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.

31 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.

    • violet March 3, 2020 at 8:42 am #

      I remember in the late 60s , early 70s vacationing here. Seemed my dad always found work for us kids. One summer is was picking peaches, one summer it was Bulmans tomatoes. The guy who hired us said we could eat all we wanted, so of course coming from poverty we ate them right off the vine. Well needless to say after several bouts of upset tummies I didn’t eat tomatoes until a couple of years ago but always love to remember that time. We felt special to think other people were eating tomatoes we picked. lol

  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

  3. Anne Bulman November 20, 2018 at 11:09 am #

    Hello Mary Leah. I was excited to find your article about Bulman’s cannery. Thomas Bulman was my great grandfather. My grandfather, Thomas Ralph Bulman, became president of the cannery after the war, and it got away from dehydration and started producing canned vegetables, fruit, tomato sauces and of course ketchup. My father, Peter Bulman, developed most of these recipes (for the sauces), and eventually was president, until it closed in the mid-seventies. I was 16 at that time, so never had the opportunity to carry on in the family business. However, it was a huge part of my childhood, and a great source of pride for our family. Very little has been researched or written about the Bulman’s cannery, so I very much appreciate your article!

    • Mary Leah de Zwart November 20, 2018 at 12:06 pm #

      Thanks for your email! It was very interesting to research Bulmans to the small extent that I did.

    • Robin McNaueal June 14, 2019 at 9:55 pm #

      This whole article is so interesting. I didn’t move to Vernon until 1978 (i was 8) so I never knew Bulman’s, but Vernon is home so I’d be curious where this was located. Sad that it burned down just a few years later but once I’d moved here so perhaps I’d remember if I knew where it had been located. Thanks for posting this anyhow!

      • Mary Leah de Zwart June 17, 2019 at 6:48 pm #

        Perhaps someone can answer your question.

    • Robert Malcolmson September 8, 2019 at 11:10 am #

      Dear Anne Bulman,

      My wife, Patricia, and I are writing an essay on the history of Bulman’s, mainly between 1928 and 1945. We’d be delighted to get in touch with you to learn more about the company’s history, esp. after 1945 (which we wish to deal with in an epilogue). We have worked in the Vernon Archives and have lots of material from the “Vernon News”, and would be delighted to know of any other sources that would add to our understanding of the company’s history.

      Our thanks for any help you might be able to offer.

      Robert Malcolmson

      3-1016 Seventh Street
      Nelson, BC, V1L 7C2
      tel. (250) 777-1545

  4. Vera yardley June 14, 2019 at 6:44 pm #

    I lived about 2 blocks from Bulmans
    My mother auntie’s grandmother and my dad worked there some. I also worked night shift on the turn table’s upstairs putting cans on for tomatoes. I think It’ was a good time for the cannery.
    A lot of people worked there.

  5. Bob Passmore June 17, 2019 at 6:43 pm #

    In 1946 I worked between terms at Vernon High as a roust-about at Dolph Brown’s packing House. In the summer, tomatoes were packed into cardboard boxes and shipped out in rail cars. The tomatoes arrived from the farms in boxes on trucks and were unloaded at the upper loading platform east of the packing house. The boxes were then stacked and moved to the graders inside by hand trucks. Somtimes the boxes of ripe tomatoes were spilled when they were moved from the truck onto the ramp. When we “trucked” the boxes of tomatoes into the packing house, we walked over the spilled tomatoes and crushed these. The foreman was Lionel Valaire. He told me to clean up the mess and shovel the slop into steel barrels. I asked him what was done with the barrels of tomatoe slop. He told me that it was taken over to Bulmans to be made into Ketchup. I was only 16 and believed him. Bob Passmore

  6. Loretta Friedrich September 9, 2019 at 11:43 am #

    Great article and so timely since I’m researching on Vernon’s food history. I too would love to know where the cannery plant was located. Sad it burned down in 1980. Perhaps Vera you could let us know since you lived only 2 blocks from there? Thans.

