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Lucerne plant memories

Posted on August 7, 2014 by Taber Times

Indeed it is sad to learn that the Lucerne Plant in Taber is ceasing operation and closing its doors after many decades contributing to the economy of the town. I have enjoyed the stories related by Taber Museum’s Karen Ingram and the letter from Michelle Kumura recently in the Times. And I have stories myself to share about this institution, as it was an important part of our family life, growing up in Taber, as it was for many families. It was commonly known around town, simply, as the Cannery.

The Cannery carried many monikers over the years. The first factory, Broder Taber Canning, was built at the end of the war. It was located where the Taber Police Service now stands.

The new plant, Cornwall Canning, was built to the north of the old factory in the present location. It was later called Empress Foods, and finally, Lucerne Foods … all divisions of Canada Safeway, producing Safeway brands of canned goods … Taste Tells, Townhouse, and Gardenside. They also hyrdocooled vegetables to be trucked to the Lethbridge plant for freezing under the Belaire label.

Frozen food became more popular to consumers than canned goods, and over time, the role of the factory began to change. The vegetable processing became focused at the Lethbridge facility which was set up to produce frozen food. So, over the decades, the Cannery in Taber has served many other production roles, finally in jelly, spices, juice, and drinks.

My uncle, Bill Westhora, was the plant manager back in the 1950s and 1960s. He was a generous and industrious man who was actively involved in his work, his community, and his family.  He was responsible for bringing work to many who had just returned from service in World War II, immigrants from the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, and countless teenagers who worked the summer peak production times when the factory ran around the clock with three shifts. And the economic impact of the Cannery loomed large in the region. Lines of trucks and tractors lined up at the old and the new factories to deliver their vegetables for processing. Fields hummed with pea harvesters and combines. Those were the glory days of the Cannery, as it rolled out processed peas, beans, corn, carrots in peak times, and pumpkin, potatoes, chili con carne, pork and beans and re-packs in the off season. The plant hummed with machinery, steaming retorts, and singing can-lines. Shift changes and breaks were announced with the sounding of the Cannery whistle, which was heard all over town. You could set your clock by it.

Among those employed at the Cannery were my Dad, John Westhora, and my Aunt Anne Mikla, and, during summers, myself and my siblings. So it was always a part of our lives growing up in Taber.  

The little changing shack on our Southside skating rink was lined with cardboard sheets that had previously served as spacers in bales of empty cans from the can-cars behind the Cannery warehouse. The Safeway Employee Assn. (SEA) held summer picnics and Christmas parties for the staff and their families.

Later, Uncle Bill was transferred out to Vancouver where he worked in the head office.

My Dad transferred in 1969 to Empress, Clearbrook Frozen Foods (now Lucerne Foods) in Abbotsford (which continues in production today) where he retired, and my Aunt retired from the Taber plant after many years of service to the company.

So, to me, the closing of the Lucerne Taber operation is a sad one. It is sad for my family, and clearly, it is sad for the laid off employees and the community at large.  

Hopefully Taber’s economic development officer is working closely with the plant owners to find another use for the facility which will return jobs and economic strength which the Cannery has done historically to the town for many decades.

GARY WESTHORA

Mission, BC

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