How the Seaway is swamping the Fruitlands

The factories, motels and bungalows of industrial expansion will soon make Niagara Peninsula blossoms just a memory

DUNCAN McLEOD May 14 1955

How the Seaway is swamping the Fruitlands

The factories, motels and bungalows of industrial expansion will soon make Niagara Peninsula blossoms just a memory

DUNCAN McLEOD May 14 1955

How the Seaway is swamping the Fruitlands

The factories, motels and bungalows of industrial expansion will soon make Niagara Peninsula blossoms just a memory


UNKNOWN to most of Canada, one of our richest and most famous possessions is being gradually erased before our eyes. This vanishing treasure is the Niagara fruit belt fifty thousand unique and scenic acres of peaches, grapes, sweet cherries, plums, pears, melons, strawberries, currants, raspberries and so on down a mouth-watering list. Some of this fruit, by all the ordinary laws of nature, shouldn’t thrive at all as far north as Canada even temperate Canada. That it does thrive is a freak at which fruit experts continually marvel, because there is nothing quite like the fruit belt anywhere else in the country.

One expert, Dr. E. F. Palmer, who is the director of the Ontario government’s experimental station at Vineland in the heart of the belt, says emphatically: ‘‘It’s impossible to duplicate t he Niagara region as a fruitgrowing area in Canada. Because of its soil and geographical position it stands alone. If we lose it we’ll never get it back.” Since World War II, however, this lushly treed land has been gobbled up by factories and housing subdivisions at the rate of almost two thousand acres a year. Already, about one quarter of the fifty thousand acres has gone into homesites, motels, factories, supermarkets. In another ten years, Palmer and others predict, it will all be gone.

One major reason for the increasing destruction of the fruitlands is the decision by Canada and the United States to go ahead with the St. Lawrence Seaway. This is making the fruit belt—virtually a part of the seaway system since it’s cut in two by the Welland canal more and more attractive to all kinds of industry.

A Hot Resort for the Rich

It juts like a waterfront pier into the main route of Great Lakes shipping. At the extreme eastern end of the pier is the giant electric power plant of Niagara Falls; at the other anchor end is Hamilton’s steel. In addition to these basic needs for so many industries, there’s nearby water throughout the strip and a climate which, near the end of the last century, made it a resort for the rich. Today it’s split by the Welland ship canal, by the Queen Elizabeth highway and by railway lines which deliver raw materials and carry away manufactured products.

We’ll Need Another Canal

All this has brought an unprecedented land boom lo the belt. In the past ten years sixty thousand people have moved in from overcrowded Hamilton and St. Catharines to join the forty thousand already th<‘rt*. Real-estate dealers and industrial planners are shepherding investors in droves along the strip to look at potential sites for industry—and to buy them.

Recently one real-estate agent in Hamilton, an energetic Irishman named Wilfred McKay, revealed that he had purchased eighty-five acres a few miles from the city for a Toronto-Hamilton business syndicate. The price was $255,000 and the syndicate intended to use the land for industry. Another parcel of thirteen acres was sold for $56,000 and a crossroads plot of four acres brought $42,000. Hamilton, which has exhausted its own space for industry, is trying to annex twenty-six hundred acres in nearby Saltfleet Township in the fruit belt so that it can attract new industries.

All this is happening when the seaway is still from five to eight years from completion. What will happen when it’s finished is anybody’s guess, and some of the guesses are pretty wild.

Last spring Dr. N. R. Danielian, of Washington, who is the director of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Association —-a powerful lobby group for the seaway in Washington estimated that the volume of freight going through the Welland canal will be tripled after the seaway opens. The solution to this overcrowding, Danielian told the Chicago Board of Trade, would be another canal, paralleling the present one and taking another immense bite out of the fruitlands.

This growing pattern of land conversion has suddenly changed a way of farm life in the fruit belt that had not been disturbed for generations. Some farmers, whose families since 1790 had made a fair-to-good living on fifty or a hundred acres, are now making swift fortunes by selling the land. In the process they’re also tearing up the human roots of a hundred and fifty years, although in many cases they have little choice. Faced with sharply rising taxes the surge of new housing has forced some townships to build new schools and provide other expensive services

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—they can’t make fruit farming pay and so they’re selling out.

