Agriculture

10. A Black Market in the Similkameen

Let’s backtrack a bit, to see what might have brought a man to try to change orcharding culture in the Similkameen Valley, and in the process anger half the people and become a hero to others.

United Fruitgrowers Display Poster Showing Hans Rhenisch, Fruit Industry Politician, c. 1992

Therein lies a tale or two.

Here’s the story as told in my book A Recipe for Perry, with a few annotations.

A few copies are still available. Just saying.

To stave off starvation when he was a boy during the Second World War, my father went out into the fields past the concentration camp on the Rhine Plain, and picked pears, covered in wasps, that had fallen from the Streuobstanbau trees growing between the bunkers of the Siegfried Line. Such trespass was strictly forbidden. The camp was an outstation of the Natzweiller-Struthof concentration camp in the Vosges Mountains, across the Rhine. Captured members of the French Resistance were sent there to mill wood from the Black Forest. My grandmother was the doctor— both for the prisoners inside the wire and the one she had rescued to cook for her children and to tuck them into bed at night, and for the shot-up, escaped one hidden in her basement. When my father walked back home, his hands sticky with juice and his stomach swollen with pears, he’d tease the guard dogs by throwing rocks at them. They’d race up to the wire and bark and snap and snarl and howl.

from A Recipe for Perry

Here, have a look.

It would have been a pear tree just like this. This is on the Rhine Plain just east of the Siegfried Line.

I made this image in 2012. The tree is in worse shape now. The towns have become bedroom communities for East German automobile workers with no ties to these old trees. Dispossession can happen anywhere, not just in the Similkameen, and for many reasons.


After the Second World War, my father grew pears on an experimental farm in Switzerland, where he learned to dwarf pear trees by grafting them onto quinces.

One of my father’s experimental hedges left to decay.

Time is not the friend of farmers in the modern age. Just saying.

For the two years that he studied there, he lived in the German casino city of Konstanz. Every morning and evening, he cycled through the Swiss part of town, Kreuzlingen, on his way to and from the farm. Foot traffic passed casually down every street, and border guards passed, almost as casually, among the shoppers, asking for a passport here, staring a few people in the face there. When my father stepped across in the mornings, a skinny young guy on a bicycle, they’d ask him if he had anything to declare.

            “Just 500 Marks,” he’d say, and laugh.

            They’d laugh, too, at the joke, and wave him on.

Every day, he smuggled five hundred marks into Switzerland this way, and smuggled Swiss Francs back in their place, which he sold on the black market for a profit that paid for his family’s groceries — again on the black market. He kept the game up for two years, then he came to Canada to grow pears.

Sometimes Robbi and his cart helped the smuggling along, too.

That’s Hans on the left and Robbi in the traces with the lace cap. They were best friends.

My childhood was spent pruning, thinning, weeding, watering, and picking pears in an orchard planted for his retirement by a Canadian Army major in the Similkameen Valley. With true military precision, in 1952 Major Kavanaugh had planted the orchard around the house by surveying each tree in its place. In the history of Canadian agriculture it must have been the only orchard set up in a mathematically-perfect grid, with no tree out of line even a quarter inch, in any direction, on any angle. You could have used it as an artillery training range, or as a star map.

Some of the Flemish Beauties Major Kavanaugh Planted, seventy year later.

Perhaps he was homesick for the battlefields and farms of Flanders.

Although he seems to have been looking for peace, Kavanaugh was no farmer. By 1956, when foreign affairs minister Lester B. Pearson transformed the Canadian Army into an international peacekeeping force, the weeds had already grown eight feet tall; by 1962, Kavanaugh was easily lured back to a transformed army and sold the farm  — on more than accommodating terms — to a German, my father. According to the rules, it was the first possible date that he was allowed to sell the land. It looks very much like it was his very own Suez Treaty; my father may have been a former enemy, but he looked like he could keep the dream alive. It was a gift as well; in true black market fashion, the sale cost my father effectually nothing.

Hans in 1956, Penticton

Six years later, Kavanaugh agreed to pay him a wage for the first year, and then sell him the farm, deducting his wages and any improvements to the farm from the purchase price. After four years, Hans had a replanted orchard, at no cost, and his four years of wages came off the purchase price, leaving nothing at all. I’m convinced that both men were agreeable to this, especially when you consider that Kavanaugh was only in it for $3600, which he would have had to repay if Hans hadn’t bought the land, but, like so many things, we will never really know.

Sure enough, the dream did remain; every September, both before and after the sale, the last of the overripe Bartlett pears on those trees were hollowed out by wasps. Their perfume rose up to the stars.

Black Market Skills Paid for All This. Kavanaugh even paid for the lease on that car.

That’s me on my knees with my pup Mr. Skipper in early 1964. This was the year after the land had taken over my care and was raising me. The image of the pears above, and my deep connection from this valley, come from that time. But, to tell the truth, my dog Skip was a great help, too.

