The history of Abbotsford really starts 15,000 years ago, when the Cordilleran Ice Sheet began to recede and split up into smaller pieces, but it was not until 11,300 years ago that the land was re-shaped into its present contour and the Sumas Glacier began to feed into the mighty Fraser River. Since then, this river has been the core of life in the Fraser Valley, as the landscape, flora and fauna shaped itself to fit around it.
When the first humans migrated across the continent, they established themselves along this blue ribbon, which had an abundant supply of salmon, seabirds, edible plants and other necessities of life. The newcomers who arrived here 9,000 years ago were hunter-gatherers, but over time, they became more and more sedentary. They didn’t have to wander across the land to access food and shelter, but could stay right here in the valley. It was the river that made the land fertile, and these first settlers preferred to stay close to it. Slowly, the population grew to the tens of thousands. By the third millennium BC, the culture of The People of the River, the Sto:lo, had become highly evolved.
Just like other people across the globe, the West Coast cultures were part of trade networks and were able to enjoy imports that had travelled a long way and passed through many hands to get to them.
When the first Europeans arrived, they established their own trade networks, and First Nations products reached countries well away from this continent. The Hudson’s Bay Company established the original Fort Langley in 1827 to serve as part of a network of fur trade forts, and the Sto:lo population benefited from trading with these first Europeans.
Unfortunately, ideas of new inventions, societal customs and trade goods are not the only things to travel along trade routes, and over a six-week period in 1782, two-thirds of the Sto:lo were wiped out in a smallpox epidemic. It is believed that the virus had come to them via Mexico, and for the Sto:lo, first contact with Europeans did not actually happen until later that same year. As newcomers took up the land, the Sto:lo were separated from their ancestral land by way of legislation and moved onto reserves. New laws regulating the use of private property meant not only a power shift, but a change in the landscape, over which the Sto:lo now had no control, and when news of the discovery of gold in the Fraser River reached the newly established gold rush town of San Francisco, life changed even more. This news had come in the spring of 1858, just as gold was running out in California, and suddenly thousands of fortune seekers headed towards Sto:lo lands. British Columbia became a province in the Dominion of Canada in 1871, and by the 1890’s, the non-native population exceeded the population of First Nations people for the first time in history.
In order to establish Canada’s border with the United States and assert its claim to British Columbia, Britain had sent the Royal Engineers to survey the area in 1858. The Engineers were invited to take up 160 preemptions of land and settle in the area following their service with the Crown. John Cunningham Maclure was one of the surveyors who took the Crown up on the offer and settled here. He is quoted as saying, “This is the promised land. When we disband, this is where I will settle” when he first laid eyes on Matsqui Prairie. In 1889 the former Royal Engineer applied for, and received, his crown grant on 160 acres (65 ha) of bush land. Flooding was an issue in the area even then, and after only 68 days of ownership, Maclure transferred the title to his son, John Charles, who in turn sold the title to Robert Ward just 67 days later. The C.P.R. was granted right of way through the 160 acres on condition that they would put a station there. This ensured that a town centre would grow in the area. When Mr. Maclure was asked what to name the place, he suggested it be named after his good friend Mr. Abbot. Harry Abbott was the Western Superintendent of the C.P.R. and the two men had worked together and had become friends in this land which must have seemed very wild and very far away from everything that was “home”. On July 9th, 1891 Mr. Ward filed the town site subdivision plan, and the Village of Abbotsford was born. Maclure was followed by other settlers, who had made their homes on the ridges around Sumas Prairie in the 1860’s. The completion of the CPR to Vancouver in 1887 brought an influx of new settlers to the area, and the District of Sumas was incorporated on January 5th, 1892, while Matsqui was incorporated on November 21st,, 1892.
Once the C.P.R. line was laid through Abbotsford other railways soon followed suit; the Vancouver, Victoria and Eastern in 1909, the B.C. Electric Railway in 1910, the Great Northern in 1913 and the C.N.R. in 1915. It was these railways and easy access to the Fraser River that made commercial development possible, which in turn drew more newcomers to the area. The settlers equaled taxable income that could be used for improvements to infrastructure, such as new roads and dykes to stem the annual flooding. In the meantime, dense forests that could be logged and milled right here in the Valley drove the economy. Unskilled labourers from India, China and Japan were provided with an income while the newcomers worked as loggers or at the many small mills. The resulting cleared land proved to be fertile and attractive to farmers forced to leave Europe as the result of over-population, famine and changes in the political and religious structures in their homelands.
Of the many mills, The Abbotsford Lumber Company was the largest. In its heyday it was not only the largest employer in the community but soon became the third largest forestry employer in the province. When the Sikh workers at the mill initiated construction of a gurdwara, a temple, the Tretheweys donated the lumber for it. The Tretheweys employed Japanese, Chinese, and East Indian workers at wages only slightly lower than those of the ethnic white workers, which encouraged these minority groups to settle in the community.
