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The History of Agriculture in Surrey

by Roger Bose


This is an edited version of an oral presentation presented by Roger Bose. The Bose Family has been farming in Surrey for five generations. Roger was an active farmer on the family farm. See The Bose Family Farm.


Surrey is bounded by the Fraser River to the north, the U.S border (49th parallel) and Semiahmoo Bay to the south. To the east is the City of Langley, and the Township of Langley, while its northern neighbour is the City of New Westminster and the westerly neighbour is the District of Delta. The City of Surrey consists of an area roughly 10 miles by 10 miles, (100 sq. miles), and contains approximately 89,018 acres.


Surrey's contours consist of low hills, and uplands, separated by three rivers: the Serpentine, Nicomekl, and Campbell Valleys. See Surrey's Virgin Landscape All of the rivers are tidal, and in the beginning, flooding was common, in all but the uplands. The uplands consist of various types of clays, silts, sand and gravel, left behind from glacial-marine deposits, following the last ice age. The lowlands consist of peat, with clay. It is well worth noting that there are two types of peat, Sphagnum Peat Moss, which is a growing component of the ecosystem, and Black Peat, also sometimes referred to as Muck Soil. Black peat is a type of soil laid down by thousands of years of decaying vegetation. Black Peat is very productive and is essential in the growth of agricultural products in Surrey. Soil mapping was done, in the 1950's, by the University of British Columbia. Some soils found in the Serpentine, and Nicomekl valleys, are unique to this area, and had not seen before by soils engineers. They are sometimes referred to as Soup, and Muck. Other names for this soil cannot be mentioned in public.


Forests of fir, cedar, and hemlock covered the highlands, as well as the river valleys. See Virgin Forests in Surrey Fallen timber would sometimes rot down, and become part of the (peat) soil structure. This natural process could be delayed for hundreds of years, as the logs were covered with other vegetation, or water, and never exposed to oxygen, which would have naturally broken them down. There were many bogy areas in both uplands, and as the lowlands increased in size by beavers that dammed many streams. One of those beaver dams still existed until 1926, causing a detour on Scott Road until explosives were used to destroy it.


The livelihood of the early settlers comprised of fishing, trapping, and the growing of food. Timber was sometimes given to the logging companies in exchange for clearing the land. Some pioneer farmers supplemented their income my working for the logging companies. Set nets were placed across the rivers, and farmers had a license to fish by the Government of British Columbia. Thus began the Agricultural Industry, as we know it today.


Early clearing of land for agriculture often involved burning of good timber, as well as stumps. A burning tree might be left to smolder until it finally came down. You would be lucky to clear one acre per year. Peat fires were common in the lowlands. Smoke from those peat fires was so dense, that one could scarcely see across the valley lowlands. This also contributed to heavy fogs. Some of those fires would smolder through a good winter flood, only to flare up in the spring, when the water receded, and much needed oxygen was once again available. Many fallen trees lay under the peat soil, only to surface many years later. This made land clearing difficult. Most farmers raised pigs for clearing land. Small pig houses were built on skids, and moved from one small area to another to aid in clearing land.


In the fall of 1824, Hudson's Bay Company men explored the lower mainland, in order to establish a trading post. See McMillan Expedition This, in time, also involved the establishment of a farm and the Company farmed extensive acreage at Milner along the Salmon River. They raised grain and exported it to the Russian fur post in what is now Alaska. The Company also grew potatoes, grain and fruit to supply their interior trading posts. They also operated flour and feed mills in the area. Some early settlers sold gains and produce to the Hudson's Bay Company.


When Fort Langley was established in 1827, European explorers, traders, trappers, missionaries, as well as First Nations People, extensively traveled the Fraser, Nicomekl, and Salmon Rivers. The discovery of gold, in 1856, on the Fraser River Canyon made some form of Colonial Government necessary, rather than the casual control exercised by the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1858, in order to keep control of thousands of Americans, the pacific section of the British North West Territory was proclaimed the Colony of British Columbia, and the Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay Co., James Douglas became the Governor of both Vancouver Island, and the mainland Colony of British Columbia.