One woman who bought fifty acres near Niagara Falls in 1934 for ten thousand dollars is now subdividing the farm and expects to make two hundred thousand dollars by converting it to housing sites.

In this way — acre by acre and thousands of dollars by thousands of dollars—the fruit belt is steadily going out of the fruit business.

When it’s gone — and most fruit growers agree it’s merely a question of time—Canadians will be phlegmatic indeed if they do not shed a few nostalgic tears and breathe a romantic sigh or two. For the Niagara fruit belt has long been famous as one of the proudest stretches of scenery in the country, as familiar as the Rockies, and, in spite of its lack of size, just as inspiring to look at. Thousands drive through the belt every May to see the show of trees in bloom. In the autumn the fragrant fruit harvest in bulging roadside stands lures additional multitudes.

“Blossom Sunday” in the fruit belt has become almost a ritual for Toronto families and the Niagara peach is as well known to most Canadians as the grizzly or the goldeye.

But last spring the Farmers’ Advocate of London, Ont., carried a warning headline: “Good-by, Niag-

ara Peach”—and not without reason. Throughout the strip For Sale signs were being nailed to slim fruit trees in front of stone houses that had stood for more than a century. Platoons of identical pillbox homes were going up in new middle-income subdivisions; torn acres of uprooted fruit trees were being cleared to make room for a supermarket or a homesite.

More Houses Than Trees

To some the destruction of these fruitlands was tragic; but to many, who had watched with amazement the growth of the immense arc of housing and industry from Oshawa to Hamilton, it was nonetheless inevitable.

One woman driving through the fruit belt last spring pulled her car into the driveway of a farm owned by Burton Gorman, a small wiry man whose family has been growing fruit on the Niagara Peninsula since 1790. She indicated a peach tree covered with blossoms and asked f she could paint it. (’orinan told her to go ahead. He helped her set up her easel.

The artist said she had been driving through the belt for years to see the spring blossoms. “But it’s getting so there are more houses than trees,” she said, “and pretty soon there won t be any trees. So this spring I’m painting a few of my favorites—I want to have something to remember them by.”

Like many fruitgrowers Comían, who is the reeve of Salt fleet Township, also thinks the fruitlands are doomed. His own farm has dwindled to nineteen acres from the eight hundred originally farmed by his family. “After all, you can’t farm in a suburb,” he says.

The whole recent story of the fruit belt was put in a nutshell by Dr. J. W. Watson, former director of the geographical branch of the Department of Mines and Technical Surveys, who said in an official statement on the conversion of the fruit-

lands: “There is tragic competition

between the city and the farmer for the use of the land.” However, Watson did not say what almost everyone in the fruit strip—canners, wine makers and growers—knows to be true, that, at current land prices, the farmers don’t mind losing this kind of competition.

The land the farmers are giving up to housing and industry is a strip—far from majestic in proportions—stretching east from Hamilton for about forty miles to Niagara Falls in a widening ribbon. Here and there it is pierced by fjordlike creeks, and near St.

Catharines it’s sheared in two by the Welland ship canal. Lake Ontario skirts the belt on the north and. like a twin fence to the south, there is the towering Niagara escarpment—once an ancient shore line. These two barriers —one water and the other a wooded cliff—are never far apart, only a mile and a half at one point and eight miles at another. Between them, on gentle northerly slopes, lies the fruit belt.

Once it was the bottom of a great lake that geologists have named Lake Iroquois, and the escarpment was a clifflike shore line. The lake covered

a large part of Ontario and New York State. In time it receded into Lake Ontario, leaving the rich sandy strip of fruitland between the old and new shore lines.

