preserve the goods  

March 19, 2020

They are usually something we relegate to the back of our pantries, but at the moment they are a hot commodity, valued almost as highly as toilet paper and Lysol wipes; we are, of course, talking about canned goods. The COVID-19 pandemic has many of us stocking up on (but hopefully not panic buying) cans of beans, fruits, vegetables, and fish. But long before this current non-perishable craze, Vernon was an epicenter of canning and dehydrating, thanks to Bulmans Limited. 

Bulmans Limited was a cannery that dominated the Vernon landscape for more than fifty years. The cannery’s origins can be traced back to 1916, when Thomas Bulman and his son Ralph formed a partnership to run the Cloverdale Ranch near Kelowna. After a bumper apple crop, the Bulmans decide to install a dehydrator on the proper ty to reduce food waste. These dried apples became an overnight success, and by 1926, the company had outgrown their single dehydrator. They decided to move away from the ranch, and instead focus solely on meeting the growing demand for dehydrated foods. A site was purchase in Vernon, and the Bulman plant opened at 2809 37th Avenue (next to where the Civic Arena once stood).



The bean processing line at Bulman’s Limited in 1943


As the Vernon News of February 17, 1927, noted, the dehydrating of apples was a fantastic venture, as it diverted up to 2 tons of imperfect fruit that would usually have been wasted; in fact, the operation was careful to use every part of the apple—the flesh was dehydrated, the skins used for juicing, the cores used in vinegar-making, the pectin used for jam, and the residue used to make strawberry root weevil bait. The article made special note that the dehydrated apples were cut into quarters to differentiate them from the “cheap indifferent evaporated” apples that were cut in rings. It was these careful considerations that allowed Bulmans to be considered the era’s most modern dehydrating plant in North American.

Only two years into the plant’s operation, tragedy struck in the form of a fire that destroyed the entire dehydrator and saw 100 people suddenly unemployed. The fire blazed for two hours, and when firemen were finally able to put it out, all that remained of the building, machinery, and 60% of Canada’s stock of dried apples, was ash. Unfortunately, insurance only covered about half of the financial loss. Vernon was quick to rally behind the Bulman family and their employees, and worked with the City to provide a loan of $25,000 so that the operation could begin again without delay. Reconstruction of the plant started in 1929, during which apples continued to be dehydrated in a temporary workshop across the street. A cannery was also added to the operation at this time.

Bulmans Limited recovered greatly in the next few years, and by 1932, employed 200 individuals. During the Great Depression, the company turned to canning and dehydrating fruits and vegetables, everything from asparagus, to beans, beets, cabbage, onions, pumpkin, spinach, tomatoes, black currants, greengage and imperial plums, and, of course, apples. During World War Two, Bulmans dehydrated vegetables 24 hours a day for the British Food Mission, since dried food was significantly lighter to transport but retained the same nutrients. In 1943, Bulmans was recognized as Canada’s greatest producer of dehydrated vegetables. 

In 1944, a bumper growing season saw the plant hire extra employees to help process 100 tons of cabbage each day to send overseas. One of the employee’s husband, who was deployed in Italy, stated that “Bulmans cabbage is sure swell; but we wouldn’t mind if the machinery broke down for we see nothing else.”

Bulmans Limited would continue to operate in Vernon until the 1960s, when the demand for dried vegetables began to decrease. The plant continued to process tomatoes, but were quickly outcompeted by operations in California. The plant and land was sold in 1978, only to burn down completely a few years later in 1980.

The Vernon Museum’s collection contains a large number of small cans of Bulman’s dried vegetables, with their distinctive blue and white labels—from onions, to turnips, to cabbage—a testament to Vernon’s appreciation for this former operation.

Gwyn Evans