill Keyes and I were hauling out the boxes for shipment and we were the next people to receive the wrath of Charlie, who was yelling at us in a wild manner. Bill who was not used to this kind of verbal abuse grabbed Charlie by the tie and shook him into submission, or at least until he could explain what he was shouting about. It turned out that the fuss was over two carloads of cherries that had arrived at their eastern destination entirely ruined. Deacons had been mixed with the Bings and Lamberts.

After Charlie calmed down, Jeff proceeded through the orchard and verified that Charlie's map had been wrong. We had painted all the trees with the wrong markings. Charlie threw his hat on the ground, jumped into his car and roared off in another cloud of dust, leaving Jeff and me with a new cans of paint and brushes to remark the trees correctly. Charlie came back the next day and rehired all picking crew back again.

Many people passed through the Oliver Ranch. Gerald and Tommy Shuttleworth were the ditch irrigators for years. Some of the ranch managers were Jack Martin, who also managed the chemical plant; Doug Hester, who purchased the Robertson orchard; Ben Hove who also managed the S.Y.L. Ranch at Green Lake; and Maurice King who went on to be B.C. Deputy Minister of Agriculture.

Despite his eccentric manner, Charlie was a brilliant man, always trying something new. His early failed experiments resulted in the development of the rotovator - still in use today. Another failed experiment was a plan to introduce geese into the orchard to control the couch grass. To do this he brought the power line under the lake from Kaleden down to the ranch, making power available to all the farms along the way. The geese however, didn't work out so well. Although for a while the coyotes lived very well off them.

When the geese project was abandoned, he switched to turkeys. This project also failed. The final demise of the ranch began when his irrigation empire in Alberta ran into serious financial difficulties resulting in his total holdings going into receivership. I partnered with Allen Brock in 1971 and we divided up the ranch. Thomas Ranches took up the grazing land north of the entrance road while Allen took the reminder which became the property as you see it today.

Charles Oliver will go down in history along with people like Hugh Leir, Mr. Kenyon, Mr. Hatfield, Chart Nichol and many others who played a significant role in the growth of industry in the Penticton area.

Charlie even served as mayor of Penticton for one term.

Morrie Thomas, June 20, 2010.

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