The Sun Greenhouse Company

Thank you to Kim Fung (Sien Lok Society of Calgary), Tommy Y. Ng (Bison Historical Services Ltd., Sien Lok Society of Calgary), Edward Gee and Bill Gee for sharing this important piece of Alberta’s history.

The Sun Greenhouse Company was a vegetable farm that operated from 1927 to 1973 in Banff National Park, specifically at a former location in Anthracite, an abandoned coal-mining town that existed from 1886 to 1904. Thriving for two generations on 10.4 acres of land, it supplied needed produce to soldiers stationed in Banff during WWII, the Banff Springs Hotel, Chateau Lake Louise, and various local restaurants, and grocery and food outlets in the Bow Valley (Lake Louise to Canmore). It is believed that anyone who dined in Banff from 1927 to 1973 will most likely have eaten a product from the Sun Greenhouse Company.

Sun Greenhouse, Anthracite, Alberta, 1951. Photo Credit: Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

What made this business unique is that it was located on non-arable land leased within the Rocky Mountains, and owned and operated by Chinese immigrants living under the racist restrictions of the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act, also known as the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act. The Act forbade Chinese immigrants from many professions, including farming or owning crown land, yet the Chinese flourished in the produce growing industry (specifically in BC), even under additional provincial discriminatory restrictions (Chan 2016 and 2017).

The Sun Greenhouse Company was owned by Moy Gee, and operated by him and his business partner Joe Chow. The partnership enabled each partner to take alternate winters off with their families and leave the farm, while the other partner remained to look after the business, and rake the snow off of the greenhouses. Both families lived together in one family residence on the property. Moy Gee and his wife Winnie had 8 children, and Joe and Rose Chow had 6 children.

The families of Moy Gee (front row, left) and Joe Chow (front row, right), 1951. Photo Credit: Gee Family.
The Gee and Chow residence, 1951. Photo Credit: Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

Moy Gee was born in the city of Canton (now known as Guangzhou), located in Guangdong Province, China in 1896. He was 15 years old when he immigrated to Canada in 1912. His family would have had to pay a $500 Head Tax fee for him to enter Canada at that time. According to the Bank of Canada 2017 inflation rate, his family would have paid a Head Tax fee of over $10,000 just to enter (https://www.bankofcanada.ca/rates/related/inflation-calculator/).

Head Tax Certificate of Moy Gee, 1912. Photo Credit: Gee Family.

It is not known exactly why Moy Gee chose to build a produce farm in Banff, especially on its non-arable land within the Rocky Mountains. One reason may be that his father had already settled in Bankhead, located a few kilometres northwest of Anthracite. Another speculation is that Moy Gee wanted to replicate the success of the Chinese operated vegetable farms in BC, and thought Banff to be ideal as it was free of competition, and being in Alberta, may have less provincial discriminatory restrictions (Mgsmith 2017; Tung 2014).

Moy Gee by greenhouse and hotbeds, circa 1950s. Photo Credit: Gee Family.

The Sun Greenhouse Company occupied 10.4 acres of land, where approximately 6 acres were for open cultivation and one acre was covered by eight greenhouses (seven large ones, and one smaller one for seedlings). It was a sophisticated operation, which included a staff of up to sixteen workers (who lived on site in four to six bunkhouses). Other structures included insulated root cellars, a shed housing two generators, a boiler house with an attached coal storage area and truck parking space, a fertilizer storage shed, a chicken coop, and a garbage incinerator. A garage/workshop which housed a potato peeling machine and produce washing equipment was where the produce was cleaned and prepared for the market.

The boiler house had two industrial sized locomotive type steam boilers that were placed below ground, and fueled by coal.  These boilers were fired starting in January and ran until April or May to pre-heat seven of the eight greenhouses in preparation for spring planting. The eighth greenhouse was used for seedlings and was separately heated with six pot belly stoves, also coal fueled. Coal was brought in from Canmore on two and three-ton trucks, and then shoveled and stored in two separate buildings, the boiler house and a nearby coal shed. The coal was shoveled into the firebox of the boilers and stoves about every half hour around the clock. The supply of coal was usually replenished about twice a week.

Boiler House, 1952. Photo Credit: Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

To make the land arable, loads of fertilizers, soil, and freely available manure (from a number of ranches within the Foothills) were brought in. To meet water requirements, there were two systems in place. The first being a creek that ran down from Johnson Lake was dammed, and water piped underground to the residence, workshop, greenhouses and boilers. The second was a 3 or 4 inch pipe installed above ground, from Johnson Lake to the open fields, that provided the higher water pressure and volume required for the irrigation sprinkler system without the need to use any pumps. In the autumn, this system would be completely drained to prevent damage due to freezing.