I’m telling you all this for a couple reasons. One is that it is good behaviour in plateau cultures to introduce yourself, which is, more specifically, to introduce your family. Then you can be placed within a story — an ancestral story. Just to keep you in the loop, here’s my father’s Stepfather Matthias.

Dorothy and Hans Rhenisch and Matthias Hartlief (r)

Matthias was my father’s teacher in the Black Market from 1943 to 1946. This is during a visit in 1986. This kind of economics was the only kind my father understood. It’s also the thing that saved 8 children from starvation in very, very hard times. Matthias was a difficult and sometimes nasty man, but he achieved that much.

My father doesn’t grow pears any more. Neither do I. My daughters won’t even own land, which is the one thing my father came to this country for. The pears hang on the few remaining trees, though, and glow.

Spurned… and Loved

Beurre d’Anjou pears after the pickers are gone. 2011. Okanagan Falls.

You pick them and feel their weight. The wasps crawl over them and suck their juice. They build moons among the branches. In the fall, the leaves of pear trees turn bright colours, red and orange, deep burgundy, pink, gold, lilac, even purple, twig by twig, even leaf by leaf, and when the kaleidoscope finally streams to the ground the last leaves remain green on the branch tips, the snow is low on the hills, and you turn up your wool collar and lower your head. Winter is upon you. You can feel life sleeping within the branches when you run your hands over them. A few yellow pears, caught in the branches, smell like the sun.


Christmas 1958, Similkameen

This is how far my memory goes. It’s not forever, but it’s pretty far. By the way, my father’s bad teeth came from the starvation years at the end of the war.

That’s me in Christmas red. One thing I want you to remember here is that we are looking at Germans, my father a new immigrant and my mother the daughter of immigrants who came in 1929. This is their first winter in the Similkameen, but don’t let appearances deceive you. My mother was of a generation who lived in poverty in the bush during the Depression, in a gift economy, in a province still speaking Chinook Wawa, the Hudson’s Bay Company trade language created by nu-chal-nuth traders and tsinuk and cayuse women (among others) with their mixed blood children at Fort Vancouver. She spoke English with a salish “sh” to her “s”s, as did her brother, and knew more of Indigenous culture and respect than almost anyone outside of Indigenous families. That is a British Columbia that is no more, but it was hers.

My Communist Grandfather Bruno Leipe above Cawston Creek in 1963, looking over Blind Creek and Keremeos in behind. Photo by Hugo Redivo

What is also significant here is not the innovation that my father brought from his training with dwarf trees in Germany and Switzerland, which the valley has benefited from for 60 years, but that he interrupted relationships with the land. He interrupted the Canadian plan to keep farms small, to direct economics to the new colonial centres in the East, and he interrupted earlier accommodations, reaching back into Paul Terbasket’s time, which saw smelqmix/Hudson’s Bay Company accommodations. He did it by insisting that farms should be efficient enough that a farmer didn’t have to work off the farm to pay his way. Ironically, in this valley of fervent individualists (like him), the Canadian Veteran’s Land Act plan was working as planned (and not). As for the Not Working, farms often scammed a packinghouse quota system to ensure that their fruit got the highest price. Old family relationships and networks helped. As for the Working, many men and women worked in the packing houses to keep their non-commercial, at times amateurish farms afloat. When this communist-inspired system reached such inefficiencies that it was bankrupting my father’s capitalist approach (and that of about 1500 other immigrants throughout the Okanagan region), he was instrumental in breaking it. Hence the superhero gig:

Remembering 1973

We will arrive back at this history later, once we have traced its foundations.

The image shows the 1973 cherry protest that Hans led and which created the independent packinghouse and shipping system we have today. The organic orchard industry is heir to this right wing immigrant revolt. Without it, the transformation would never have occurred. In the short term, however, Hans’s desperate anger broke positive parts of old smelqmix-settler accommodations, that place fruitgrowing into a seasonal round of hunting, cattle drives and rodeos. Even so, in the long term rebellion opened a door to a land sense that allowed for environmental relationships to be re-imagined, sometimes for the worse (industrialization of farms, the socially catastrophic growth of the wine industry as a new colonialism and the loss of family farms overall), and sometimes for the better (environmental stewardship, concern for workers’ welfare, and so on). That’s where we stand now, in the ruins of modernism, after the collapse of a colonial fruit industry, still with the challenges of our ethical relationship to the tmxʷulaxʷ before us. It is becoming clearer, though, to see land and tmxʷulaxʷ as places of social and environmental ethics more than places of claiming and development.

~

Tomorrow I̓ will explain why this history is called Okanagan Okanogan, and why I do not consider this a Canadian story. Tomorrow, we will leave all these farms …

Tahlabasket̓’s Land, altered

… and go to the nmɘlqaytkʷ …

nmɘlqaytkʷ

…to stay in the conversation.

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