Imagine the Town of Oakville almost 150 years ago. There were no subdivisions, no QEW and no train access to the Town. You might think of Oakville as quite a small and unknown little Town. However, it has a surprising bright and sweet past, a past that allowed the Town to survive huge economic downturns in the mid-1800s.
In the early 1800s, Oakville was full of forests used for lumber and shipbuilding that were
its primary industries. Other businesses like foundries (factories where metal is formed), gristmills (wheat mills) and tanneries (where hide is turned into leather)[i] were also booming in the Town. Oakville was easily accessible by water through the harbour and was a key point for shipments. The town also became a part of the Underground Railroad, as many slaves escaped and were stowed away in grain vessels entering the Oakville Harbour.[ii]
By the 1870s, a new form of transportation had arrived – the train. The Grand Trunk Railway was built just above Oakville in Georgetown. This new form of transportation meant less shipments entering the harbour.[iii] Less ships also meant less foundries. At the end of the Crimean War in 1856 there was a surplus of international wheat, and the price of wheat plummeted. With the loss of these industries, Oakville was in dire need of an agricultural and industrial transformation.
Farmers and small businesses turned to fruit production, growing strawberries as the main crop. This is not that surprising as strawberries grew wild across Halton.
Strawberries were first introduced to Oakville by John Cross. Recognizing the need for fruit baskets for the delicate strawberries, Cross set up the first fruit basket factory.[iv] By the late 1870s, nearly 750,000 fruit baskets were assembled in Oakville.[v]
Other stone fruits and orchards followed strawberries, including apples, pears and plums. Oakville strawberries quickly grew a reputation for their quality and size.[vi] Upon arrival at the market, vendors would call out for Oakville strawberries. Oakville became known as the strawberry capital in the Canadas.[vii] The demand exceeded the supply[viii] as the fruit was celebrated across Halton in summer strawberry and ice cream festivals.[ix] It was often served with cream and sugar for a summer treat.
Fruit production quickly became one of Oakville’s top industries. By 1870, nearly 300 acres in Oakville were covered in strawberries.[x] In 1877, Burlington shipped 1,650 cases, 90-100 quarts of strawberries. Most of these were sent to Toronto and Montreal.[xi]
Other industries continued to grow into the 1900s. In 1939 the QEW was built and connected Oakville to Toronto and Hamilton. It was not until the mid-1900s when Oakville’s industry shifted again. This time to car manufacturing by Ford.
The production of strawberries saw Oakville through significant times of hardship, and
helped to shape its agricultural industry. Today there are no strawberry orchards in Oakville, but it is difficult to imagine what the Town would be like without this industry some 150 years ago.
While there are no strawberry farms in Oakville, you can find ones that grow strawberries and other fruits in Milton and Halton Hills and west in Burlington. These fruits can be found at farmers’ markets and at pick-your-own orchards.
For more information on fruit orchards surrounding Oakville, visit Halton Region’s Farm-Fresh Produce & Entertainment Guide.
By Rachel Morgan
[i] The Town of Oakville. The Oakville Basket Company. Available at http://www.oakville.ca/culturerec/pioneer-essay5.html
[ii] Oakville Images. The Underground Railroad: The gateway to Canada (1800s). Available at: http://images.oakville.halinet.on.ca/117/Exhibit/9999822
[iii] Oakville Historical Society. Oakville and Trafalgar Township History. Available at: http://www.oakvillehistory.org/oakville-history.html
[iv] Harry Buxton of Oakville Historical Society. (2002). Breweries and Basket Factory. Available at: http://www.oakvillehistory.org/breweries-and-basket-factory.html
[vi] Oakville Images. Oakville businesses and industries. Available at: http://images.oakville.halinet.on.ca/202/Exhibit/12
[vii] Oakville Historical Society. Oakville and Trafalgar Township History. Available at: http://www.oakvillehistory.org/oakville-history.html
[viii] Oakville Images. Oakville businesses and industries. Available at: http://images.oakville.halinet.on.ca/202/Exhibit/12
[ix] Acton Free Press (Acton, ON), 19 Jun 1879, p. 2. Available at: http://images.halinet.on.ca/84353/page/2?n=10&q=strawberry&docid=OOI.84353
[xi] Acton Free Press (Acton, ON), 19 Jul 1877, p. 2. Available at: http://images.halinet.on.ca/84244/page/2?n=17&q=strawberry&docid=OOI.84244