Robert Broder

By Marion & Jim Doyle,  October 2001

Robert Broder (RB) was born in Alturas, California in 1886, the eldest son of John and Mary Ann(1) (Graves) Broder. John Broder had emigrated from Ireland and was recommended for U.S. citizenship.  Mary Ann Graves' family has been traced back to England in the 11 century.(2) RB had three brothers, Harold, Percy and Orville (who died as a child) and a sister Mabel (Manery). After RB's birth John Broder spent several years(3) in the Yukon as a store owner during the Klondike gold rush. Shortly after John's return RB completed grade 3 at school and the two of them left California with a horse and cart, walking north until they reached the Olympic Peninsula. They crossed over to the San Juan Islands where they settled  in Friday Harbor. Here they started a "cannery" in a small shed. They would spend the mornings digging clams, then put them in cans, process them and rush them across to Victoria, B.C. The cans were hand formed and soldered each evening so were not necessarily completely air tight. Therefore the stores which bought them were urged to have their customers eat them before the cans became completely cooled (RB and his father knew the cans could easily explode if left on the shelf for any extended period of time).

By about 1914 RB had moved from the San Juan Islands and started a small canning factory on the banks of the Fraser River in New Westminster, B.C. where he met and married Violet Jones in 1916. By 1917 Violet was working in the cannery office as stenographer and book keeper. She was the first woman in New Westminster to get a driver's license and created quite a stir when she drove to town to get the mail or do the banking. Together they expanded Royal City Canners with factories in Mt.Vernon, Washington; Ashcroft (where they canned tomatoes), Grand Forks, Creston, Chilliwack and Ladner B.C.  The company processed vegetables, fruits and jams. Much of the produce was delivered to the cannery in New Westminster by boat from up the valley and from the small islands at the mouth of the Fraser River.

In 1925 & 1928 a daughter, Marion and a son, Stanley Robert were born. In 1929 the beginning of the Great Depression caused most of commerce to cease and by 1930 RB had turned the cannery and its inventory over to the bank. It cost more to produce a can of peas than it could be sold for. He often remarked that he lost a dollar a case every time he made a sale. However, the Ladner Canning Co was in Violet's name so the bank was unable to take the equipment in the Ladner plant.

In 1931, for reasons that no one now remembers, RB got the idea that vegetables could be grown on the irrigated land in southern Alberta. The Town of Taber had an empty building and there was severe unemployment so a deal was negotiated whereby RB would supply the machinery and know-how and the town would supply the building and utilities for a cannery. Many of the local farmers were highly amused when the first corn and pea seed was hand sown into the ground but by the 2nd year were eager to grow vegetables for the cannery. In 1933, when the first crop was ready to process, the cannery could not get any women to come in to work on the picking tables. It was soon discovered that they were ashamed to come to town as their clothes were in rags. So the cannery emptied all the sacks of sugar and salt that had been purchased for the brine into wooden containers, had the sacks bleached to remove the printing, and gave the fabric to the women who made themselves dresses and came to work.

Taber Canning Co was soon able to pay for the building and the town had a thriving new industry with the canned peas, corn, pork and beans, and pumpkin distributed across the prairie provinces. By 1938 the Taber plant was unable to meet the production required and plans were made to build a second cannery in Lethbridge. In 1939 the Second World War broke out and food production was included as an essential service. The completion of the building was given high priority and the first peas were processed while the roof of the building was still being put on. The new plant was able to dehydrate vegetables as well as can them and all that production was for the armed forces

As the cannery production increased RB bought farms to integrate production. Eventually there were 5 farms (Western, Crest, Kenny, Green and Fincastle) which totaled almost 6,000 acres. On some of  the farms sheep, and later cattle, were fed with the by-products of the vegetable production. As production at the Lethbridge plant increased, the shortage of workers became critical. Local workers decided to go on strike the first day of production. When RB notified C.D. Howe, the Federal Minister of Supplies, of his problem, Mr. Howe immediately arranged for a group of Japanese internees to be moved to Lethbridge to work in the cannery. In response, the Lethbridge City Council passed a by-law forbidding any enemy aliens to enter the city. RB rented a hall on the "north side" of Lethbridge and converted it into housing for the internees, and moved them in. This action brought the mayor, the Chief of Police and the local RCMP Inspector to the cannery to arrest RB for breaking the by-law. RB immediately picked up his "red phone" which had a direct line into C.D. Howe's office, and explained to Mr. Howe that he was about to be jailed. Mr. Howe asked to speak to the RCMP Inspector and told the inspector that he, the mayor and the Chief of Police were to immediately turn themselves in to the local prisoner of war camp for being traitors to their country. They immediately decided to co-operate with RB and the Japanese continued to work at the cannery. Many of these  families remain in the city to this day.

After the war ended in 1945 the dehydrating section of the plant became a sharp freezing plant for vegetables. These were sold to customers such as Birds Eye Foods and from 1946-1955 it was the largest sharp-freezer in Canada.

In 1956 RB died of a stroke and the business was turned over to his son Stanley.

Transcribed and footnoted by: Faye West

(1)  RB's mother's name was Alice.

(2)  Lines to 11th century have been disproved.  Earliest known ancestors are 16th century in England.

(3)  More likely only a few months. He was in Washington in June 1900; the fire that destroyed his business in Atlin was probably in August 1900.