Lake Country Museum president Duane Thomson offers up his knowledge on the role women played in the packinghouses in the Okanagan for a Spotlight Productions documentary. - Carli Berry/Capital News

Lake Country film highlights crucial role of women in fruit industry

Women who worked in the packinghouses played an important role in the Okanagan’s economy

Lights, camera, action.

Duane Thomson, president of the Lake Country Museum, was preparing for his interview Wednesday morning with Spotlight Productions to share his knowledge of contribution women gave to the Okanagan fruit industry.

The 77-year-old historian, who grew up in Lake Country and whose mother worked in an apple packinghouse, also shared his own personal experience growing up in a packing family.

When men went off to fight in the First World War, woman took over the jobs they left behind. Those jobs continued for decades.

The packing job was very intensive, and the women were able to wrap apples so quickly their hands were a blur, Thomson said. They were the backbone of the Okanagan’s economy.

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“The basis of the Okanagan economy for many many years was the orchard industry and there were dozens of packinghouses up and down the valley. From a historical perspective, it’s pretty important,” Thomson said.

He also wanted to share the story of women in this role because historically, they’ve been overlooked.

“There are lots of invisible folks in our history,” he said.

“It was seasonal and it wasn’t an occupation for people who needed full-time work, so it tended to be housewives who did it for a period of time, then raised their families and did other things,” he said.

It was hard work. Packers worked in conditions that were often very cold, his mother ended up quitting because she couldn’t handle the drafts. It also wasn’t very social as a packer. Most of the time, women were too busy stuffing apples into wrappers and boxes to be able to talk.

Sorters were able to socialize more, Thomson said.

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And it wasn’t that long ago that women were packing boxes.

“When I was a child, I would meet on the street in Oyama the very first settlers in Oyama,” Thomson said.

In the 1950s, he knew the first Oyama settler.

“Think about that, how young our community is…. in my lifetime I knew (Oyama’s first settler). Our history is not that old, our community is not that old,” he said.

Melinda Friedman, director and producer with Spotlight Productions, said the idea to create a documentary on the women in the packing industry came from an online exhibit, the “Applebox Belles” produced by the Lake Country Museum.

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The Spotlight documentary also features former packinghouse worker Winnie Draper, who is still in the community.

With its TELUS contract, Spotlight creates content around B.C. and Alberta.

“We seek out stories that are pretty local and maybe not as well known and we also try to go to smaller communities around the province, so in searching for interesting stories about interesting people, we came across this exhibit online.”

“Certainly it’s a personal story in the area and there are still quite a few ladies or descendants around, so it’s a nice story that way,” she said.

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“I can’t think of too many industries that have women as the backbone of them for decades, that’s kind of an unusual story. That appeals to me, I’m a feminist at heart, and I like stories that are off the beaten path. You know apple workers, you wouldn’t necessarily think there is a lot to be told but I’ve learned a tremendous amount.”

For TELUS optic subscribers, you can watch it On Demand and the general public can be watched on Facebook and YouTube.

It will be available closer to the end of May.

READ MORE: Lake Country couple to be recognized with heritage award

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