Oakville was once ‘strawberry capital of Dominion of Canada’


Published July 10, 2024 at 2:29 pm

Ontario, Oakville, strawberries, fields, history, growth,

Phil Brimacombe remembers his grandfather telling him about how he and his grandmother would get in their car and drive down to Oakville from their home in High Park in Toronto.

A member of the Toronto police force, Brimacombe’s grandfather had bought his first car, a Star, made by American automobile maker Durant Motors Company.

“He and my grandmother used to go up Lakeshore Road there in the late 1920s and a lot of the farmers by that time, because everyone was buying a car, started to set up fruit stands,” Brimacombe, a volunteer at the Oakville Historical Society, recalled him saying. “If you owned a farm along Lakeshore Road and were growing fruit and you had cars going along the new Toronto/ Hamilton highway then you’d set up a family run fruit stand.”

The retired school teacher has researched the history of the growth of strawberries and other fruits from the Credit River to the Burlington Plains, along Plains Road and Aldershot, and put the work into an album that can be found at the Oakville Historical Society.

While it may hard to believe now, Oakville was once was the strawberry capital of Canada. Many of the country’s juicy, sweet refreshing fruit treats were grown right here.

“It was the strawberry capital of the Dominion of Canada,” said Brimacombe.

The growth of strawberries and various fruits locally really came about after the struggles local wheat factories went through at the end of the Crimean War and the construction of the Grand Trunk Railway.

Many wheat factories would close as the war created a huge surplus of wheat around the world, while the new railway reduced the need for wheat shipments though the harbour.

Looking to survive, many of the farmers switched to fruit production and soon strawberries would become the main crop and a huge success.

Strawberry growing was first introduced commercially in Oakville after the mid-1800s by John Cross, who owned a farm north of the Railway on what is now known as Cross Avenue.

The fruit grew wild in the area and Cross found it was easily cultivated.

“It was the soil,” said Brimacombe as for why the fruit grew so well. “The area from the Lake Ontario shoreline up to the north of the QEW, there is the old shoreline of Grayson Lake Iroquois. The stretch to (Lake Ontario) is essentially sandy soil and clay, and it was really ideal for small fruit going.”

An English immigrant, Cross and his wife established a fruit farm up where Home Depot is now on Cross Avenue. That was their land initially going back to the late 1850s, early 1860s and they started growing strawberries.

“My understanding is, from what I’ve read, that that the strawberry types he brought over were from England,” said Brimacombe. “I had read somewhere he had brought a string of strawberries over from France as well.

“These were strawberries that were well suited to growing in this climate.”

The strawberry industry in Oakville would boom.

“Afterwards, in the late 1850s up until World War II, it was a prolific area for growing strawberries,” said Brimacombe. “I think every farm along here, except for the village of Bronte, everyone in the Town of Oakville grew strawberries for domestic cases as well as commercial use. It was amazing.”

When Brimacombe was doing research and putting his album on the history of strawberry growing in town, he found that going up to about 1900 they would ship the strawberries out near the old O’Keefe Center in Toronto (located on the southwest corner of what is now the Meridian Hall, a performing arts venue).

“At that site there was the old great western railways station and when they closed that somewhere around the 1880s, they turned it into the Toronto fruit market,” explained Brimacombe. “I remember that building back when I was a kid. My grandfather was on the Toronto Police Department, and I remember going down to the Court Street station and that was just before the O’Keefe Center was built and they turned that into the Toronto Wholesale Fruit Market.

“The fruit was taken by train into Toronto, but there were also a lot of passenger boats here and they would also take fruit in and unload it at the foot of Yonge Street. The merchants’ wholesalers would take it by horse cart just up the street to the Toronto Wholesale Fruit Market.”

It was Cross’s idea to take the sales nationally. Others soon followed.

“He (Cross) was in business right up until at least the 1890s,” said Brimacombe. “Then everybody got in the act. If you and I were local farmers and had a little bit of land, south of the QEW, we would probably turn those five acres into growing fruit because it was very profitable.”

As well as John Chisholm, one of those strawberry farmers included James Hill, an escaped slave from the United States in the 1850s.

Hill was another big fruit grower from what is now known as southwest Oakville.

“There were a lot of them that got into the act,” said Brimacombe.

“He (Hill) rented a house over on ninth line where Maple Grove Drive is. His old house is still there.”

The growth of the strawberry business internationally led to the creation of other businesses in the area. Cross started the Oakville Basket Factory.

With a need for something to transport the strawberries cross the country, Cross began making basket sheds on his farm and in 1871, with demand growing, he opened the Oakville Basket Factory.

The area was also well known for its growth of other fruits. There were several farms along what is now known as Kerr Street and down along Lakeshore Road.

Others like Cudmore farms were down in Bronte, right on the old Toronto/Hamilton highway.

“Apples were a big thing down in Clarkson,” said Brimacombe. “As you went in towards Burlington, Oakville maybe a little less. A lot of our apples were shipped over to Great Britain.”

The strawberry boom would end in Oakville as the 1950’s approached. At the end of the second World War, Oakville’s population grew significantly as people moved into the small town.

“People like me from Toronto came and they started building houses and before you know it the fruit farms were just bulldozed over unfortunately,” said Brimacombe.

There was no doubt development brought an end to the strawberry rush in Oakville.

“No question,” added Brimacombe. “That’s why we have to get our strawberries now from places like Chile and Mexico, which is really unfortunate. Oakville was in the way between Toronto and Hamilton, and it was just inevitable. The farms would disappear.”

Ontario, Oakville, Toronto, Bronte strawberries, historical society, growing, produce,

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