A contingent of the Royal Engineers had been sent out by the British Colonial Office in 1858, to help keep order, and to survey the area. The Americans were openly grazing their cattle on land as far north as Kamloops. Surrey saw no exception to this practice. Even after the establishment of the crown Colony of British Columbia in 1858, this practice still continued. With the coming of the Royal Engineers, improvements and development began to happen. On July 25th, 1859, a contract was entered into with the land commissioner to survey large tracts of land into blocks. SeeCoast Meridian RoadorStreet Numbering and Address Location Each block was to be six miles square and divided into thirty six sections each one containing 640 acres. These sections, in turn were divided into quarter sections each one containing 160 acres. These quarter sections were offered up for sale for Two Dollars and Fifty Cents per acre. Sales were so slow, that the Colonial Government dropped the price to One dollar Twenty Five Cents per acre. The Americans were offering free land grants. The Colonial Government wanted a strong British presence in the territory and facing such competition from the Americans the land was offered free by the Crown Colony.


On January 4th, 1860, before the land survey was finished, Governor Douglas issued a proclamation giving each British Subject the right to enter on, and preempt any quantity of land not to exceed 160 acres, by planting a post at one corner, and giving a description to the Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works. The preemption rate was one dollar per acre that insured, if the land were improved, clear title. In the autumn of 1863, when the Royal Engineers were discharged from their duties, many engineers (Sappers) stayed behind to start a new life and take up the offer of free land grants.


The First Nations' People were traditional trappers, hunters and gatherers and did not take a fancy to the idea of settling down in an agricultural setting. Their seasonal rounds of preferred gathering sites, fishing locations, and wintering locations did not fit the pattern of a fixed land location.


In the early years, settlers eked out a living at whatever means they could. Subsistence farming made use of the yet to be cleared land, with the growing of fruits and vegetables for home consumption. Any excess produce that could be sold brought in a welcome income. It must be understood that markets were not established in those early years. As a result many settlers were unable to pay for their preemption's, and just abandoned their acreage. One of the first settlers to establish some sort of market for farm produce was James Houston who had returned from the gold rush. He transported produce from his homestead at Derby on the Fraser River, by canoe, to New Westminster. Early markets for farm produce were in New Westminster, and Victoria.


Transport was by oxen team, or horse. This developed in a need for animal feed. Bartering was a well recognized form of trade. Many a deal was made when a farmer was hard up, and the buyer knew how to barter. Livery stables thrived, and this was also one of the livelihoods of the early pioneers. During the years of the gold rush, trading, as well as boarding of horses was a well respected business. This tradition carried on into the growth of agriculture in Surrey. The gold rush saw the need to a fresh supply of horses. Some farmers took advantage of this, and took up the challenge of raising horses.


The Fraser River Gold Rush, and the bonanza at Barkerville, was not kind to all takers. Many a miner, returned from the gold fields, broke, and without a place to settle. The easy diggings were largely worked out by 1864 and the offer of free land seemed a sure bet for many a disgruntled would-be miner.


It was in 1860, shortly after James Douglas' Proclamation establishing the Colony of British Columbia, that a resident of New Westminster, James Kennedy, preempted land near the present boundary between Surrey and Delta. Mr. Kennedy made a small clearing, built a cabin, and planted a garden, and some fruit trees. He built a trail from the Fraser River to Mud Bay. Kennedy had American cattle men drive cattle along the Kennedy Trail in order to relieve the beef shortage in New Westminster as well as provide supplies for the gold rush. See Pre-settlement Trails


Many boats used the Fraser River to New Westminster, except when the river was frozen over for months on end Early settlers around 1860 were Samuel Handy and Hugh McDougall. Ebenezer Brown, a liquor merchant in New Westminster, preempted land on what was the Kwantlen summer camp at Kikait at what became Brownsville. This was the first site of the K de K ferry. Ebenezer built a hotel at this site. SeeKwantlen of the Coast Salish or Brownsville


