Long shot of a field with drying tobacco leaves
Tobacco drying in a field in Vernon in the 1920s.

A promising industry

Between the 1890s and 1930s, Kelowna had a flourishing tobacco industry, evidenced in the numerous tobacco barns still present on the city’s outskirts. What is less well-known, however, is that Vernon also once had its own, much-smaller tobacco industry.

The beginning of the commercial tobacco industry in the Okanagan Valley is often attributed to Louis Holman, who arrived in 1893 and later managed the Kelowna Tobacco Co. However, Holman’s understanding of tobacco cultivation stemmed from observing the techniques of the Syilx People of the Okanagan.

Wild tobacco and syilx culture

Smańxʷ, or wild tobacco, is a culturally-important plant for the Syilx People, who cultivated it for generations prior to the arrival of settlers. The plants were grown along creeks and in other moist locations, and the leaves were harvested in the fall and left in the sun to dry for smoking and ceremonial purposes.

While the commercial tobacco industry in Kelowna had started flourishing as early as 1905, the serious cultivation of the plant by non-Indigenous individuals in Vernon didn’t begin until the 1920s. On August 16, 1927, Vernon residents were intrigued to witness trucks loaded with harvested tobacco passing through the city streets. A tobacco field in the BX area was undergoing harvesting, and the crops were being transported to a warehouse on 30th Avenue for drying. Around 30 acres of tobacco had been planted on properties surrounding Vernon.

The dream dwindles

In September of that same year, tobacco sourced from Vernon made its way to the Provincial Exhibition in New Westminster, where it was said to have garnered significant interest. Following this, the plants were exhibited in various stores in Vancouver and New Westminster. At this juncture, the future of Vernon’s tobacco industry seemed promising.

However, in 1928, growers in Vernon started to voice concerns over the lack of demand for their produce. Whereas the previous year saw the purchase of the Vernon crop by B.C. Tobacco Products Co. Ltd., situated in Vancouver, the current year witnessed a decline in demand. This issue of supply and demand was pervasive across Canada.

This, combined with the onset of the Great Depression and research findings out of Summerland that suggested that the Valley might not actually be well-suited for the cultivation of the plant, contributed to the decline of the tobacco industry in Vernon. Shortly thereafter, Kelowna’s tobacco industry also faltered.

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts!

Gwyneth Evans, Archives Manager