Here the Canadian climate literally does a double take—it is not Canadian climate at all. The strip at the foot of the escarpment is usually from five to ten degrees warmer than the land on top. Lake Ontario in front and Lake Erie on the other side of the escarpment exercise a sort of thermostatic control over sharp changes in temperature. The land slopes north, so that it’s not

exposed too early to spring sunshine which would leave orchards and vineyards at the mercy of spring frosts.

The result is a climate that has been compared to that of central France and growing conditions usually found in more southerly latitudes. Each year on the average the fruit belt has one hundred and seventy-four days between the last frost of spring and the first frost of autumn. This is anywhere from a week to a month more than other areas in southern Ontario. It also means there is seldom a crop loss from the weather.

Tn losing this belt to housing and industry, Canada is losing the source of about one third of its whole fruit crop—ten million dollars worth a year —and garden crops that sell for another fifteen millions. But the real value of Niagara is the fact that it’s a specialty belt. It grows about half our peaches (twenty thousand tons a year) and almost all our grapes (fifty thousand tons).

As a result the fruit belt is vital to the Canadian fruit-canning and winemaking industries. There are eighteen canneries and eleven wineries along the

strip. Their representatives have taken a lead in urging farmers, the public and the Ontario government to save the land for fruitgrowing. So far nothing concrete has been done to halt the destruction of the fruitlands, although a recent amendment to the Assessment Act in Ontario promised some taxation relief for farmers. This amendment provides that in assessing farmland no account should be taken of the possible sale value of such lands for purposes other than farming. In other words Niagara fruitlands nestling up against housing projects would be assessed

merely as farms and not as a choice piece of housing property.

Even while fighting to save the fruitlands, however, some of the canners and vintners consider the problem insurmountable.

“You can’t tell a farmer he can’t sell his land when someone wants to buy it,” M. J. Jones, president of the Canadian Wine Institute, said recently. “This isn’t Russia. Any attempt to freeze the fruitlands for fruitgrowing would mean that farmers on marginal land not too suitable for fruit could sell for high prices, while farmers on the very best land would be barred from such profits.”

Jones says the wineries are concerned about the land struggle but are still getting enough grapes to keep the industry going. “But the problem is more immediate for the canneries; they can see the day not far off when they won’t have enough fruit to operate.” Actually there has been no drastic reduction yet in the amount of fruit produced in the strip. A lot of the land taken over for housing and industry, especially near Hamilton, was not the choicest fruitland. However, the inroads on choice lands toward the centre of the strip have now started, and so have the canners’ worries.

While the future existence of Niagara wineries and canneries is being threatened, the lives of between ten thousand and fifteen thousand people on farms and in the processing industries are being dislocated. But few of these people consider their predicament a tragedy. To the belt’s four thousand fruitgrowers the high selling price of land is a solution to high taxes. To fruit-industry workers it’s obvious that more and perhaps bigger industry is on the way.

Is Fruit Farming Doomed?

Throughout the belt they can see with their own eyes the swift changes taking place in their lives—changes that are also obliterating some of the most famous scenes of Canadian history—the fields where the War of 1812 was fought, the paths walked by the first United Empire Loyalist settlers and hy Laura Secord.

In Saltfleet Township, adjoining Hamilton, the city’s cramped housing and industry are squirting into the fruit belt like tooth paste from a tube. Here, where the critical battle of Stoney Creek was fought between the British and Americans in the War of 1812, the township’s population has multiplied almost seven times in ten years—from six thousand to forty thousand—and most of the people are from Hamilton.

It’s the same farther down the belt in Grantham Township adjoining St. Catharines. This area has perhaps a larger and richer concentration of industry than any other comparable region in Canada. Housing subdivisions have pushed into the fruitland so extensively that the Niagara district’s agricultural representative, a young man named Grant Mitchell, says: “Farming in Grantham is just

about through.” Until a few years ago Grantham produced one quarter of all the fruit in the belt.

What has happened in these two townships probably tells the story of what is going to happen to the whole belt—unless the farmers voluntarily adopt a land-conservation scheme or the Ontario government forces one on them. At the moment both these prospects seem remote.