In 1866, James Johnston, with his two sons, William, and Isaac, preempted 960 acres along what is now 152 St. north of Sullivan. See Johnston Family Captain H.R. Morgan, a veteran of the Crimean war, settled in an area now known as Colebrook. Early settlers lived a subsistence life, clearing land, and selling furs, as well as some timber to fuel the stern wheelers that plied the Fraser, Serpentine, and Nicomekl rivers. See Water Transportation 1870-1910


Roads were few, and early settlers used the rivers for transporting goods to market. Early settlers would work a piece of land, and then when money ran out, just move on to find work elsewhere. If they returned, they might find another settler working their land. There were problems with lowland flooding, as well as heavy forest, hardhack, and scrub brush. Timber was plentiful, so had little value. Farmers could get very little revenue from timber sales on their own property. Initially logging companies would come in and do the logging, and pay the farmers for work done, but with minimal compensation for the timber. In later years the companies would buy the whole timber block for $500. For the pioneer farmer this was a good way of clearing the land for agricultural production. This was all first growth timber, which would fetch a very high price today. Lumbering began in a large scale around 1870, and lasted until the 1930s.


Pigs were fenced into an enclosed area of bush, to help with the clearing of stumps. Many trees and stumps were burned, but the resulting fires would get into the peat soils which acted as a good fuel. Blasting of stumps came many years later, and the sale of dynamite (stumping powder) was handled by the Surrey Farmers' Institute, which had been formed in 1907. Many farmers became very skilled at blasting, and some used this skill as a means of supplementing their farm income. Years later, as Surrey began to expand as a producer of mink pelts, blasting was prohibited during whelping season. Farm produce was mainly grown for private consumption, with some local trading with other early pioneers and sales to logging camps.


William, and Thomas Shannon, had settled in Chilliwack. When the floods wiped them out in Chilliwack in 1871, they bought a large tract of land south east of Surrey Centre, and called the area Clover Valley. William moved to Vancouver, and Thomas (Joe) stayed in Clover Valley until the mid nineties. Tom Shannon married Mary Robertson, a daughter of one of the Hudson's Bay Officials, a lovely indigenous girl. Tom and Mary had five children; Samuel, Mary Jane, George, Thomas, and Jack. Tom delivered the Letters Patent to the Legislature applying for Incorporation of Surrey as a District Municipality in 1879. Tom was the first Warden of the newly incorporated Surrey.


By the 1870s a market was developing in New Westminster, but only those goods that could be kept for a full week at a time were marketed. Fresh milk was separated, butter was churned for sale, and skim milk was fed to the pigs or chickens. Pork, beef, chicken, eggs, and butter along with fresh vegetables, were delivered to the market. Those vegetables that were not sold that week were brought home, and may have been fed to their livestock. This brought about some form of diversification, with settlers raising cattle, pigs, and chickens.


George Boothroyd and his brother William, followed the gold rush to the Caribou in 1861, but instead of going all the way, they stopped off at Boston Bar, and opened a roadhouse. In 1873, George sold his interest in the roadhouse, and started farming at Surrey Centre. See Surrey Centre Much of their produce was shipped to Boston Bar, as well as to Barkerville.


In 1887, a lawyer advised Surrey Council that they did not have the authority to assess 8 cents per acre on wild lands, so the tax was struck off the books.


Henry Bose arrived from London, England in 1890. His first job was assisting on building the dam on the Serpentine at Mud Bay. He later worked on construction of the Great Northern Railroad through Cloverdale, and Port Kells. His first property was at Fry's Corner, but it was flooded most of the year, so he moved to higher ground. He settled on a piece of property at Surrey Centre, in 1890. His ability as a farmer was well founded, but he worked in Public Service for many years. He was on the early School Board, served as Municipal Councilor, Reeve, as well as Magistrate. He was instrumental in starting the Surrey Farmer's Institute, and the Surrey Co-Operative Association. He spearheaded the bringing of the B.C. Electric Railroad through Cloverdale.


