Owen Gillstrom accompanied his mother to fruit-picking regions of British Columbia from Saskatchewan during the Second World War. After reading the remarkable story of a mother and her son in the Regina Leader Post archives from June 27, 1947, I contacted Mr. Gillstrom to learn more about his adventures. He told me that an advertisement appeared in the Leader Post asking for Berry pickers in B.C. with a train fare of 10 dollars for adults and 5 dollars for children during the summer holidays. As Owen and his mother had spent many summers picking Saskatoon Berries on his grandfather's farm, they thought that the trip sounded like an appealing way to support the War effort. Furthermore, it was a great opportunity to travel for a reasonable price.
The trip by steam engine train was incredibly exciting for Owen; while he had traveled by train to a boys camp at Regina Beach, he had never taken such a long trip by train, and this was his first opportunity to see the Rocky Mountains. Owen and his mother settled on a berry and dairy farm in Matsqui, B.C., and Owen made himself helpful by bringing in the Jersey cows from pasture to stalls in the barn early each morning. The farmer showed him how to put the milking machines on their udders and finish milking by hand. The milk was then put through a cooling system into large milk cans and placed out by the road for morning pickup.
Owen also helped pick berries, but at first, he was told only to pick the berries that were visible, with his mother following along to make sure no berries were missed. At this pace, skimming the top berries, Owen aimed to pick 100 pounds of berries a day at 5 cents per pound for jam type berries and 7 cents per pound for store sales. At 5pm each day, Owen would accompany the farmer to the town of Halzic, B.C. to dispose of his berries accordingly. Owen and his mother returned to the same farm for three summers, and became close with the farmer and his wife.
Afterwards, the farmer sold his farm and Owen and his mother were employed at another berry farm closer to Mission, B.C. By then, Owen had proved himself to be a good, thorough picker and did not need his mother's supervision in the berry fields.
They picked strawberries in June that year, but since the blackberries and blueberries would not be ripe until late August or early September, which did not fit with Owen's school holidays, he and his mother moved locations and spent the last part of the summer in cabins near Sardis, B.C. picking hops. Working in the hops fields was very different than berry picking; instead of picking berries, which grew low to the ground, for a farmer and delivering them to a nearby town at the end of the day, hops grew on hanging vines and pickers lived in work camps. Each day, sometimes twice a day, a worker's bounty was weighed and a dollar amount was punched onto a card which workers could then cash in at a store in the camp town.
Owen enjoyed working on farms in B.C. for 5 summers in a row and remembered these years fondly. For fun, he often walked a mile into the town of Mission or met up with boys his age from farms nearby. His mother cooked them many healthy meals, purchased with her berry picking money and government ration booklets due to wartime rationing of butter, sugar, etc. Whenever she needed groceries, she accompanied the farmer into town at the end of the day when he disposed of his berries. Of course, they also ate as many berries as they wished!
Owen told me that spending his teen years working on berry farms during the war was educational and exciting. He made close relationships with the farmers, met boys his age from farms nearby, and even traveled to Surrey a few times with friends who were visiting from Regina. Overall, it was the relationships he made, the new skills he learned, and the beautiful scenery he saw that encouraged him to return again each summer.
Living through the Second World War, my grandma knew how important it was to pitch in, help out, and work together as a nation. So, when she read about a shortage of fruit workers in British Columbia and a call for Saskatchewan women to apply at their nearest employment office, she and her sister didn’t hesitate. Help was needed in an agricultural region somewhere, the work, transportation, and accommodation was paid, and the two sisters, who had never been farther than Prince Albert, were eager for adventure. Picking fruit in the Okanagan region of British Columbia sounded like an exotic summer vacation. The girls applied and were whisked across Western Canada to a place called Summerland, in British Columbia’s interior. Even the name of the town sounded like a holiday.
“Kelsey,” my grandma told me, “our mother packed us a delicious meal, enough food to last us to our destination, and, I’m embarrassed to say that in our excitement, we had eaten every morsel of food within twenty minutes of leaving the train station.” She chuckled at the memory. “We were so hungry by the time we reached Summerland.” The girls were taken to an orchard in the area and given a cabin to share. It was small and primitive, but no more so than their own bedroom at home, where five of them slept together. An outhouse and no electricity was also natural to the pair. They unpacked their meagre belongings and slept fitfully in nervous anticipation of their first day of work.
I can only imagine what my grandma’s initial reaction to orchard labour might have been like. What must she have thought as she was transported past wooded areas, valleys, and lakes on her way to work that morning? How must she have felt, walking into a copse of cherry or peach trees, when nothing of that variety grew in Saskatchewan? Who did she meet that first morning? Was she given any training before being given a ladder and a sack and sent in the direction of a row of trees? These are stories that I do not know, and wish I could now ask. What I do know is that Edna, my grandma’s sister, suddenly became conscious of her serious fear of heights and spent the rest of the summer holding the ladder for my grandma as she climbed high up in the trees and picked fruit.
The work was difficult and the hours were long, but this did not bother my grandmother. In her mind, they were at least being paid for their hard work! At home, they worked hard for free. The food was simple, and, since the girls were asked to pay for any food other than the excess fruit and vegetables they received from the orchard, my grandma made a pot of tomato soup every night for the two to share. “Milk and tomatoes,” she said, proudly. “And there was never a more delicious soup than that.” The sisters remained in B.C. for the summer, and returned home with stories to share. In fact, they returned the next summer to work as fruit pickers for another season, joined by two more sisters.