Burton Gorman in Saltfleet Township is one of the pioneer fruitgrowers who are on the point of being overrun by the swift tide of settlement in the belt. Corrnan is a brisk intelligent man of sixty-six, with gentle blue eyes, a

soft voice and powerful hands from fifty years of pruning trees and vines. His family roots are deep in the fruit belt. Johannes Jerrick Corman arrived there with the United Empire Loyalists in the 1780s. In the War of 1812 Johannes’ son Isaac was said to have stolen the Americans’ password while a prisoner at Stoney Creek. He escaped and sent the password (“Will Hen Harr,” for the American general, William Henry Harrison) to the beleaguered British. They used it to penetrate the American camp at night and rout the invaders.

Six generations later great-greatgrandson Burton Corman is on the point of being routed from the fruit belt by the modern invaders—housing and industry. His small farm is on the outskirts of Stoney Creek, which is practically a suburb of Hamilton.

“With a lot of young families in the township,” he says, “we’ve had to spend two million dollars on new schools Road costs have gone away up. Home owners want sewers and water; it’s going to cost another two millions to give it to them. All that expense means higher assessment on land—and higher taxes. It’s no place for a farmer with a lot of land.”

Burton Corman is resigned to selling the last piece of the land his family has fanned for more than one hundred and sixty years. His cousin, Elvin Corman, also in Saltfleet, already had made the same decision. Elvin farmed a hundred acres on which taxes had gradually increased to more than a thousand dollars a year. He was offered two thousand dollars an acre for the land by a real-estate operator. Instead, Elvin subdivided sixty acres on h s own; he made a profit of twentyeight hundred dollars an acre and still has forty acres left.

At the other end of the fruit strip, on the outskirts of Niagara Falls, Mrs. Mary Scott, a widow of seventy-four, and her son David also have found themselves suddenly rich through being forced off their land by high taxes and the demand for housing room. On their fifty-acre farm they grew pears, apples, cherries and grapes and barely made ends meet. Now they’re subdividing it and expect to make two hundred thousand dollars.

In less heavily settled parts of the fruit belt, where there is no immediate rush for land, the advance of Niagara industries is creating a farmlabor shortage and making it hard for growers to get the most out of their land. Farmers, accustomed to paying

fifty or sixty cents an hour for skilled farm labor, find it difficult to compete with factories that offer a dollar thirty and more to the same men. And, unlike most farm areas, the Niagara factories are right there, only a few minutes from the farms.

Near Beamsville, in the centre of the fruit strip, Ira Moyer, a patriarch of one of the old Niagara families, operates what even rival growers say is a model fruit farm. With seventy years’ experience and the most scientific methods, Moyer gets the most out of his hundred acres—fifty-six thou-

sand dollars a year in fruit alone. In addition he keeps a hundred head of beef cattle—chiefly for fertilizer for his orchards—and he grows vegetables.

He has raised nine children on his farm and educated them at Cornell University, the Ontario Agricultural College and other schools. His solid briek-and-frame house and imposing barns stand midway between the Queen Elizabeth and old No. 8 highway at the foot of the escarpment. They represent five generations of successful farming. But every year labor costs take an increasingly large chunk out

of the farm’s earnings. To produce $56,000 in fruit last year cost Moyer $22,000 in wages alone, not counting his other expenses—spraying and so on.

“If I have to compete with industry in Hamilton or St. Catharines,” he says, “I’ll be out of business. In a way the government is helping the farmer by bringing immigrants to Canada who must work on the land for a year. Without that, and without seasonal workers who drift in from all over Ontario during the picking season, a lot of fruitgrowers couldn’t keep going.”

Like most farm areas of Canada, the Niagara strip has also seen a drift of population away from the farms to the towns and cities. “Today’s women want a porcelain kitchen,” says M. J. Jones, president of the Wine Institute, “not the hard work of farm life.”

With many older farm families moving to the city, their land has been taken over by new Canadians from Holland, Italy, Poland and other European countries. Many of these people are part-time farmers, working in Niagara industries and working their land after supper. The belt is full of commuters who draw pay cheques in Hamilton, St. Catharines and Niagara Falls. More and more, as settlement increases, it resembles a pleasant big suburb.