Generator House, 1951. Photo Credit: Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

Some of the produce grown at The Sun Greenhouse Company included various root vegetables (such as beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, and radishes), lettuce, celery, bok choy, swiss chard, peas, beans, green onions, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, kohlrabi, and rhubarb. Tomatoes and cucumbers were grown in the greenhouses. Bedding out plants and flowers were grown early for the spring season.

Young tomato plants inside a Greenhouse, circa 1950s. Photo Credit: Gee Family.
Outdoor Hotbeds, circa 1950s. Photo Credit: Gee Family.

The Sun Greenhouse Company was on land leased from the Canmore Mines Limited from 1927 to 1950. In 1951, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development purchased the land for Parks Canada. After 1951, the Gee family was under license to continue farming (Lothian 1981).

On April 10, 1953 Moy Gee died at the age of 56. He was highly regarded in the community, and buried at the Old Banff Cemetery. His widow, Winnie Gee continued the greenhouse operations under license. Around 1963, the Chows dissolved their partnership and moved to Edmonton, Alberta.

In 1964, the government had considered terminating the Gee’s license for the expansion of the Trans-Canada Highway. After negotiations with the federal government, Winnie Gee finally surrendered her claim and was granted an offer of $25,000, ending the Sun Greenhouse Company’s business (ibid.). On May 31, 1973, Winnie and her family vacated the Greenhouse site and moved to Calgary, Alberta. Winnie Gee died on March 16, 2011 at the age of 93 in Calgary, and is also buried in Banff.

On a side note, Moy Gee was a friend to Billy Carver, a famed recluse known as “The Hermit of Inglismaldie” (Dixon 2016). Billy Carver built his cabin near Johnson Lake in 1910, which still remains today as a tourist attraction in Banff National Park. Billy Carver would go the greenhouse to give Moy Gee a list of provisions, and whatever the greenhouse didn’t have, Moy Gee would purchase for him in town, so that Billy would not have to venture there himself.

Plaque summary for the Hermit of Inglismaldie, circa 2010s. Photo Credit: Gee Family.

Currently, no buildings remain from the Sun Greenhouse Company. A field visit in 2015 with Bill Gee, Edward Gee, Tommy Y. Ng, and Steve Malins from Parks Canada noted the former property was reclaimed by vegetation, and cordoned off with the wildlife barrier fence, installed along the Trans-Canada highway in Banff National Park. The only observed remains are the patches of exposed earth where the buildings had once stood. While it operated, The Sun Greenhouse Company was a very important part of life in the Bow Valley, as it not only supplied fresh produce to the local residents, but the Gee and Chow families were also integral members of their community.

Written By: Kim Fung (Sien Lok Society of Calgary), Tommy Y. Ng (Bison Historical Services Ltd., Sien Lok Society of Calgary), Edward Gee and Bill Gee (Primary Sources). The authors would like to acknowledge the aid of Steve Malins, Cultural Resource Management Advisor, Banff Field Unit, Parks Canada.

References

Chan, Arlene

2016  Chinese Head Tax in Canada.  Historica Canada. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/chinese-head-tax-in-canada/.  Accessed on August 20, 2017

2017   Chinese Immigration Act.  Historica Canadahttp://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/chinese-immigration-act/.  Accessed on August 20, 2017.

BCFGRA (BC Fruit Growers’ Association)

2010   http://www.bcfga.com/247/The+Produce+Marketing+Act+of+1927.  Access on December 11, 2017.

Dixon, Tyler

2016   The Hermit of Inglismaldie. http://calgaryguardian.com/the-hermit-of-inglismaldie/.  Accessed on August 20, 2017.

Lothian, W.F.

1981   Chapter 10 Minerals and Timber.  A History of Canada’s National Parks, Volume IVhttp://parkscanadahistory.com/publications/history/lothian/eng/vol4/chap10.htm.  Accessed on June 16, 2017.

Mgsmith

2017   Chinese Market Gardening in BC.  BC Food History Networkhttp://www.bcfoodhistory.ca/chinese-market-gardening-bc/.  Accessed on August 20, 2017.

Tung, Audrey

2014   http://thelasource.com/en/2014/07/07/a-short-history-of-chinese-farming-in-the-lower-mainland/.  Access on December 11, 2017.

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