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.