The James Seed Company • Mary Hogg
Introduction by Chris Arnett
We apologize for the poor quality of the first 4 munutes of the recording.
HISTORY OF THE JAMES SEED COMPANY
The story of the James Seed Company covers four different farms:
My plan is to give a summary of each farm and then show the corresponding pictures.
The company began on Parker Island in 1913. when the island was bought by my Grandfather, Percy James, a trained horticulturist from England. At that time the island was heavy virgin forest and the family had an enormous job of clearing a few acres near a bay facing Galiano Island.
When the business began in 1914, the eldest son Fred was not eligible for military service, Jack the 2nd son joined the navy and Harry and Charles ( or Jim as he was called) were still too young.
The seed company was therefore launched in the name of Fred J. James, co-founder and graduate of Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University.
In the beginning the seed stock was bought from reliable companies in England and the U. S.
These were grown in trial plots to select the highest quality possible for seed. This practise continued throughout the years to guarantee the product.
Sometimes several years were required to stabilize new varieties.
All types of seed for sale were grown by the company and guaranteed to be 100% Canadian.
James Seeds continued to expand on Parker Island until 1917 when the catalogue listed 37 varieties of seed.
At this time they had to consider acquiring a larger farm as more good land was not available on Parker. Also the mail situation was unsatisfactory for a catalogue business.
Parker Island was sold and the family moved to Barnsbury Farm on Saltspring Island. This was the former home of Rev. Wilson and now the Saltspring Golf Course. . As a matter of interest, Parker Island was sold in 1917 for $4500.
The climate and soil on the Gulf Islands and southern Vancouver Island are considered ideal for seed production in Canada. Spring rains, together with manure and fertilizer provide good plant growth while warm, dry summers encourage bloom and seed development without irrigation. The islands are also more isolated for purity of seed.
At Barnsbury 40 acres were planted in vegetables and flowers, including 22 varieties of Sweet Peas. By 1923 the catalogue listed 55 Sweet Peas, one of the most popular of all flowers. The price of a packet of seed was 5 – 10 cents.
As evident in the photographs, the seed business in those years was extremely labour intensive, requiring many workers as well as family. Many jobs were done manually including starting seed, transplanting in the fields, hoeing and weeding. The seed was either hand picked or machine cut and threshed. All seed then had to be cleaned by machine to separate seed from chaff or pulp. This required special sieves for every size from dust –like Lobellia to beans etc.
Before packaging the seed had to be tested for germination. There are government regulations for minimum germination, but the James always insisted on the highest percentage possible.
During the fall and winter the seed was hand packaged by family and employees. Again, specially designed seed measures were used, some minute in size. A one ounce measure contains approximately 250,000 Lobellia seeds. Today packaging is done by computerized machines by the large seed companies.
The catalogue also had to be updated and mailed each year. On the display table are some old glass photo negatives taken by Fred for catalogue pictures. Finally in the spring all mail orders had to be filled and shipped
By 1923 the company once again required more land and moved to the 150 acre Fernwood Farm. The name of the company now became Fred J. James and Bros.
Fernwood farm extended from the waterfront to North End Road west of Fernwood Rd. It also included the marsh area on the lower side of North End Rd.
In 10 years the business had grown from 2 or 3 acres to 150 acres and 152 varieties of seed sold throughout North America and Europe by mail order.
My sister Valerie Watt and myself were born while the family was at Fernwood. Would you like to stand up, Val? I know many of you know her. Our youngest sister Audrey Bennett was born at Cowichan and now lives in Kelowna.
COWICHAN BAY FARM
By 1930 the business had outgrown Fernwood and more acreage was required to handle the large demand for seed and for the segregation of more varieties. Also the CPR boat service was limited to 3 days a week. The decision was therefore made to buy the 300 acre Corfield Farm at the head of Cowichan Bay.
Relocating a seed business is an enormous undertaking. At Cowichan a large new seed house and office was built plus family houses. Three large barns were updated for seed cleaning and storage and a 100 foot greenhouse was constructed.
In the meantime all the operations had to be completed on Salt Spring and ploughing etc. started at Cowichan. The seed and all equipment was gradually moved to Cowichan and more machinery bought for the larger acreage. All told this operation took about 2 years.
The name of the company now became James Canadian Seeds Ltd.
By 1932 almost one million seed packages were filled for mail order and store displays. This number grew steadily every year. As many as 50 workers were required in the fields and for seed packaging and mailing. This provided many jobs during the depression years.
During World War 2 the company procured large overseas contracts for vegetable seeds. Huge shipments of radish and cucumber seed were sent to Russia at the time they were allies. Seed for England included onion, carrot, peas and cabbage. In the Mediterranean area the military used flower seed especially Portulaca to camouflage rooves of buildings.
The end of the war marked the end of the James business. Companies in other countries began flooding the market with cheaper seeds. Higher B. C. labour costs and the philosophy of growing 100% Canadian seeds made it impossible to continue and the company ended operations.
Today all the large seed companies buy under world wide contracts.
Presented by Mary Hogg (James) at the Nov. 9th 2005 meeting of the Saltspring Island Historical Society.
Accession Number 2005.024.001 Historical Society Date November 9, 2005 Media digital recording mp3