Canby’s Agricultural Heritage

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by Tyler Francke, Active Media Contributing Writer

The roots of Canby all come back to farming. Canby wouldn’t be where or what it is today without agriculture. Most likely, it wouldn’t be here at all. Canby can credit its agricultural success to the area’s fertile, sandy soils (deposited here, geologists believe, in the massive floods from Lake Missoula that ripped through the Willamette Valley during the last ice age, some 15,000 years ago) and of course to the hard work of our first farmers and settlers.

The area had a reputation as a so-called “Garden of Eden” long before the first Oregon Trail blazers made their way to Canby. It all began with berries. The ground we now call Canby was open and virtually clear of trees when settlers from the East first arrived here in the middle of the 19th century. Although vast rows of trees encircled this “prairie,” abundant crops of strawberries and other wild fruits grew here.

Most historians believe the land was a garden for the local Native American tribes, who had long before burned down the trees and allowed berries to grow. The tribes who used this area (the Clackamas, a Chinookian tribe) were a nomadic people, who wandered throughout the valley.
The lush green valley was the home to Native Americans and their predecessors for eons. The Clackamas County Historical Society has several prehistoric relics collected from this area, indicating man had long used the meadows, springs and trees of this area.

They used the area like a giant store, in some respects, traveling to where the plants they survived on flourished. What is now Canby was apparently a favorite spot, with the small tribes continually coming here for the fresh strawberries.

Situated atop a grassy plateau above the Willamette and Molalla rivers, the first permanent settlement here was named Baker Prairie, probably for the larger-than-life frontiersman James Baker, who lived for a time on the prairie before leaving to make his reputation as an explorer, army scout, interpreter, soldier, territorial militia officer and more. Baker reportedly rubbed shoulders with legendary historical figures like Jim Bridger, Kit Carson and General Custer in his travels.

The rambling Baker – who, later in life, would come to be known as “Big Jim” and “Honest Jim” – settled here in the early 1830s and operated a huge ranch and farm on the rich lands that now form north Canby. He stayed until at least 1838, and possibly as late as 1845; the records aren’t exactly ironclad. What is certain is that Baker eventually tired of farming and left, selling his interests in the farm business to a man named W. C. Dement.

Other settlers had followed Baker to the area, and Canby soon cultivated a reputation as one of the Willamette Valley’s richest farming utopias. Timber harvesting between 1873 and 1893 cleared the land and made space for even more farms.

If you plant it in Canby, it will grow: peas, hops, filberts, flax, squash, potatoes, lettuce, melons, tomatoes, and of course, strawberries. You name it, it probably has been or is still being grown around here.

Philander Lee, one of Canby’s founders and patriarch of the family that donated the land that became the town’s first 24 blocks, grew apples on his land and carted them up the road to train cars leaving Oregon City that would take them south to prospectors in the California goldfields. Legend holds that Lee and his sons, frustrated by the narrow roads they encountered in Oregon City, mandated that Canby’s streets be wide enough to turn around a horse-drawn carriage, which is why downtown Canby’s streets are unusually spacious compared to most city centers. In the 1930s, green peas became so abundant that they took over a city block. Countless loads of peas were stripped from the vine at what became known as “pea viner corner” on 13th and Ivy, now the home of the Canby Adult Center and Canby Swim Center. After vining, the peas were trucked to Woodburn for food processing.

Produce from Canby, especially fresh strawberries, were often first on the market in those days, and many a young Canbyite earned his or her first income as a berry picker in one of the town’s many strawberry fields. Flower growers also discovered that the land north of town, between the city and the Willamette River, was perfect for growing their crops. Ben Cummings grew lovely fields of pansies, irises, lilies, tulips and other petaled varieties in the 1920s and ‘30s, and visitors would flock to Canby just to view his land.

Swan Island Dahlias, now one of the cultural centers of Canby, actually began (as the name suggests) on Swan Island in Portland. It was moved to rented land in Canby in the 1940s. Around 1953, 20 acres of farmland was purchased in Canby, and the business was relocated to its present site on North Holly, a stone’s throw from the Canby Ferry.

Grant E. Mitsch of Canby was the leading U.S. hybridizer of daffodils in the 1950s and ‘60s, and flower farms still surround the town today.

Farming spurred the growth of the city’s early economy and development, from the establishment of a railroad depot to the Canby Ferry — both of which were used primarily for agricultural and other commercial pursuits before offering passenger service. It also led directly to and supported the Clackamas County Fair and Rodeo, the annual Dahlia Festival, and former warehouse development along the railroad line, which now form much of the infrastructure of downtown Canby. Three warehouses in particular – the W. H. Lucke warehouse (burned in 1930), W. S. Hurst & Co. warehouse (demolished in 1950), and the W. H. Bair warehouse (demolished in the 1980s) – facilitated shipments of farm products from Canby to market. By 1913, the Canby Produce Company (later, the Canby Cooperative Cheese & Produce Company) had also established a warehouse along the railroad.

It would be fair to say that our roots go deep here in Canby. Many descendants of the original families who settled and worked the land, building the city from the ground up, still reside here today. Canby is a city with a legacy that is tied to the earth it is built on, and just as the plants in the rich soil have flourished and grown, so has our beloved town.

Tyler Francke is a contributing writer for Active Media and the co-owner and founder of The Canby Current,
formerly known as the Canby Now Podcast. See more of his work at