Oh those beans


Oh those beans

Oh those beans bacon and gravy

They almost drive me crazy

I eat them till I see them in my dreams

When I wake up in the morning

And another day is dawning

I know I’ll have another mess of beans

traditional song


Food insecurity is nothing new. Before the “social safety net” people had to rely on each other for help in lean times. 

Mine disasters were just one peril in early Cumberland. When a miner was injured on the job and couldn’t work there were few choices for his family. If there was a boy in the family almost old enough to work – a wink and a nod to the boss- and they would be hired at the mine in some capacity to bring money in. Failing that, the wife could take in washing, or boarders, or hire out as a housekeeper. If the man was still able to do some work it was back to the picking tables: a first job for young boys and a last job for old crippled miners. 

Nobody gets rich mining. It is piece work writ large, so much a ton. Even when the pickings are good you have to save for a rainy day because mining isn’t really full time or regular. In the early days before unions standardized the work week and wages, a miner in Cumberland worked roughly 265 days a year. When coal prices dropped the mine closed, or there were work slowdowns and work was available only two or three days a week. Wages had to be supplemented any way that kept food on the table. Some miners headed out into the bush to lumber camps for the winter to keep money coming in during shutdowns. Families hunted, fished and grew and preserved as much as they could. In the hungry days in late winter and early Spring, people lived on credit and a lot of dried beans until there was paid work again. 

During the “Big Strike” on Vancouver Island, families were evicted from mine company housing in Cumberland and left to camp in tents or hastily constructed shacks on Strikers Beach (between current day Millard Creek and Gartley Point in Royston) or at Comox Lake. The Campbell Brothers Store extended credit almost to the point of insolvency and allowed many mining families to camp on their property in Royston. Miners and their families lived rough and close to the bone on strike pay funded by the United Mine Workers of America for over two years, starting in August 1912. Beans were cheap and filling and eaten until everyone was heartily sick of the sight of them. 

There are two local legends about help during the strike. The Presbyterian Church ran a soup kitchen, legend says, partially funded by proceeds from what was euphemistically called a “boarding house” at the end of Camp Road. Of course, the only men who could partake of the services at this boarding house were scab labourers or bosses, both equally reviled, so those soup kitchen beans had a particular savour. 

The second legend is about the provincial government being shamed into sending a boxcar full of dried beans to feed the families left homeless on the beach. The women baked those boxcar beans – defiantly thumbing their noses at the government – as they filled their families’ bellies.

I have found no evidence of truth to either legend. There was a bordello at the end of Camp Road, true, but whether profits ever funded a soup kitchen for the strikers is unlikely. The boxcar full of beans? I can’t find any mention in contemporary newspapers that describes this boxcar of mercy. All of the Vancouver Island newspapers pre-WW1 were funded by big business capitalists who would have had no sympathy for strikers, starving or not. The provincial government had a Conservative majority and was staunchly anti-union. This government sent in the militia to quell labour unrest on August 15, 1913. Maybe the government sent boxcars of beans for the 72nd Regiment, Seaforth Highlanders who camped in the playing field in Cumberland and billeted at the Waverley Hotel.

So who feeds the hungry when times are tough? As always, it is a few individuals – service groups, churches – small groups of people who see a need and step up to fill that need. And this type of need is ongoing. Near the beginning of the COVID19 pandemic in April 2020, the Cumberland Community School Society and Weird Church (in the former United Church building) became concerned that local Cumberland families were struggling with food insecurity. Since then, these two groups have rallied local support and secured some temporary funding to provide food on a biweekly basis to more than forty local families. There is also a foodshed in front of the church that is filled by community members for anyone who needs food for whatever reason. Donations especially welcome: proteins like peanut butter, canned fish and yes, canned or dried beans. 

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

Interested in helping to fund the Cumberland Food Share initiative? Cumberland Food Share – Cumberland Community Schools Society