Part of our Past - Brewster Cannery

Thomas Earle, owner of the Clayoquot general store at the time (1893) opened up a saltery where fish would be salted in barrels, and  the first cannery in the Clayoquot Sound, at Kennfalls Creek, Cannery Bay (Ookmen), in 1895.

 

 

Brewster's Cannery ca. 1920s, courtesy of Ken Gibson Collection. 

 

He had experience from working at the Alert Bay Canning Company, and in 1893 he also engaged in the local fishing and hunting economy by forming Tofino Fishing and Trading Co. Ltd. with Norwegian Alfred Magnesen. He got to know the sealers and fishermen and quickly employed many European settlers. Magnesen recruited Norwegian fishermen who had previously worked at on the Fraser River and many Nuu-chah-nulth fishermen as well. They didn’t have to travel far to catch the salmon, as Cannery Bay was next to the Kennedy River; abundant during the salmon run. Chinese workers, many of whom had been part of the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (completed in 1885) cleaned and diced the fish. Nuu-chah-nulth women were usually employed in packing the salmon into tins. At a time when the sealing industry was dwindling, the canneries employed increasing numbers of Clayoquot Sound residents.

Most workers and their families stayed at the Cannery, if not at Ookmen, a Tla-o-qui-aht summer village. Sometimes dances were held in the net loft of the cannery, and occasionally the cannery hosted friends of workers, steamship passengers, and even honeymooners. The cannery was connected to surrounding mining camps by a telegraph line as early as 1902. The line was serviced by Garrard. Many of the Chinese employees prospected for gold and other valuable ores in their spare time.

SS Willapa at Cannery Bay ca. 1920s, Courtesy of Ken Gibson Collection. 

The cannery was serviced by the steamships Willipa and Tees which transported food and supplies to the workers, exporting cans of salmon. Most of the cans went to Britain where it was cheaper than beef. In 1897 $3 million worth of salmon was shipped to Britain.

The cannery tried to expand capacity by placing an independent commercial fish trap at Ginnard Creek, Meares Island (which is now an additional reservoir providing Tofino with fresh water through a sub marine pipeline). Some fishermen used dugout canoes, some used seine netters.

MV Kennfalls, 1929, courtesy of Ken Gibson Collection.

Harold Monks and friend aboard the Annie H., 1921, Courtesy of Monks Family Collection. 

In 1925, with a mysterious influx of pilchard (also referred to as sardines) encouraged canneries to experiment with processing the oily fish. At the time there were also canneries at Nootka (est. 1896), Ahousaht (1897), Uchuklesit (1903), and Quatsino (1911). By 1927 26 canneries along the west coast of Vancouver Island were processing pilchard. The fish proved to be more desirable for their oil than for their taste.

In 1901 Earle had sold the Clayoquot Cannery to Harlan Brewster who hailed from New Brunswick, but had worked on the Willapa as a purser. In 1899 he also worked as store manager and postmaster at the Clayoquot settlement on Stubbs Island. Harlan’s family was involved with the business as well and eventually his youngest daughter, Nan, owned and ran the Kennfalls operation.

Brewster, Townsend, and Brewster, courtesy of Monks Family Collection. 

Harlan is also known for being British Columbia’s first liberal premier in 1916. He was simultaneously involved with running the cannery until his death in 1918. He left behind his wife Annie, two daughters Nan and Marjorie, though his son Raymond had died while in a training camp in England, 15 months after enlisting in the army in 1916.

The cannery was a main component of fishing industry. In the 1920s, while Nikkei men (Canadians of Japanese descent) trolled for salmon, Nikkei women worked in the canneries. In the 1930s and 1940s the seine fleet would become even more active.

Sources                                                                                                                                      Abrahm, Dorothy. Lone Cone: Life on the West Coast of Vancouver Island.                                      Enno Tamm, Eric. Beyond the Outer Shores: The untold story of Ed Ricketts, the pioneering ecologist who inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell.                                                          Vancouver, BC: Raincoast Books, 2004.                                                                                    Horsfield, Margaret and Ian Kennedy. Tofino and Clayoquot Sound: A History. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2014.