Chris Brown had farmed in the Delta for some years, before moving to Surrey. He started farming hops, chicory, and potatoes.


Mrs. Hornby invented her own version of dehydrated potatoes, and onions, and shipped them to the Klondike gold rush. Mr. Hornby advertised a School of Farming in English papers. The tradition of Hunting with Hounds was taught at the Hornby Farm. A number of young Englishmen came to study the Canadian Way Of Farming. William Molyneux was one of Mr. Hornby's students.


At the turn of the century, farmers were still hauling their grain to mills in Langley, and New Westminster.


Farm production had increased considerably, both in quality, quantity, and variety. Dairy products, chickens, turkeys, vegetables, fruits, oats, and hay found markets in the lumber camps,as well as in the cities of Victoria, New Westminster, and Vancouver. Around 1886, the population of Vancouver was 8,000. The Brackman Kerr Grain and Feed Milling Co. was shipping farm produce to the Klondike Gold Rush. Goods were shipped by stern Wheeler Boats or barge down the Serpentine, and Nicomekl rivers. Boats would be able to go up the Nicomekl as far as Halls Prairie Road. Lift spans were used, or bridges were built high, so that the boats could pass underneath.


Many farmers built storage barns, granaries, and wharfs near the river, for easy loading onto the freight boats. Settlers along the reaches of both the Serpentine, and Nicomekl rivers, began building dykes along their individual farms in order to bring their rich lowlands under cultivation. See Dicing Jurisdictions Since the tidal nature of the rivers caused frequent flooding, they fought the ocean with spades. Some farmers raised a considerable amount of money, and asked the Minister of Marine, to build floodgates. Trouble began the following year, when a severe storm washed out a good part of the initial Serpentine dam and floodgates. It was in 1912, when new and stronger dams were built a mile further up the Nicomekl and Serpentine, near where the Semiahmoo Road crossed the rivers.


A Dyking District was formed under the Drainage, Dyking and Irrigation Act. This consisted of Lot 51, comprising 1,500 acres. Young 22-year-old Henry Bose got a job, working on the construction of those dams. He along with three or four other early settlers had to have authority over the land that the dams were to be located on. The Government would not grant any funding unless someone had proof of ownership of the land. Frederick Coulthard, Henry Bose, Joseph Thomas Brown, and Thomas Joseph Brown, were appointed concessionaires. The Dyking District's application appeared in the BC Gazette on Feb. 2, 1911. Henry Bose, Bick B Smith, and Thomas J. Sullivan were named to the first commission established in 1911. The District so formed had the control dams completed by April 23, 1913. Contracts had been let for the construction of these permanent dams. The dams put an end to the use of the local rivers for freight.


A bid was accepted from M.P. Cotton Co. for the two dam structures, for $85,900. The supply of the gates for the dams was contracted to Seattle Construction & Drydock Company, for $2,400.84. The commission had determined that a Dyking tax of 75 cents per acre for Class A lands, and 19 cents per acre for class B lands. Surrey suffered three major Fraser River floods; 1894, 1935, and 1948.


Surrey began to develop its own character in agriculture, and growth was slow, but steady until the depression at the turn of the century. Farmers helped farmers with the harvest, as well as construction of much needed storage sheds and barns.


The little steam ferry, the K de K, which had room for foot passengers, and 4 or 5 teams of horses, was replaced by the larger vessel, "The Surrey". "The Surrey" in turn was replaced with the New Westminster Rail Bridge and upper vehicle deck in 1904. The completion of the rail bridge resulted in a boom of railway construction. Each improvement in transportation brought better access to markets on the north bank of the Fraser. See Crossing the Fraser River or Great Northern Sea Line Route


