For thousands of years, the land that would one day be Oliver was occupied by the Sylix people, who camped along the shores of lakes, rivers and glacial benches. The rivers, creeks and lakes were vital to their lives as they hunted, fished and gathered food from the countryside that was teeming with natural resources for them.
The Inkameep Indigenous also occupied the area, migrating and settling near the Osoyoos Lake, which means base of bottom.
Around 1811, the first Europeans began to arrive in the area. Looking for furs, they would establish Fort Okanagan, which is to the south of current Oliver in the United States. From there, they would explore the area and trade with the Indigenous people.
Things would move slowly for the area when it came to settlement, but by the 1880s, gold-quartz was being found east of Oliver and soon a busy gold mine had sprung up, bringing in miners and merchants from all over the continent. Then, west of Oliver in Fairview, miners found gold that fueled a boomtown that lasted for a few years, but that town is long gone. That being said, you can still visit where Fairview once stood and there is a heritage marker to show the location of this once booming community that was one of the largest towns in British Columbia for a brief time. You can also see parts of Fairview in Oliver today, through the Fairview Jail, which was moved to the Oliver Museum site.
For the next several decades, there was little in the way of settlement for Oliver but that would all change thanks to the First World War. After the war, there were a lot of unemployed veterans around Canada who had returned home from the front lines. Those veterans were looking for homesteads and places to work and that would lead to the Soldier Settlement Act. It was through this that Oliver would begin as a settlement.
The area around Oliver and Osoyoos is the Sonora Desert and to bring in settlement, there needed to be an irrigation canal. That canal was the dream of John Oliver, the premier of British Columbia. Through this initiative, the South Okanagan Lands Project was created, which not only created jobs for veterans, but also opportunities for work as well.
One settler who arrived during this time was Michael Keogan. On March 15, 1876, he received a Crown grant for a small piece of land to the north of Oliver. An Irish-born American, Keogan was the first white man to be granted Crown land in that area. On that land, he would build a cabin where he would live for most of his life. While the cabin is now long since gone, you can travel up Highway 97 and see that chimney, which still stands. This stone and slate chimney sits on a grassy area along with a few scattered log remains of the original home. The chimney is one of the few structures in the area that date back over 125 years, having survived not only the gold rushes but also the flooding of Shuttleworth Creek in 1936.
On Jan. 30, 1919, work began on the project, which involved building the Intake Dam at Mcintyre Bluff. For the next eight years, 37 kilometres of concrete-lined main canal was dug southward to the boundary. The canal was 18.5 feet across at the top, five feet deep and ran at 230 cubic feet per second. It would allow farmers to put a foot of water per month on every acre of bottom land. In order to get the canal from the east side of the Valley to the west benches, a wood siphon was constructed that ran for half a kilometre at 6.5 feet in diameter. It was replaced by a concrete siphon and today that siphon runs directly under Oliver.
In 1921, thanks to the canal project and the Soldiers Settlement Act, Oliver was established as a community. A post office, board of trade and general store were all established soon after the founding. Within one-year, electrical power was provided to the community and in 1923, the Kettle Valley Railway built a station in Oliver to transport the fruit of the area north to Penticton. This station was the first-place people saw of Oliver when they arrived to begin a new life, and the train station would be a vital part of the community for the next five decades until the last train came through in 1977. The station is not gone though, and you can relive those years when it was the vital link for Oliver to the rest of the country by visiting the Oliver and District Museum, which is now housed in the original train station. I will talk more about the museum later.
During the 1920s and the 1930s, Oliver would gain recognition for something quite unique in Canada. During those years, the town rose to fame thanks to growing cantaloupe, becoming the cantaloupe capital of Canada in the process.
Oliver started growing cantaloupe thanks to the previously mentioned process of settling soldiers in the area on 22,000 acres of land purchased by the government and sold to veterans of the First World War. Many of those soldiers began fruit orchards and by the 1920s, Oliver had a reputation due to its cantaloupes, which were one of the major crops in the area. Thanks to the hot climate of the area, Oliver became the only place in North America where cantaloupe was grown outside of California. In 1923, 25 carloads, weighing 12 tons each when full, were shipped out loaded with cantaloupe. In 1926, the Vancouver Province reported on 30 carloads of cantaloupe being shipped out of Oliver, three more cars than had been shipped in 1925. By 1933, packing houses in Oliver had more cantaloupe than they could handle, which helped the community boost the economy during the toughest days of The Great Depression.
