Chapter 7 – It’s Harvest Season
In the springtime of the 1930’s the view from the highest windows of the historic home of Charles Davis, which still stands on Plains Road, was of thousands of acres of fruit trees in blossom, “in every direction”, he said, “as far as one could see”.
The Charles G. Davis Home – 1134 Plains Road East
Before another thirty years had passed, the majority of these orchards had been cleared and the land sold to developers.
This chapter of A Walk in Greenwood will feature three former apple growing families of Burlington and one apple buyer and exporter. As citizens of Burlington we have been left several street names as fitting reminders of the once thriving business and lifestyle.
The Colin and Lawrie Smith Orchards
An earlier generation of this family had purchased these farms about 1850, but for years had lived in Oakville. The two farms are situated on the Lakeshore, one on either side of Walker’s Line. About 1902, Colin and Lawrie Smith, aged 21 & 18, were sent by their father to move onto and develop their future on their designated properties.
Colin, being the older son, was given the property on the east side of Walker’s Line, complete with a home ready to move into. This home and farm were known as Ravenswood. Lawrie’s farm on the west side of Walker’s Line, later known as Strathcona, had no livable dwelling. Lawrie lived for a few years with his brother Colin, a sister keeping house for them, until Colin married in 1910. In time, Lawrie built his own home and also married.
The soil on this land did not suit the growing of grain but was ideal for fruit trees. A variety of fruit trees were planted, however, the apple was predominant. Strathcona Orchards in the 1940s had at least a dozen varieties of apples, with McIntosh as No. 1. The Smith brothers are known to have won yearly prizes for their apples at the Royal Winter Fair. Fruit farms, at certain times of year are labour intensive. At harvest time in the 1940s Lawrie hired 50 or more pickers, plus men on wagons and perhaps 10 packers. They are known to have packed and supplied Lowlaws with over 800, 6 quart baskets, several times a week.
Lawrie and Beatrice Smith had just two children. Their son, Tim, was killed in action in 1942, and daughter Isabel’s husband Art Kemp also went overseas with the Lorne Scots, leaving Isabel and her dad Lawrie to run the farm. When Art Kemp returned home, he resumed his share of responsibility again. In 1952, Art bought the Orchards, but by the mid 1950s the developers were making offers too good to refuse when making a good living on a fruit farm was not a sure thing.
Both Colin and Lawrie Smith participated in the affairs of their community. Colin was a trustee and secretary of the Strathcona School for many years as well as serving on the township council and as deputy reeve.
Colin Smith died in 1944 in his 63rd year, having been a successful grower for 42 years and is interred in Greenwood in block 56. Colin’s family carried on with the farm operation for a number of years. Unfortunately, the only street named in honour of Colin’s orchards is Ravenswood.
Lawrie Smith died in 1960 in his 78th year and was interred in St. Luke’s Anglican Church Cemetery. Isobel (Smith) Kemp died suddenly in Portugal in 1961, and her husband Art Kemp in 2015 in his 100th year. Both were interred in block 86 of Greenwood Cemetery.
Streets in the Strathcona Orchards lands were given the names: Apple Valley, Applevale, Melba & McIntosh for apples, and Bartlett and Flemish for pears. The Lawrie Smith Public School was built on New Street near Roseland Plaza to recognize his years of service as a school trustee, but has since been demolished.
Art Kemp continued with his activities in Agriculture including serving as Chairman of the apple section of the Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. He attained the rank of Colonel with the Lorne Scots and served as Aide-de-camp to The Governor General of Canada, Roland Michener.
John Chamberlain Smith
J.C., as Mr. Smith was known, moved his young family onto a fruit farm he had purchased about 1885. He and his wife, Sara Amelia, raised 8 children, although one died at 5 years of age. Their property was also on the Lakeshore, but closer to the Village of Burlington. A substantial brick home, which still stands, had been built by William Dalton, who built several others nearby. This home, named Apple Villa, is on the corner of Smith Avenue, which, before development was just Smith’s Lane, as it went through the orchards on the farm. The small property went from the Lakeshore through to New Street.
Max Smith, ca 1903 on Smith Lane
J.C. Smith, it is said, travelled annually to Nova Scotia to arrange the sale of his McIntosh apples and Bartlett pears. J. C. was not only a grower but a packer and exporter, one of the first to ship apples to England.
As the sons matured they too helped in the business, later developing their own niche in the west, the Yukon and other places.
J.C. and his son, Maxwell, or M.C., later Burlington’s first mayor, purchased the fruit farm of Mr. H. H. Hurd following his death in the spring of 1905 and made plans to divide a portion of it into residential lots for the village but continued to farm much of it.
Mr. Smith was keenly interested in the affairs of the town and served in several public offices. He was also a love
r of sports and was a director of the skating rink when it was projected and erected.
J.C. Smith died in 1930 and is interred in block 12 of Greenwood Cemetery. The headstone has only Smith on it. There are flat foot stones for Mrs. Smith and a young daughter but not for J. C. Smith himself.
