As we near the end of another blossom season here in Niagara, our collective draw to the mesmerising colours and spring smells of the many blossoming fruit orchards dotting across our region is nothing new. Rather, Blossom Time in Niagara is part of a rich history of fruit farming and scenic tourism.
Earning the admirable reputation as the Garden of Canada by the mid-1800s, Niagara has long taken pride in the fertile lands and temperate climate beneath the Niagara Escarpment so ideal for growing fruit. By 1913, Niagara boasted “upwards of 14,600 acres of the world’s best fruit lands”, cultivating peaches, grapes, apples, plums, pears, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, gooseberries and more across the Peninsula. Orchards were bountiful and abundant, even the yards of family homes were known to have a fruit tree or two.
Not only did a multifaceted agricultural industry grow out of the Garden of Canada, but a whole culture and identity as well.
Niagara’s Fruit Industry
Tender fruits were grown in Niagara long before European settlement, Indigenous communities were known to enjoy the berries that flourished here. As United Empire Loyalists came to settle in Niagara in the 1780s and 1790s, they began to clear the land and farm. As settlement grew and expanded, so did the farmland to feed the growing communities of Niagara. One of the earliest commercial nurseries in the district was founded in 1830 by horticulturalist Dr. Chauncy Beadle. Located on a 100-acre site on Geneva Street near Russell Avenue, the St. Catharines Nursery cultivated and sold a wide variety of fruit trees to area farmers, including over 100 varieties of apples, 26 of peach, and 23 of cherry.
Locally here in St. Catharines, farmers could regularly sell their produce at the St. Catharines Market. With both railroad and shipping access, St. Catharines quickly rose to Niagara’s agricultural market centre, and Market Square became a popular destination for farmers and citizens alike. Imagine, for a moment, lines of wagons colourfully filled with vegetables and fruit, firewood and coal, meat and eggs on a dirt road. Imagine the noises and commotion of hundreds of vendors and patrons bartering for goods. Imagine the earthy smells of the hay and straw for sale, and sometimes the not-so-nice smells of the horses. This would be a typical scene of Market Square in the mid-1800s. Yet, some of what you are imagining is also reminiscent of the Market Square of today: the colours, the people, the energy. Just like in regular times today, Market Days were held on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The weekdays reserved for local vendors, while Saturday brought in farmers from all over Niagara to sell their produce – some coming from as far as 20 miles away. One report written at the turn-of-the-twentieth century counted 236 vendors at St. Catharines Market Square.
As the market for fruit expanded, so did the agricultural industries supporting fruit production. With easy access to rail and shipping lines, a number of industries that supported the storage and transportation of tender fruits operated in St. Catharines. These included canneries, basket factories, transportation services, and cold storage facilities. A 1900 report stated that over the previous decade, the fruit and vegetable canning industry alone had grown from one factory to six, “giving employment and support to hundreds of the population.” St. Catharines enterprises included Dominion Canners, Queensway Canning Company, Lincoln Canning Company, Garden City Canning Factory, Peninsula Canning Company, St. Catharines Cold Storage & Forwarding Company, and more.
Beyond the agricultural industry, by the 1920s, Niagara’s fruit orchards had also gained a reputation as an impressive tourist attraction. As more and more families began to embrace the concept of leisure, and automobiles became more accessible, the Garden of Canada became a scenic destination for day-trippers looking to get away from the bustle of the city on a spring day. The spring season in Niagara became colloquially known as “Blossom Time”, and by the 1930s, a number of blossom-inspired festivities were well-established throughout the month of May.
In 1937, the Niagara Peninsula Blossom Time Committee produced a promotional pamphlet and map highlighting the Blossom Time Route through Niagara. Largely following old Highway 8, at the base of the escarpment, from Hamilton to Niagara-in-the-Lake, the route was marked with ‘blossom time arrows’ to help guide both local and out-of-town tourists alike. Noting that peak blossom time in Queenston and Niagara-on-the-Lake was May 11 to 20 and Hamilton-to-Grimsby-to-St. Catharines area was a bit later from May 15 to May 24, the pamphlet spotlighted a number of landmarks and points-of-interest day-trippers could add to their itinerary along the way.