Since Canada and the U. S. made their separate long-delayed decisions to complete the St. Lawrence Seaway, Ontario’s “Golden Arc” of industry —from Oshawa to Hamilton—has been extended by common consent to take in the whole fruit belt. Early last year Herbert Rogge, the president of Can-

adian Westinghouse, told Hamilton’s Chamber of Commerce that the hundred-and-fifty-mile arc around Lake Ontario from Oshawa to Niagara Falls was sure to become “one of the world’s great centres of population and industry.” Officials of the Ontario Department of Trade and Industry frankly predict that five million people will live in this arc by 1975, compared with two million now.

Although the surge of housing and industry into the belt has been going on for almost ten years it wasn’t until last spring that any organized opposition was formed against it. Then on April 26 Philip Torno, president of Jordan Wines, convened the first meeting of the Niagara Region Land Use Co-Ordinating Committee. The committee includes representatives of the canning and wine industries, some fruitgrowers, members of Niagara township councils and the Conservation Council of Ontario, a non-profit group interested in safeguarding the province’s natural resources.

The changing face of the fruit belt

Since the first meeting, the committee has attracted a lot of attention to the changes in the fruitlands, but this has not stopped the sale of land for industrial sites and the cutting up of farms into housing lots. Recently, however, Ontario Attorney-General Dana Porter offered a plan to give farm land a lower assessment for taxation than housing and industrial land and this was heartily supported by the Conservation Council. Townships can exempt farmlands from taxes for public improvements such as sidewalks and fire protection. The idea is that farmers shouldn’t be driven off the land by high taxes, although they may be lured off by high prices. However, most townships, faced with sharply rising costs, have passed on part of these to the farms.

One pioneer canner, Armand Smith, president of E. D. Smith and Sons at Winona, agrees that the basic problem in retaining the land for fruit is to make farming more attractive financially for the grower—sufficiently attractive so | that he won’t sell his land even at inflated prices. Rut that would mean giving canners and growers more tariff protection against cheap U. S. fruit, he says, and possibly government subsidies. In any case, the consumer would have to pay more for fruit.

But would the average Canadian consent to subsidizing the Niagara fruit industry when he knows that the farmers are not really in dire straits, ! that they can make big money by selling their land? Many industrialists | and public officials think not. A few ■ months ago Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, F. S. Thomas, told the Land j Use Committee that his department “will be happy to participate in a program designed to find the facts” about the land problem. “But,” said Thomas, “it must be clearly recognized that many other units and branches have a responsibility in Niagara as well as the Department of Agriculture.”

It’s a fact that while the Department of Agriculture is hearing pleas to “Save the Fruitlands” the Department of Planning and Development is helping businessmen find sites for industry in the fruit belt.

While canners and wine makers are debating with growers and government officials over what to do with the Niagara land, one farmer has solved the problem by himself. John Prudhomme, a formidable, middle-aged man who doesn’t look like the wealthiest grower in the fruit belt but who probably is, inherited sixteen farms in the Beamsville district from h;s father; in all they totaled about five hundred acres.

One warm Sunday afternoon in 1947 he was watching the stream of traffic on the Queen ^Elizabeth highway along the lake shore and he decided a coffee counter and refreshment stand would pull them off the highway like bees to an orchard. He promptly built a place, and it grew spectacularly. Now it’s an eighty-room motel, a twenty-tworoom lodge, a barn playhouse, a dining room and dance pavilion, bowling alleys, swimming pool—and it’s still growing.

He hasn’t gone out of the fruit business; he still runs his sixteen farms and employs more than a hundred men and women full time. But he also owns and rents several homes and apartment buildings. For people moving into the fruit belt he has a construction business to help them build their own homes. After they move in, his nurseries will provide their lawns, shrubs and trees.

“In these days of rapid change in the fruit belt,” says Prudhomme, cheerfully distorting a popular expression,

“a man is foolish to keep all his fruit in one basket.” ★