Community Canning

Milnes cannery crew

Growing up in the sunny Okanagan Valley, and especially having grandparents who owned an orchard in beautiful Summerland, canning fruit was naturally a part of my childhood and youth.

We canned fruit at our own home in Rutland, of course.  As the oldest daughter, I early on became mom’s number one helper.  I really didn’t mind helping with the canning, except for the peaches.  After they had been blanched they would be dumped into a large sink full of cold water, and it would be my job to remove the skins before we cut them up.  By the end of that job, my arms would be red and incredibly itchy.  I remember complaining mightily, but mom just laughed; it was part of the process.

By the end of the fall harvest, our cool room shelves were  filled with dozens and dozens of jars of fruit.  We had fruit for dessert almost every day all winter.  The peaches were considered a treat, and usually came out only on special occasions.  The cherries, which we had in abundance because of Grandpa’s orchard, were our everyday dessert.  I never tired of counting the cherries in my bowl: “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief.”  For some reason, much to my chagrin, I almost always ended up with the poor man, or even beggar man or thief.

We also did canning at Grandma’s house, especially when they lived in the big old Victorian home in the orchard. At cherry picking season, family gathered from near and far, and the cousins got to sleep in bunk beds out on the big wrap-around porch.  Grandma and Grandpa still had a wood stove, and we liked to watch Grandpa chop the wood and get the fire going.

But my most exciting canning memory is from when we’d go to do our canning at the Summerland community cannery.  I suppose it may have been a commercial cannery at one time; certainly there were huge old commercial-sized stoves and vats.  Many families gathered there together, and everyone pitched in.  Cherries were brought into the cannery in large flats rather than the smaller boxes or pails of cherries that we’d can at home.  In my memory, the equipment was huge, and the long room was like an enormous barn, with dark distant ceilings, and full of steam and loud clattering noises along with friendly laughter and chatting.

The men did the heavy lifting and heated up the big stoves.  The smaller children had a wonderful time playing together outside.  I was still pretty young in the community cannery days, but I was old enough, perhaps six or seven, to take a turn helping the women out.  It was my chore to sort  the cherries and load them into jars.

I think that at the community cannery we usually canned in jars, yet it seems to me that we may also have canned in tins.  I have memories of tinned fruit in the cool room, which I thought was far fancier than fruit in jars.  And after some of the old canneries closed down, I remember that for years we had boxes full of colourful left-over fruit tin labels at home which we used for scrap note-paper.

Nowadays it seems that canning, like a lot of other old-time skills, is fading from the picture for many folks.  Seems like a shame, not only because canning is a good way to economically preserve summer’s bounty for the long cold winter months, but also because canning, like so many other old-time skills, is best done together as a family and as a community.  And when we lose those kinds of communal events, we are losing so much of what is vital in life.


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