As markets developed in Vancouver, farmers would bring their milk and other produce to the local BCE Railroad station for delivery to Vancouver. As farms grew in size, the milk truck became the main means of transportation for fresh milk. The strength and lull cycles in agriculture growth are historical. The gradual, yet sometimes rapid growth of agriculture had brought new challenges and opportunities. Surrey contains some large farms with second, and third generation operators. The main production over the years has been dairy, poultry, and vegetable farms. Some greenhouses are operating successfully. Some enterprising farmer tried his hand at raising silver fox on a commercial basis for the fur market. When the price of fox pelts dropped, the animals were just turned loose wild. This became a real problem, as there were a lot of free range poultry farms, both large small, in the area. Many a farmer lay in waiting by the hen house door with a gun. Some of these nuisance animals shot, or trapped. Conservation officers were hired by the Provincial Government to eradicate these animals. It took them about thirty years to rid the area of the invasive species.


As farmers struggled to make a living on the land, they joined together to help one another. A group of farmers ordered a boxcar of grain to be spotted on the railroad tracks at Cloverdale. This shared endeavor was the beginning of the Surrey Co-Operative Association. The association had its humble beginning in 1921, and grew into the largest consumer co-operative association in western Canada. In its heyday, the co-op operated branches in Ladner, Cloverdale, and Abbotsford. It later moved its headquarters to Abbotsford before ceasing operation.


The Great Depression of the 1930s saw many urban dwellers return to the land for survival. Farmers were frustrated with decline of a steady market. Small farm holdings sprung up in undeveloped parts of Surrey, where operators would have a few pigs, chickens, as well as growing vegetables, or strawberries. Many road side stands displayed such farm produce. The Japanese had established many small strawberry farms. These small farms were mostly abandoned, when the owners were put into internment camps during the Second World War. Many of those farmers never returned to farming again.


Vegetable gardening, or Truck Gardening, expanded into the Kensington region of South Surrey. This was due in part to the nature of the Peat Soil, but in a greater part, also to the abundance of clean fresh water from Anderson Creek. Matt Kennedy operated a large vegetable farm in Kensington Prairie. Water for irrigation was piped in from Anderson Creek, by way of wood stave pipe, which was being pulled up and acquired from the City of Vancouver in the early 1940's. This wood stave piping system served one farmer in the Kensington Prairie area for many years. The depression years saw many a farmer forced to earning a living off the farm, in order to keep the farm operation going. In the interior of B.C., there was open grazing, but here, in Surrey, many a hard up farmer would drive his cows down the road to eat the luscious Canary Grass growing on the side of the road. Some school children were kept out of school to stand watch over these grazing cattle, while the parents were working the farm.


The lean years also saw the establishment of some very large farms. The Kelly Farm, owned by Robert Kelly of Kelly Douglas Co. farmed 600 acres in Colebrook. The Trites farms, owned by H. Trites, a mining developer, owned several farms, a total of about 1,000 acres. The war years saw frustration, as farms grew to meet the demand in food consumption but faced a shortage of trained workers. Many children had to help out with the farm chores.


Some equipment orders placed in 1939 were finally filled with delivery at the end of the war. Many an old car was revamped into a makeshift tractor. Chains were put on the wheels, even in the summer time, for traction. The shortage of equipment saw many a worn out machine being patched together with baling wire. The soldier's settlement movement spearheaded the establishment of many small chicken and vegetable farms. See The Adamson Farm Farmers supporting each other, helped to establish the Colebrook Potato Growers' Association. Surrey farmers shipped certified seed potatoes throughout Western Canada, and the United States. Purebred dairy cattle were shipped to China, Mexico, and Cuba. With the changes taking place in world trade, the current shift has gone back to diversification, and direct farm marketing.


Some farmers are becoming certified as Organic Growers. Though not designed for large scale operations, Organic Gardening will affect the way a lot of farmers look at their production practices. Coupled with the very strong population growth in the Lower Mainland, Surrey farmers are again looking at enhancing this direct farm market. Consumer demand will dictate the way chemical fertilizers and pesticides will be used in the future. Computer technology has enhanced production methods, and will play a large part in the way Surrey Agriculture survives and prospers in the future.

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