The streets Baldwin and Blenheim, in the vicinity of Central School were named as part of the Apple Park Survey and were the names of apple varieties grown on the Hurd farm.
It was the third generation of this Bell family that got seriously into apple growing. Fred Bell had farmed on the west side of Maple Avenue for some time when in 1902 he became aware that a property on Brant Street was for sale. The farm he purchased was across from Central School and ran from what is now Blairholm Avenue to Victoria Avenue. A short time later he acquired the property south of Victoria Avenue, now the No Frills Plaza. This was already a well established fruit orchard. The Bell Orchards encompassed the lands east of Brant Street to the water works, or the curling rink, butting the west boundary of the Lankester property on which is now Central Library.
In March of 1908, William Hodge Bell, 2nd son of Frederick and Harriett McMillan, aged 22 years, was married to Frances Alton, and in December of that year began the construction a brick home on Victoria Avenue. This home stood about where the entrance to Tim Horton’s is now. As the other sons aged, 2 more homes were built along the street
and remain there today.
It was the sons, William and Roy, who chose to work on the orchards with their father, Fred, who remained on the Brant Street farm until his death in 1939. Roy had a untimely death in 1931 at 42 years of age. About that period of time, William, who had 2 sons George and Kenneth growing up, purchased 2 farms for them in East Flamboro, on the fifth and sixth concessions (north of Waterdown), which eventually became the only Bell Orchards after the Brant Street farm was bought for development. William and Frances remained in charge of the Bell Orchards and continued to live in their Victoria Avenue home until the lands were sold in the late 1950s, when they moved to a new home on Dundas Street, closer to their dairy cattle farming brother Carmen Bell.
The younger son, Kenneth, and his family made their home on the East Flamboro Orchard. Kenneth died in 2000 and his children continued the Bell Orchard business unti about 2014, then cleared the trees from the land.
George and his wife Helen had remained in Burlington in a home they had built across from Central Public School. When ready for retirement this home was sold to Dr. Langford. George and Helen then moved to a new home on Highview Drive.
In November of 1952 the Burlington Gazette reported the news that the Loblaws Company had purchased the Bell Cold Storage property on Brant Street on which they” proposed to erect a large supermarket in the near future”. That “supermarket is now the No Frills store.
An interesting sidebar to that story is that when the old cold storage building was demolished, the Bell’s First Nations employees cleaned the old bricks which were then taken to East Flamboro and laid on the front face of the new cold storage building on Kenneth Bell’s farm.
The Bell Orchards business survived through 4 generations. Frederick Bell who started it all would no doubt have been proud of his family’s accomplishments.
The street names in the Bell Orchard lands are Courtland, Tallman and Wagner, apple varieties and Bellwood, for the family.
Biggs Fruit and Produce Company Ltd.
The partners in this company were Alexander C. Biggs and his son William T. Biggs. As recorded in the Burlington Gazette, their business began some time before 1904. In February of that year it was reported that Biggs & Son had a “Big Day” having shipped 3 carloads of apples, a combination of cases and barrels, to the Glasgow, London and Manchester markets. These apples were wrapped in paper to help preserve the quality. This was the second lot sent that winter and 29 cars in all had been exported to Europe during the season. On the same page in the Gazette, Biggs had a “wanted” advertisement for good apples – anything from 1 to 500 barrels.
William’s obituary tells that the family had come from Preston, where he was born in 1992, to Port Nelson about 1891, and took up residence on the Guelph Line in the house next to the Port Nelson Sunday School. When William married in 1905, he and his bride moved to Freeman and resided on the Hamilton-Nelson Road, later the Queen Elizabeth Way.
- C. Biggs, the father, for a number of years after arriving here was in the insurance business.
In 1905 this fruit business was incorporated under the name Biggs Fruit and Produce Company, Ltd. 1906 saw the company expand to include grain, flour and feed, and in 1908 A. C. Biggs leased a shed in Freeman and entered the coal business.
The Biggs Fruit and Produce Co. in Freeman, ca 1900
The company also had an evaporator to make cider and in September of 1908 advertised the need for 60,000 bushels of apples for the cider press.
The signage on the front of the Biggs packing house was topped with “The Home of Christmas Apples”. The Biggs Fruit and Produce Company specialized in sending gift boxes of Elberta peaches in September and apples for Christmas to Great Britain and guaranteed they would arrive in good condition. The company also shipped all across Canada in boxes which Mr. Biggs had developed for the purpose.
Biggs Fruit and Produce Co. Christmas Brochure
During the winter the Biggs family flooded a space for an ice rink for the community. It was used for hockey as well as skating. They even held a Fancy Dress Carnival with prizes.
The Biggs father and son died within a year of each other – Alexander C. Biggs in December 1942, in his 88th year, at his residence on Hurd Avenue and William T. Biggs in November of 1943, aged 62 years.
© Peggy Armstrong, Researcher
BHS Archives, The Burlington Gazette, Al Norton’s book “A Hard Day’s Work”, a Bell family member