Sixteen year old Verna May Field travelled across Canada, by train, from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia to pick fruit in British Columbia during the Second World War. Then, after marrying Harald Mercer of Theodore, Saskatchewan, she moved out to Saskatchewan and picked fruit in British Columbia for another summer in the post-war years. Verna’s experience is a complicated one, and her story was shared by her son, Dwight Mercer, in May 2023. In many ways, Verna’s childhood was difficult. She and her two sisters were neglected by their parents, who, instead, doted on their son and viewed their daughters as a ‘financial burden.’ Verna was not well cared for at home, and, as a result, she was often seated in the back of the classroom with black children, as the classroom was still segregated by race at this time. Dwight noted that his mother was “something of a feral ‘tom-boy’ as a young child; scrappy, intelligent, and adaptable.”
In grade ten, Verna scored one of the highest IQ test results in Nova Scotia and her teachers expressed interest in sponsoring her scholarship to the Nova Scotia School of Art; however, her parents declined the scholarship on her behalf. They expected Verna to pay for her room and board at home and had already found her a job at the Five and Dime store. It was also during this time that Verna’s father secured his daughter’s train passage from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia to the Okanagan Valley, more than 5,000 kilometres away, for summer work. When speaking with Verna’s son about the factors that may have contributed to this decision, he offered three suggestions; first, Verna’s father worked for the railroad and may have heard about an opportunity in British Columbia or secured a favourable ticket price; additionally, Dartmouth and Halifax were busy ports, filled with “thousands of lonely soldiers, sailors, and airmen - as such, many parents wanted their young daughters away from all of these young men in handsome uniforms;" and finally, Verna’s parents would have looked favourably on any position that eliminated a mouth to feed, even if just for the summer.
Verna and her friend, Aubrey, travelled across Canada by train. Neither of the girls had never been anywhere in their lives and this was the trip of a lifetime. However, when they arrived in British Columbia, the girls were met with primitive, isolated conditions. Both were accustomed to the paved roads, electricity, indoor plumbing, and social entertainment in Dartmouth. In the Okanagan, the girls lived together, in some sort of barracks or shed and worked in an orchard owned by a family who did not speak English. The girls were expected to make their own entertainment when they were not working, and, as Verna never spoke about ‘going to town,’ Dwight assumed that his mother lived and worked in an isolated area.
As this was just summer work, Verna returned by train to Nova Scotia to live with her parents after the season, and, during the latter part of the Second World War, Verna was employed at the Clark Ruse Aircraft Company in Halifax, working on Hudson Bomber planes. She also won the “Miss Noxzema” beauty contest in the Maritimes at this time. In 1945, Verna met Harald (Hal) Mercer in the Dartmouth/Halifax area as he prepared for deployment to Japan, but after the dropping of the atomic bomb, these plans were cancelled. Instead, Hal was honourably discharged and returned home to Saskatchewan; Verna soon followed and the two were married in July of 1946 in Theodore, Saskatchewan. Again, Verna relayed her shock at the isolated, primitive conditions, only this time, in speaking about rural Saskatchewan. Whereas Halifax and Dartmouth were modern cities, much of Saskatchewan was still undeveloped and Verna could not believe how hard it was to eke out a living in such a province. Their first home was in a heated garage in Wynyard, Saskatchewan. After 18 months of searching, they were able to secure a room with a bed and a hot-plate for cooking in Regina so that Hal could make use of his Veteran benefits and attend University. It was during this season that Verna, again, travelled to British Columbia to pick fruit. The couple needed the extra income, and, while Verna had few career opportunities, she did have experience as a fruit worker. While Hal completed summer classes, Verna earned money in the Okanagan.
Verna did not often speak about the past, and her son did not know about her experiences in British Columbia until he was nearing the age of twelve. He noted that some of her memories of that time were positive; she spoke of the adventures she and Aubrey had experienced while travelling across Canada. The two girls remained friends long into adulthood, writing letters to each other once a week. Their experiences had certainly created a tight bond. However, other memories were less positive; the work was lonely, isolating, and rough, and the girls were not treated very well. They lived in rudimentary barracks and although they were given as much of the excess produce as they wanted, any other food was not included in their room and board, and had to be purchased on their paltry salary. Dwight noted that he and his siblings often requested apple pie for dessert as children, but Verna always refused. It was only later in life that Dwight learned that his mother hated anything related to apples because much of their diet while working in the orchard had been a variation of apple dishes.
Later in life, Verna became an excellent portrait painter and ceramic sculpture artist, as well as a mother and grandmother. When she passed away, her family commissioned a well-known Nova Scotia blacksmith artist to construct a memorial slab bench near Acadia University where students now sit and read. Verna was intelligent, brave, beautiful, creative, and resourceful. Her choices in life were limited due to her parents’ heavy hand, but she adapted, overcame, and flourished. In fact, many of her early lived experiences helped her to succeed as a fruit worker in such an isolated area of British Columbia during the Second World War. Of course, her situation was far from ideal. At a time when Verna should have been eagerly anticipating a full scholarship to the Nova Scotia School of Art, she had instead been sent across the nation by her parents, who wished for one less mouth to feed. Once a city girl, Verna had landed in the rural, frontier of British Columbia to conduct work that she had never done before, for a family who did not speak English. There was no opportunity for a social life other than with the friends she met in the orchard. Then, when her husband needed money, she again travelled to British Columbia, this time on her own. Even though she knew that the work was difficult and primitive, it was also one of her only opportunities for employment in the post-war years. It was this determination and spirit, reflected in so many of the stories of women fruit pickers, that allowed them to adapt and succeed in such isolated circumstances. As in her son, Dwight’s words, “she was a survivor.”