    • Mary Leah de Zwart September 9, 2019 at 1:25 pm #

      Hi Loretta. I hope you find out the answer to your question. If you are able to get to Vernon I am sure there are many people who could help you.

  7. Loretta Friedrich September 9, 2019 at 7:54 pm #

    Thanks so much! I actually live in Vernon. We moved here last year. I think I have found out where the building was located. Loretta

    • Colin Bailey October 22, 2019 at 9:07 pm #

      I grew up in Vernon in the 70s and 80s and I had no idea that Bulman’s was a going concern as late as 1976.

      I believe Bulman’s was located on the southeast corner of 30th Street and 37th Avenue, just north of what’s currently Forge Valley Storage. In fact, I’m thinking that Forge Valley may be using some of the former Bulman’s space; I don’t believe it all burned down, if I’m interpreting the photos correctly.

  8. Bill McDonald September 10, 2019 at 12:40 pm #

    I too would like to know where the plant was located. I think it may have been near the old elementary school (which according to Google Earth is still standing) on the west side of 27th Street. But on the other side of the tracks. But I’m going back more than 50 years so I could be way off. Nonetheless, the articles and comments bring back fond memories!

  9. Maurice Smook November 16, 2019 at 1:50 pm #

    I was searching the images for Vernon. Low and behold I noticed Bulman’s cannery. I don’t think I was born then but my Mother worked for Bulman’s. I don’t know what year but she mentioned that it was during tomato season. Mom had many interesting stories about the plant etc. She never had anything bad to say about the company. I guess Bulman treated the employees with respect. I am glad that I have found this piece on the archives.

  10. Bill McDonald March 4, 2020 at 5:24 pm #

    I am enjoying these occasional posts! For me it brings back the aroma of stewing (or whatever process) of tomatoes at Bulman’s. And to this day (about 60 years later), I still sometimes smell them!

  11. Bob Pallow April 2, 2020 at 6:14 pm #

    https://youtu.be/EDSyb3LsieE

    Here’s a guy opening up a 90 year old can of Bulman’s and cooking and eating it!!!!

    • Mary Leah de Zwart April 3, 2020 at 12:39 pm #

      Your post is interesting. We are going to put your Youtube caution at the start of the video.
      “This video was created to see how the product survived over the years and I don’t encourage anyone to try this them self.”
      Thanks, and I hope you look at our site regarding Bulmans and its importance in the WW II Canadian effort.
      The can is most likely dated between 1939 – 1943 – when Bulmans made an extremely valuable addition to wartime food.

  12. William J McDonald April 3, 2020 at 4:28 pm #

    Very fascinating! Even if, as Mary suggests, it’s from the war years, it is pretty old!

  13. Leanne Armstrong January 31, 2021 at 5:14 am #

    My grandfather Metro Ostashek worked the night shift @ Bulmans in the 1940’s & 50’s.

    • Mary Leah de Zwart January 31, 2021 at 9:08 am #

      Those were the peak years of Bulman’s production. As you can see in this thread, there have been several articles about Bulman’s in the past few years. I will see if I can post a reference or two.

  14. Eric Tucker March 17, 2021 at 5:13 pm #

    I moved to Vernon in 1971 and Bulmans was still in operation. I remember well the last product they made, it was pumpkin pie filler. Working for Alpine Distributors, only a block south of Bulmans, we could smell the sweet pumpkin filler as could all of downtown I am sure. After that run the building was rented space for a lot of things. We kept it for storage of Ski-Doos and when the Village Green was under construction all the furniture that was sent up from Mexico was stored there until it was ready to move in. in a way it was the first big storage place in Vernon. I was a bit sad when it burnt down as that also signalled the end of an era that we will not see again.

    • Mary Leah de Zwart March 17, 2021 at 5:52 pm #

      Thanks for your contribution! So many people have referred to the smells (generally positive) of Bulmans. It is always nice to get another perspective.

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