Rutabagas and Blyth
While other industries have come and gone, rutabagas which have long played a part in Blyth’s history are bigger than ever.
Today, the sprawling G. L. Hubbard rutabaga plant on Dinsley Street East, stores up to 200,000 rutabagas waiting to be washed, trimmed, waxed and shipped to markets in Canada and as far away as the southern U.S. Up to 13 people work in the field operations situated in the farmland around the village or in the plant.
As long ago as the coming of the London, Huron and Bruce Railway in 1875, rutabagas and their cousins, turnips, have been a part of local farm crops. In 1880 turnips were shipped to Kentucky to be fed to horses and sheep.
Blyth really began to be a centre for rutabagas (larger and sweeter than turnips) in 1939 when Russell Dougherty began waxing rutabagas in part of the building that now houses Campbell Transport.
By 1944 he had built a waxing plant near the CPR station and moved his operations there.
Dougherty was something of an inventor and in 1951 built North America’s first precision seeder, allowing rutabaga seeds to be dropped into the soil one at a time. Until then, seeds were thickly sown then hand-thinned when the plants grew.
The waxing plant made Blyth a centre of the industry with farmers from Walkerton to Exeter growing rutabagas to be brought to the Blyth plant. Fifteen people worked in the plant, trimming, and waxing rutabagas during the winter, processing 1,500-1,800 bushels a day.
In those days when much of the field work had to be done by hand, up to 150 people would be busy in the fields during the peak season, recalled his widow Ruth Dougherty.
In 1963 Dougherty sold the plant to George Hubbard who had begun growing and processing rutabagas in a rented barn near Bright. In his first year Hubbard grew 70 acres of rutabagas. By 2001 he was growing 275 acres.
All the rutabagas processed at the plant now come from the Hubbard farms scattered in the countryside around Blyth.
The operation is now highly mechanized. A special seeder, designed and manufactured in England, is used for planting the crop. Weeds are controlled by scuffling. Harvesting is done with a huge harvester that George Hubbard designed and built himself (and has modified several times).
Though the rutabaga is a humble vegetable, it has had its moments of glory. In 1953 the colourful character A. H. Wilford worked with Dougherty to create the Blyth Trade Fair in the storage buildings of the rutabaga plant.
Wilford, who proclaimed himself “The Rutabaga King” and dressed up in robes with a rutabaga crown, went much farther afield in promoting rutabagas, travelling with Dougherty to Ottawa to present rutabagas to every member of parliament. Later, when the Queen visited Canada, Wilford managed to present her with a 50-pound bag of rutabagas.
Beginning in 1989, Blyth also hosted a light-hearted Rutabaga Festival which drew a great deal of attention to the village for several years until a lack of volunteers led to the Festival’s demise.
The Hubbard plant sits on property that has a long and glorious history in Blyth’s industry. It was in this area that the Grey, Young and Sparling salt well was located in the 1870s. Later, after the salt industry died in Blyth, the remaining building was used as an early flax mill.