How my great-grandfather became first president of the Delta Farmers’ Institute

Vancouver’s high percentage of residents born outside the province (the most of any city in Canada) got me thinking about my own immigrant heritage as a fourth-generation British Columbian, and how born-in-B.C. residents have been in a minority since the first European settlements in the 1850s. Looking into my great-grandfather’s story for a recent night of story-telling about food ( I was struck by the abundant natural wealth the immigrants here used to enjoy, and how much of it is gone now.

Thomas Ellis Ladner came to America from the tin mines of Cornwall England. The whole family had sailed in stages across the Atlantic to work in the lead mines in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. He was 16 his father died there.

His older brother William Henry Ladner, 26, decided they would head to California to find gold. By covered wagon through Nebraska, the great salt lake, over the Rockies, they made it to Los Gatos. Then in 1858, they boarded a ship in San Francisco and sailed to Victoria, home of the Songhees, a Hudson Bay fort and the original occupy movement: 10,000 miners dreaming of making it into the 1%.

The enterprising Ladner brothers figured out they could jump the queue by approaching the chief of the Songhees for a private ride across Georgia Strait by canoe. Their main incentive was to avoid Governor and Hudson’s Bay Chief Factor James Douglas’ gunboat HMS Satellite at the north arm of the Fraser exacting taxes.

They made a deal: $50 to get across to a secret landing. It turned out to be Tsawwassen Village, where the ferry is now, soon to be the site of the second largest shopping mall in BC.

The Tsawwassen people were well fed from a 10-mile diet: whale, porpoise, seal, cuttle-fish, crabs, clams, deer, goats, beaver, even bears. Wild strawberries and raspberries and other berries were everywhere, eaten with seal or oolichan oil poured over them much as we use cream. Wildfowl by the tens of thousands stopped by, originating the Ladner slogan, “The Duck Stops Here.”

The next day they snuck up Canoe Pass in a borrowed skiff, stopping along the way to check out the land. The delta was flooded in May, but they could see the potential for farmland if it was dyked and drained: fine sand, clay, silt, peat, organic deposits and wild grasses.

Their dreams of finding gold fizzled, but they made enough money in pack trains, hauling groceries and other supplies up the Fraser Valley by mule, to pre-empt 820 acres for a dollar an acre in 1868. It was the biggest farm on the delta.

Life was tough. Four of his 7 children died before they were 4—in childbirth, from pneumonia and scarlet fever. His wife Edna died in a Victoria hospital at 43. A year later he went back to California and married his best friend’s daughter. She was 18. He was 43. She was my great grandmother.

They dug the first dykes and drainage by hand but were soon harvesting 15-20 tons of potatoes per acre.

In 1878 Thomas became president and general manager of the Delta Canning Company, the first successful cannery, capable of canning 25,000 fish a day. Four years later there were 13 canneries in operation around the delta. None have survived.

The Delta Farmers’ Institute was started in 1898 and Thomas was its first president. Today there’s a Safeway store where the old family home used to be.

They came for the gold, but the real wealth was in the soil, and in the sea—and the food they produced.

Then came real estate.

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