Bulmans Cannery – the dehydration industry in Vernon

Bulman’s staff c. 1936. Photo courtesy Vernon Museum and Archives

In 1927 Thomas Bulman of Bulman’s Limited spoke to the Vernon Rotary Club about a “dry story” – the development of the dehydration industry in Vernon.[i]  The Bulman Cannery dominated the Vernon landscape for fifty years.[ii] Bulman had started the firm in 1916 on a 4,000-acre ranch 16 kilometers north of Kelowna.[iii] The company had begun by dehydrating surplus apples, and when it outgrew the dehydrator in 1926, the operation was moved to Vernon. Two hundred people were employed at the peak of season in 1932, women as well as men. The company prospered during World War II with ever-increasing demands for canned and dried food.

Alice Stevens, a Vernon home economics teacher, joined the war effort as a home economist for Bulmans in 1942.[iv] At the time, almost every imaginable fruit and vegetable that could be grown in the Okanagan was being either canned or dried:   asparagus, beans, beets, cabbage, onions, pumpkin, spinach, tomatoes, black currants, greengage and imperial plums in addition to apples of course. The rumour in town was that you could tell what Bulmans was processing every day by the smell in the air. In October of 1942, the Bulman dehydrator began processing only vegetables for four solid months, twenty-four hours a day, for the British Food Mission. In 1943 Bulmans was recognized as Canadian’s greatest producer of dehydrated vegetables of all kinds.[v]

Alice Stevens was responsible for educational publicity and laboratory control at Bulmans, putting her university studies of chemistry and nutrition to use. She borrowed a statement from Claude Wickard, the American Secretary of Agriculture for a speech to the Vernon Rotary Club, telling club members, “Food will win the war and write the peace”.[vi] Conservation of all items that might be used in the war effort was emphasized; an advertisement credited to Stevens appeared in the Vernon News urging “patriotic housewives” to save tin by purchasing larger-sized tin cans. The ad stated that no cans would be allowed for foods low in nutrition and Stevens provided cooking tips: ”Next time you open a can of Bulmans Beans, save some of the beans to add to the supper salad. A white sauce added to the balance makes your creamed beans for dinner go further. There is no shortage of creamed sauce ingredients”.

A bumper crop of summer cabbages in 1944 resulted in the biggest dehydration project that Bulmans had undertaken. The plant employed 215 people to handle 100 tons of cabbage daily. The staff enjoyed a “double-barreled compliment” received from the husband of one of their employees deployed in Italy: “Bulmans cabbage is sure swell; but we wouldn’t mind if the machinery broke down for we see nothing else”[vii].

In 1945 Bulmans started a locker plant for frozen food, open to the general public and popular with hunters, at a time when home freezers were rare. In 1947 Libby, McNeil and Libby Ltd. started negotiating to buy the Vernon plant, and the locker plant was sold.[viii]  Over the next three decades, Bulmans tried to keep up with high-yield California products but limited water supply and high freight costs caused the eventual closure of the operations in 1976. In 1980 all of the buildings burned down.

Dried vegetables are uncommon these days, mostly used in soups, but seldom promoted for their nutritional value and excellent keeping qualities.  A colourful pamphlet, Bulmans Dehydrated Vegetables, was prepared by Alice Stevens and Phyllis Wardle in 1947. It  includes a number of recipes and slogans to promote dehydration of foods. It remains as a sign of how local foods used to sustain Vernon.

[i] See Vernon News, February 17, 1927, “Dehydrating provides another market for apples”, Vernon Museum and Archives, Bulman file.

[ii] Viel, H. (1979). Selling agents and fruit and vegetable houses of the North Okanagan 1890 – 1978. Okanagan Historical Society Journal, 43, 11-22.

[iii] See Vernon Museum and Archives, Bulman file.

[iv] De Zwart, M.L. & Peterat, L. (2016). Alice Stevens: Innovations in women’s work. British Columbia History Magazine, 49 (2), 33-37.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] See Vernon News, December 3, 1942, and also A. Bentley, Eating for victory: Food rationing and the politics of domesticity (University of Illinois Press, 1998), p. 142.

[vii] “Summer cabbages”, The Vernon News July 20, 1944, 1, 5.

[viii] According to the Vernon Museum and Archives file, Bulmans refused the Libby offer. The Bulman plant worked closely in product development with the Summerland Research station but the volume was too small and overhead too large for small operations.

9 Responses to Bulmans Cannery – the dehydration industry in Vernon

  1. Bill McDonald December 14, 2017 at 5:52 pm #

    I lived in Vernon for several years as a child and I can remember the aroma of tomatoes being canned —in the fall, I believe, in the late 1950s! It is one of my favourite recollections of Vernon along with cycling to Lake Kalamalka. I can’t believe there are no other posts here for Bulmans 🙁

    • Mary Leah de Zwart December 14, 2017 at 5:55 pm #

      Thanks for sharing your memory!

      • Bill McDonald December 14, 2017 at 5:59 pm #

        This was probably a robo response but I would like to think it is from someone who lived in Vernon during the same period….especially since many of my recollections are also from the same period at Christmas time.

        Cheers!

        • Mary Leah de Zwart December 14, 2017 at 7:28 pm #

          NO, I’m not a robot. I didn’t live in Vernon at that time, but my colleagues and I aim to restore some of BC’s food history on this site, and Bulmans is an important part of the Vernon food history. The Vernon and District Museum has some files on Bulmans but no one has written very much on it.

          • Bill December 15, 2017 at 5:02 am #

            Thanks for the note.

  2. Don McNair January 15, 2018 at 11:00 am #

    Hello Mary Leah – I am in the process of completing a booklet about rail in the Okanagan for Lake Country Museum, and your article has been most helpful. Food processors like Bulman’s (and Sun-Rype) used the railway to bring in supplies and ship out products, big time. The back cover of the Bulman’s recipe book even depicts the plant’s trackside loading platform, which is a great help, because the booklet relies so heavily on imagery. I take it that I should approach the Newman Collection at UFV for permission to republish?

    • Mary Leah de Zwart January 15, 2018 at 3:00 pm #

      Hello Don
      I do not know who owns copyright on the pamphlet. I scanned my own personal copy and I believe the Vernon Museum and Archives also has a copy. The date of the pamphlet is not stated, but Alice Stevens left Vernon in 1947 so it is before then. I suggest you begin with the Vernon Musem as they have the Bulman papers.
      Mary Leah

      • Don McNair January 15, 2018 at 3:08 pm #

        Hi Mary Leah – it won’t be a matter of copyright so much, Bulmans being defunct. Since you have written about Alice Stevens, I would say your collection is probably a more worthwhile source to cite – with your permission, of course.

        • Mary Leah de Zwart January 15, 2018 at 3:22 pm #

          You have my permission to reference my copy. Thank you for pointing this out on the back of the pamphlet.
          Mary Leah de Zwart

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