Early settlers had to contend with some trying conditions. The logged out land was still covered with large stumps that had to be cleared before the land could be used for farming. The mighty Fraser River and Sumas Lake both flooded annually, and following the floods, swarms of mosquitoes hatched in the shallow, standing water. It got so bad that schools were closed for up to six weeks, young children had to be kept inside, and young livestock died due to blood loss. This meant that any outside activity, including labour, was virtually impossible.
Despite the flooding, drought and irrigation problems, almost all of the land around the lake was settled by 1871. After some extreme high water had flooded out most of Chilliwack and all of Sumas Prairie, the Sumas Dyking Act was passed in 1878. The Act, however, did not change conditions by much. In 1890 the Chilliwack River changed its course, and instead of emptying into the Fraser, it now began to empty into Sumas Lake. That, of course, was a wonderful thing for the Sardis farmers, who no longer had to contend with the river flooding. But for those who lived along the new channel, the Vedder River, and for the farmers around Sumas Lake, for whom this meant an increase in the average water level, this was disastrous. Attempts at reclamation followed, and in 1919 the Sinclair Plan was chosen from among a number of other proposals, in the hopes of better protecting the prairie. The pumps, then the most powerful in Canada, were started up on July 3rd, 1923, but it took almost a year, until June 24th, 1924, to fully drain the lake. The fertile lake bed immediately drew settlers to the area and new enterprises such as hop and tobacco farms were established, while and the dairy industry expanded. Mennonites fleeing religious persecution found the area well suited to their agricultural practices.
With the exception of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s farms in Langley, the first systematic farming on the Lower Mainland took place on Sumas Prairie. Dairy cattle had actually been brought to Chilliwack from Oregon back in the 1860’s, and the first manufactured product had been butter. During the Caribou Gold Rush butter was shipped to the Caribous via Yale. The first creamery built to make butter and cheese for distribution in the other direction, the coastal market, was established at Sardis in 1887, and by 1910 almost 500,000 pounds of butter was being shipped to the coastal markets annually. With the establishment of the B. C. Electric Railway the lower mainland was opened up to Fraser Valley fresh milk sales and the Fraser Valley Milk Producers Association was formed in 1913. When the Abbotsford Lumber Company closed the mill in the 1930’s, the land that had been logged was parceled and sold off as farmland to new settlers. More farms sprang up on these parcels of land, and over time, agriculture began to replace the lumber industry.
Another development in farming took place after visiting horticulturist Fenwick Fatkin noticed how well daffodils grew in Bradner, and decided to “make this a second Holland.” He settled in Bradner with his wife Charlotte and their two infants in 1914 and began to grow daffodils on a half-acre off the Leclair Trail. Mr. Fatkin encouraged other farmers to join him, and by the mid 1920’s, there were several farms in production. In April 1928 they all exhibited their products at the first Bradner Flower Show. Bradner quickly became the “Daffodil Capital of Canada” and still ships millions of field grown blooms every year.
John Maclure’s son, John Charles Maclure, had discovered a special fireclay on Sumas Mountain and established the Vancouver Fireclay Company in 1905. Before then, fire clay and fire bricks came had to be imported from Wales and Scotland, and of course the find of good quality fireclay ignited great excitement for investors as well as a prospective workforce. Since there wasn’t a road across Sumas Prairie, it was decided that the clay would have to be transported to a brickyard west of Sumas Mountain for easy access to the CPR. In order to accommodate its employees, the company built brick houses for the labourers, offices, a school and a church there, thus creating B.C.’s first company town, eventually named Clayburn. Charles’ architect brother, Sam, designed some of the homes built there, while Charles focused on the development of the company and designed the railway system that ran on trestles from the mine to the brickyard. “Charlie” Maclure opened up a new brick plant on the south side of Sumas Mountain in 1909. It was named Kilgard for the tall chimneys, visible from quite a distance, which stood guard over the kilns. Employment advertisements abroad drew Scottish and Italian miners to settle near the area.
After the attack on Pearl Harbour, in an attempt to strengthen the Allied military defense position along the entire west coast, the Canadian military built the largest military airport on a 900 acre wooded site at Abbotsford. The airport opened on July 14, 1943. The site contained forty-four large buildings including hangars, and had provision for a garrison of thousands of men. A year later the runways were extended and strengthened to accommodate the giant Liberator bombers, and additional barracks were constructed to accommodate the increase in personnel training to operate these eleven-man crew planes. During the flood of 1948, the airport got to serve as an evacuation centre for both people and livestock, and following the uprising against the communist rule in Hungary in 1956, it also served as a refugee centre. Today, the Abbotsford International Airport is the home to several commercial airlines as well as the Abbotsford International Airshow, Cascade Aerospace and Tradex.
The Village of Abbotsford and the District of Sumas amalgamated in 1971 to become the District of Abbotsford, and in 1995 the District of Abbotsford, in turn, amalgamated with the District of Matsqui and became the City of Abbotsford.
Today, Abbotsford is home to its own university, The University of the Fraser Valley, with over 15,000 students enrolled annually. It is the fifth largest municipality in British Columbia with a population of over 133,000 people, including the third highest proportion of visible minorities among Census Metropolitan Areas in Canada. We have become a place with its very own delicious flavour.
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