What do a one-armed gold miner, an honest politician, the world’s largest cherry pie and some of the best wines in the world have in common? Oliver, BC.
Aboriginal people occupied the territory in which Oliver lies when settlement by Europeans began in the 19th century. Osoyoos Indian Reserve No. 1 stretches from Gallagher Lake area to Osoyoos and adjoins the Town’s eastern boundary.
The Inkameep Indians, sometimes called the Osoyoos Band, migrated here and settled on the east side of Osoyoos Lake. The tribe’s name comes from a phrase which means “the base of bottom” – attesting to their residence on low lands and plateaus.
The first European activity in the area was gold mining, with the staking of the first claim in 1887, and the establishment of the Town of Fairview in 1890 on the benches above Oliver to the west. Folklore has it that a one armed gold prospector named Reid discovered gold in this area, and the Town of Fairview (located just outside what is now known as Oliver) became home to gold miners, ranchers and businessmen. Fairview was one of B.C.’s largest towns at the turn of the century. The gold rush died and sadly, so did Fairview, with Oliver springing up in its wake.
Fairview’s life was short; the post office was closed in 1926. One of the few remaining buildings from the town, the Fairview Jail, has been moved to the Oliver museum site.
Following the First World War, BC’s premier, known as “Honest” John Oliver, envisioned an irrigation canal, which would bring this dry Sonora Desert region to life. The South Okanagan Lands Project was born, creating jobs and long term opportunities for veterans returning from World War I. The original townsite of Oliver was surveyed in 1921. Completed in 1923, the concrete irrigation canal (locally known as “the ditch”) soon transformed this desert region into lush orchards and farms.
The airport, built just prior to the Second World War, initially served the entire region south of Penticton.
Oliver, along with Osoyoos to the south, experienced rapid growth after the Second World War, with an influx of agricultural settlers, including many of Portuguese and German origin.
Home to 11 local wineries and many vineyards, Oliver now calls itself “Canada’s Wine Capital”. The Festival of the Grape is fast becoming a ‘must attend’ during the Okanagan’s Fall Wine Festival.
A thumbnail history of Oliver is presented below.
Fur Brigade Trail: 300 animal pack train transports furs from Kamloops area to Fort Okanogan at the junction of Okanagan River and Columbia River in Southern Washington. Fur Brigade Trail passes through what was to become Oliver.
One-armed Reed and partner Ryan pan for gold in the mountain creeks on the west side of the South Okanagan Valley. Some gold is found but Reed and Ryan move on.
Prospectors stake gold mining claims in the mountains on both sides of the South Okanagan Valley above what was to become Oliver.
Small mining towns start to form; Camp McKinney on the east side of the valley and Fairview on the west side.
Mining activity expands in both areas with Fairview being the more active of the two. Fairview’s population grows to near 600 – Camp McKinney’s to near 250.
A large three story hotel, The Fairview Hotel, (called the Big Teepee by natives in the area) is built in Fairview. It was reputed to be the largest and most well appointed hotel in the interior of BC.
Fairview Hotel burns down, gold in Fairview area and Camp McKinney starts to peter out. Both town sites start to diminish in size.
Minimum amount of mining activity keeps both mining communities barely alive.
Provincial Government purchases 22,000 acres of land in the South Okanagan and proceeds to develop an irrigation system designed to convert some 8,000 acres of desert land, on each side of the Okanagan river, into viable agricultural land and make the land available, at a reasonable cost, to the returning soldiers from World War I. The Premier of the Province at the time was “Honest John Oliver”. Hence, the origin of the name of the Town of Oliver.
Construction of the Irrigation System known as the “Ditch” takes place. The overall length of the Ditch was some 25 miles including a large 7 foot diameter wood stave siphon, almost three quarters of a mile in length that transported irrigation water from one side of the valley to the other.
The village of Oliver is beginning to be established with some of the home and business buildings being constructed from lumber salvaged from the fast disappearing Town of Fairview.
Large Sawmill, including a box plant, develops in Oliver area providing major employment for the community. A number of fruit packing houses and canneries are operating and BC Fruit Processors, the forerunner to The SunRype Corp., was formed.
Oliver is incorporated into a village.
Large high school (existing South Okanagan Secondary School) is constructed in Oliver.
Okanagan River from Okanagan Falls to Osoyoos is reconfigured into a canal with dams and drop structures to facilitate lake level and flood control during spring run-off periods.
Ted Trump establishes plant in Oliver to develop and manufacture articulated hydraulic equipment to facilitate fruit picking and tree pruning. “The Girette” and other locally developed and manufactured “Kangaroo” has revolutionized the Orchard Industry.
Major influx of Portuguese immigrants to the Valley, soon to become established as orchardists.
Large RV manufacturer purchases Trump facilities and is still established as a major employer in Oliver.
Oliver grows in size and attracts retirees due to the quiet life style and good weather. Wine Grape Vineyards start to materialize.
Major vineyards are planted and a number of associate wineries are developed. Oliver area boasts 9 local wineries.
Oliver celebrates its 75th anniversary as a community.
The population inside Oliver is close to 5,000. Agriculture is the main industry in the area now. The “Ditch” is still supplying irrigation water to the farms, orchard and vineyards in the valley. Oliver continues to be one of ‘the’ places to retire in Canada. With the recent drop in the Canadian dollar, ‘snowbirds’ from northern BC and other western provinces are making the Oliver area their winter destination. The cultural profile of the community includes members of the Osoyoos Indian Band, Portuguese, East Indian, German, Russian, Chinese and persons who have relocated here from all parts of Canada. Oliver and its businesses also serve a surrounding rural area of some 4,500 people bringing the total community population to around 9,300.