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Building keeps ‘Company’ with history
In 1907, a group of Belgian investors organized under an umbrella company called the Land and Agricultural Company (L&A Company), which bought 14,600 acres from Cornelius O’Keefe and Mrs. Greenhow. In 10 years they owned 17,000 acres. This land completely surrounded Swan Lake and extended a distance of 10 miles, gradually rising to higher range country.
The L&A Company has always been associated with the development of the Okanagan. The company exemplified the optimism of the pre First World War era (1905-1912). This was the time when European developers envisioned the settling of this beautiful valley which showed such promise for growing a wide variety of agricultural crops from apples to wheat, hay, alfalfa, and market garden crops. In fact over the early 1900s, the quality and yield of these crops (when grown here) surpassed all expectations. The diversity of the soil, from black loam to clay, and rich sandy loam with a subsoil of a porous gravelly quality lends itself to a variety of crops and attracted settlers looking for new opportunities in Canada
The prime purpose of the L&A Company was to subdivide this vast tract of land in order to sell to other syndicates for the purpose of encouraging a wide range of farming endeavours. The Belgian Syndicate was a subsidiary of the L&A Co., which invested in 200 acres located in the BX. This tract of land was planted in a 200-acre orchard.
One of the early Belgian settlers was Baron Herry, who toured the area and bought an acreage in the BX where he planted an orchard encompassing 76 acres. He built a fine dwelling on another 18-acre parcel along the BX Creek.
Other syndicates like the Scottish-Canadian Fruit Lands Co. and the French Syndicate from Paris toured the acreages and invested in large commercial orchards. A large number of private investors such as Dr. F. E. Rimer of Fairbanks Alaska, Mr. L. De Decker from Antwerp, Mr. Joseph Cools, Mr. Raymond van Eetveld, and Mr. A Gouzee came to the valley with optimistic plans to grow fruit on smaller acreages and develop the region. In doing so they brought their European culture and customs to the Okanagan, and some of their descendants still live in the valley.
To give you an idea of farming costs to develop a small holding in the early part of the 1900s: the company’s price for its best fruit land would be about $275 per acre, which would include irrigation rights to the Grey Canal, a lateral system of canals to distribute water to land under cultivation in the area.
To prepare the land for planting would cost another $60. The purchaser did not need to pay up front — the sale could be negotiated on an installment plan of about 20 per cent repayment per year over five years. This system allowed the smaller settlers to get their land into production and achieve a harvest to defray some of the costs. Smaller settlers would also “do work for cash” on some of the larger tracts to help cover expenses. A high class of settler was attracted by these methods, and the City of Vernon expanded and prospered. During this time, the Okanagan Telephone Company extended its service and the City Council delivered electric power to the city limits.
Mr. George Heggie was appointed manager of the L&A Company and had full charge over the company’s affairs. He was well thought of in the community. With his vast agricultural background, he dealt with land sales and land development for the company, turning raw land into thriving orchards. He also represented the North Okanagan as a Member of the Legislature from 1930-1932. During this time he devoted himself largely to irrigation problems incurred while developing a growing agriculture economy.
In 1911, The Land and Agricultural Co. constructed the two-storey brick-faced concrete block building on the main street (today’s 30th Avenue), formerly known as Barnard Avenue. It had a plain, symmetrical front, featuring large cornices and modillions which emphasize the vertical Italianate design. Brick quoins also accentuate the vertical lines of the building. It was a handsome building frequented by visitors to the town, looking for information, and making land inquiries. The L&A Company conducted business from this location until the mid 1940s, sharing space with Dr. Gerald Williams and various other commercial businesses.
Since 1994, the downstairs has been occupied by the very popular coffee house known as The Bean Scene. Recently the business expanded to the upstairs. It has been renovated delightfully with memorabilia and historical pictures, as well as an outdoor patio.
The land companies and syndicates played a large part in opening up the Okanagan to investors and settlers who helped establish the fruit industry here. They supplied capital, advertised the area to the world and especially with the Belgo Canadian Land Co., provided workers to work in the fruit orchards this region is still recognized for worldwide.
The L&A Company building at 2923-30th Ave. is still a friendly meeting place, where people go to discuss the events of the day, socialize and plan their futures in the Sunny Okanagan Valley.
Article written by Linda Jenkins and edited by Shelagh McGinn, and Bill Hamilton. It is presented by the Heritage Advisory Committee of Vernon. Photos courtesy of the Greater Vernon Museum and Archives.