VALLEY VOICES: Strawberries signal summer

Strawberries were an integral part of agriculture in the North Thompson Valley along the Clearwater River

The late Bill Kelly stands in his field of strawberries in McMurphy (between Vavenby and Avola). The sandy ancient river-bottom soil plus McMurphy's east-west orientation along the North Thompson River Valley provides plenty of sunshine for a generous strawberry crop.

The late Bill Kelly stands in his field of strawberries in McMurphy (between Vavenby and Avola). The sandy ancient river-bottom soil plus McMurphy's east-west orientation along the North Thompson River Valley provides plenty of sunshine for a generous strawberry crop.

 

By Eleanor Deckert

An old saying: “Doubtless God could have made a better berry but doubtless God didn’t.”

Could it be that the humble strawberry plant in fact plays a significant role in the history and culture of our valley?

Like the runners shooting off in every direction, strawberry plants have reached up north into Blue River’s short-season gardens, thrived in the hand hoed rows of Bill Kelly’s McMurphy homestead, flourishing along the Clearwater River valley’s ranches, abundantly fruiting in the fertile soil of Blackpool’s U-Pick acreage.

After months of eating canned, dried, salted, frozen or foods stored in the root cellar throughout the winter, early spring’s crispy flavours from the garden are a welcome change to the homesteader’s diet. Rhubarb is first.

But children are especially eager for the fresh strawberry’s juicy sweetness.Hettie Buck remembers, “How delicious they were when we were children. We picked in Uncle Bob and Aunt Het’s garden. We earned 25 cents a basket in the late 1960’s.

We were also allowed to eat as much as we wanted – and believe me – after a few days of gorging ourselves we slowed down on the feasting and got to work on the picking! Twenty-five cents was big money to a little kid.”

Sandy Sunderman recalls, “You could either pick your own to buy, or pick them to get paid.”As newcomers entered the valley, clear land and begin their homestead, neighbours share strawberry runners highly valued by home gardeners.

Settlers to the North Thompson Valley recognized the soil, rain and long cool spring season as ideal for strawberry plants.

A cash crop, but not a sure crop – strawberries can be burned by a late frost, too much rain when the blossoms open prevents pollination, slugs or birds can ruin the fruit or deer might eat the trio of green saw-toothed leaves.

Although the season is short, the memories last for decades.”Grandma had the most beautiful garden I have ever seen,”Sandra Graffunder writes in the Rich History of the North Thompson Facebook page. “It seemed so big when I was so little.”

And Linda Graffunder replies, “I remember Grandma’s strawberries and raspberries. I think of her and my Dad when ever I am puttering in my own little garden.””I wish I knew half of what my Mom does about growing things. She got much of her knowledge from Grandma,”

Susan Douglas realizes the importance of passing skills on through generations.

Children feast. Youngsters earn money. Menfolk work in the fields. The women stir pots of jam and roll out pie dough.

Even the seniors savour strawberry delights.For nearly 40 years, Mavis Parker, an energetic women who lived near the blue bridge in Clearwater, hosted an annual Strawberry Tea in her bright, English flower garden, inviting residents of Evergreen Acres and everyone who could come.

Neighbours donated strawberries, planned games and enjoyed flaunting fancy hats and opening Buddy Johnson’s trunk for a fashion show of old-time clothing.The reputation of this area for excellent strawberry crops brought young people on the train from Kamloops to hire on and pick, pack, refrigerate and ship berries by train.

“My aunt is in her 80s now and she came to Clearwater to pick,” is one specific example Gail Capostinsky verifies.”Uncle Bob and Aunt Het shipped strawberries to Edmonton and Vancouver,” Hettie Buck recalls.”

The fragile berries were packed in boxes made of very thin wooden slats,” Sharon Dhillon explains.A Strawberry Festival on The Flats, annual Strawberry Day contests at the Farmers Market, the Fitness Fun Run, ruby red strawberries with white whipped cream for Canada Day … each of these cultural events centres around this ordinary little berry.

While other areas boast orchards, rodeos, a port or a mine, strawberry shaped signs once drew visitors in to local celebrations.Times change.

Young people stopped coming to work and the large fields of U-Pick strawberries have been cleared way.But each backyard gardener still awaits that savoured in slow-motion, delicious first bite of a juicy, sun-ripened, sweet and tangy strawberry.

No calendar is necessary to tell the time.The sky tells the time. A hot, harshly blue sky signals fire season. First frost forms when the autumn constellations spin thorough the night. The clear sky of winter darkness is pierced with brightly bold stars.