The following excerpt from the pamphlet paints a vivid picture of the Garden of Canada:
To the first-time visitors to the Niagara Peninsula during Blossom Time 1937, or even those who have visited the fruit belt on former occasions, attention might be directed to an incomparable natural phenomenon, which has made the Peninsula what is in the abundant production of the finest fruits of Canada. It will be noted that the Niagara Peninsula nestles between two lakes, thereby deriving a moderate and temperate climate. The expanse of water in Lake Ontario and Erie has a moderating effect. But Nature also in her beneficence established a magnificent windshield in the escarpment which begins with the elevation known as the Hamilton Mountain and ends where Brock’s Monument stands out on Queenston Heights. Below the escarpment, and favoured by it, are the bountiful orchards and vineyards of Canada. Nature in her handiwork has done well, and it did not take man long in the early part of the previous century to nurture himself on the blessings of Providence and to begin filling the fruit basket for the rest of Canada. In the 60s of the last century, King Edward, the Prince of Wales, on tour found the peaches of the Niagara Peninsula the most luscious he had had ever tasted. It is a far cry back to that day, when one reflects that the Veterans, Vedettes, Valiants, and Vimys are now picked weighing half a pound each.
… It is difficult to discriminate; the whole show from the city of Hamilton to the Historical Town of Stoney Creek, down through Grimsby, hailed as the prettiest summer town in Canada, to Beamsville, Vineland, Jordon, then on to St. Catharines, to Niagara Falls, thence through Queenston to Niagara-on-the-Lake via the lake shore to Port Dalhousie thence back to St. Catharines, is a revelation to everyone who has never seen it before. Distance lends enchantment, and if time can be spared, there is no view in America comparable to looking from the escarpment either above Grimsby or from Queenston Heights on the orchards and vineyards below. It is an unforgettable pattern.”
What imagery stands out to you most in this very colourful description of Niagara?
While tourists and day-trippers were encouraged to take the trip through the Garden of Canada on any day during the blossoming season, the most popular day was Blossom Sunday. Usually designated the second Sunday in May, the roads were packed and traffic incredibly slow as motorists took in the scenery from their cars. If families did not have access to an automobile, the streetcars would also take them along the way.
The Blossom Time Committee highlighted a wide array of points-of-interest motorists could enjoy during their drive. Featured advertisements include The Leonard Hotel, which offered “special menus at moderate prices for blossom week”; the Welland House, “most charming and comfortable hostelry in the Niagara Peninsula”; and Port Dalhousie, “the playground of Ontario.” Of particular note is the pamphlet’s emphasis on the new Welland Ship Canal, which would have officially opened about 5 years earlier. It reads:
The visitor should not overlook the great Welland Ship Canal. The map route will show him to the Twin Locks at Thorold or will take him past Port Weller. There is no more interesting sign of navigation than to witness the passage of the great Canadian freighter, the Lemoyne, the biggest grain carrier in the world, negotiate the locks of the ship canal.
It’s so fascinating to imagine tourists of the 1930s in just as much awe by a ship locking through the Welland Canal as visitors to our Museum are today.
Within the Blossom Time season, were also the Blossom Festivals held throughout Niagara, but particularly in Grimsby and Niagara Falls. By the late 1930s, the festivities included parades featuring floats celebrating Niagara’s fruit belt heritage, the crowing of the Blossom Queen, live bands and choirs, and even community theatre.
Protecting our Fruit Belt History
While Niagara is still widely considered the Fruit Belt, and St. Catharines, the Garden City, much has changed in the landscape of the peninsula. But all is not lost. You can still take a drive along old Highway 8 to take in the sights of this season’s blossoms. In fact, driving along the old Blossom Route is our connection to the history of Niagara as the Garden of Canada. Perhaps spending more time savouring the beauty of our region’s blossoms will galvanize us to further protect our unique climate and soil. Only through protection efforts can we ensure that future generations will enjoy the beauty and goodness of Niagara’s fruit orchards.
What are your connections to the story of Niagara’s Fruit Belt? Perhaps your family had a farm, or a family member worked on an orchard, or in a cannery or basket factory. Do you have memories taking scenic drives during Blossom Time? We would love to read your stories of Blossom Time in Niagara!
 The 1937 Blossom Time Route through Niagara Pamphlet can be found in the Grimsby Museum Collection. Check out their online exhibit “Grown in the Garden of Canada: A History of the Fruit Industry in Grimsby, Ontario”.