The Vancouver Province wrote quote:
“Whichever paper you pick up and read the market reports you will find nothing but favourable comment on the excellence of the Oliver cantaloupe.”
Newspapers across Western Canada would report on the arrival of Oliver cantaloupe, which were available for purchase.
One newspaper reported that Oliver cantaloupe were selling for $4.75 per crate for the small size variety, or $6 per crate for the large size. This amounts to about $83 and $105 today.
By 1936, the first Cantaloupe Festival was held in the community that featured a baseball tournament, carnival and big dance. It was also the first cantaloupe festival ever held in British Columbia. In 1937, the Cantaloupe Queen was being crowned in the community, with Irene Tomlin taking the title that year during the second Cantaloupe Festival.
In March of 1935, an interesting news story began to appear, alleging that in Oliver, the dogs were free of fleas completely. The Vancouver Province would write quote:
“A healthy dog without his compliment of fleas is an anomaly. He is like a farmer without a grievance or a politician without a speech.”
There were several theories as to why Oliver dogs had no fleas, but one person stated it was likely because of the presence of a parasite that fed on fleas. Another theory was peculiar dry climate conditions killed the fleas within a few hours.
The Vancouver Province would write quote:
“Should a few fleas be needed for experimental purposes, the dogs of Vancouver will gladly spare what they can for the benefit of their cousins of Oliver.”
Not only would the matter be written about in Ripley’s Believe It or Not, but it would also be published in newspapers across Canada.
The Windsor Star would write quote:
“Local parasite experts have long sought an explanation for the complete absence of fleas among Oliver’s canine population, but they have made little headway.”
The Saskatoon Star Phoenix wrote quote:
“In Oliver Valley, a smiling land of peaches, cherries and apples, nature has given the dog a new deal in complete immunity from the vexatious flea. From the dignified Beagle to the humblest species, all share alike this benight endowment.”
The story would fade from the newspapers after a while, but the mystery would remain long after.
In 1990, Oliver decided to do something that would help put the community on the map and it came down to creating the world’s largest cherry pie. Weighing in 37,713 pounds, the pie had a diameter of 20 feet and was large enough to feed 30,000 people. The pie also used 20,000 pounds of cherries, which was just part of the 30,000 pounds of pie filling. There was also 3,500 pounds of sugar and 16 pounds of salt. The idea for the gigantic pie came from Bob Ellis, a member of the Oliver Rotary Club who saw it as a good fundraising idea by offering people pieces of the pie for a small cost.
Ellis would say later that it tasted okay, adding quote:
“The Criteria that Guinness had is that its edible, which means that as long as the people don’t get sick, it’s okay.”
The record still stands to this day, even though other communities have tried to break it, to no success.
While Olive was once the Cantaloupe Capital of Canada, times change, and Oliver is now known for something else. If you love wine, then Oliver is the place you need to be. Home to nearly half of the vines in British Columbia and 40 wineries, there is good reason that Oliver is called the Wine Capital of Canada. There are wineries for every taste, which feature tours, tastings and much more. There is even a big festival that honours grapes, but I will talk about that in a minute.
You might think that the community just calls itself the Wine Capital of Canada, but that title is as official as can be possible in Canada. In 2002, Queen Elizabeth II was touring Canada as part of her Golden Jubilee, officially gave Royal Assent to the fact that Oliver is the Wine Capital of Canada. You can’t get more official than that.
Back in 1997, a new festival was held in Oliver, the Festival of the Grape. Featuring over 50 wineries, it features wine tasting but it is a family event with a grape stomp competition, live music, food trucks, a vendor market and kid’s zone. Over the years, the festival has grown in popularity with 4,500 people coming out each year to enjoy the festival. The idea for the festival came along because Linda Larson, the mayor of Oliver in 1997, wanted to make the community a wine destination for all of Canada. The event is always a fun time, and you never know if you will be part of history there. For example, in 2006, the festival organizers hoped that 21.17 litres of grape juice would be stomped to set a record that had been set two years earlier.