Thomas Benjamin Reece, known to friends and family as Tommy Reece, was born in Magor, Wales on September 14, 1887. His early life was not an easy one: his parents died when he was young, so he grew up under the care of his aunt and uncle. He never attained much education beyond a fourth grade level, and ended up leaving home at the tender age of 18 when his uncle gave him money for a ticket to Canada and promptly kicked him out. The young Tommy ended up spending nearly all this money at the local pub with friends, being forced to beg for it back from them in order to get enough for his move.
In 1905, Tommy arrived in the Kinsmore District of southern Manitoba, where he worked as a labourer on Jack Fennel’s farm. After 2 years of this, he joined up with a crew working for the Canadian Pacific Railway building bridges, travelling all over Canada as far west as Kamloops doing so. After this, he found reasonably steady work as a carpenter and builder, working on the Saskatchewan Legislature building in 1910 and then returning to Hamiota, Manitoba to build houses, stores and barns. It was here that he met and married Eleanor Angus Reece, 3 years his senior, in 1917. Her wedding dress is in fact on display at the Westbank Museum.
After exploring British Columbia for the first time in 1919, Reece decided to move his family there in February of 1921 on the recommendation of his physician Doctor Hudson, who claimed that the cold Manitoba climate was bad for his lungs (perhaps ignoring Tommy’s avid pipe smoking, which continued well after his move). Tommy had chosen Westbank after originally considering Lakeview because of his desire to see his children educated at Westbank School, perhaps recalling his own rough childhood. They arrived by Model T accompanied by 2 friends in another car and soon purchased their first orchard on Main Street as well as the former Hurlburt House, which Tommy quickly set about renovating. For the time, the house was lavishly luxurious, notably having a flush toilet and a telephone line; a promise of the former was a major way Tommy had convinced Eleanor to make such a trek.
Tommy again set himself up rather well as a builder/carpenter in Westbank, being at least partially responsible for many structures, including the irrigation flume from Powers Creek to Elliot Road in the 1920s, the first bank in Westbank (a branch of the Bank of Montreal, the building of which is still in use today), the first medical clinic in Westbank at the corner of Elliot and Main, the Dobbins General Store, his son Milton Reece’s home, the new Westbank Co-op Packing House at Hoskins Road (it had previously been where the Lions Hall now sits), and the 1940s renovations of Henry Grant’s Diesel engine power station (later sold to the BC Power Commission in 1946). He also owned many developments, Campbell’s Gas Station, the Angus Drive area, and a block of shops among them.
The history of the Westside Orchards business, for which the Reeces would become most famous, begins in 1930, when Tommy first built a lean-to addition to the house for packing the products of his orchards. In the early days before the BC Growers Association (which took over selling all BC fruit outside BC through BC Tree Fruit Ltd in 1938), Tommy would travel all over Alberta and Saskatchewan himself selling his apples directly to consumers and wholesalers. He had two brands for his apples: top grade ones would be sold under the “Castle” brand, while lower grades were relegated to the cheaper “Maple Leaf” brand. In 1932, Tommy built the Westbank Orchards Packing House on Brown Road (later known as John Robinson’s “Shack Town”), which would in future years be renovated, expanded, and upgraded. Cold storage was added in 1939, and an addition was made in 1945.
In 1947, Tommy sold his fruit company, now quite successful and holding 80 acres of orchards, to his sons Nelson, Milton, and Adrian Reece, who continued the business. Shortly after the sale, their first major purchase was a brand new 8 cylinder 105 horsepower 1947 Ford COE (cab over engine) truck, costing $2800 in Penticton and driven back by Milton Reece himself. This truck was used to carry apples to lake barges and rail cars, deliver prunes to and from the cannery, and briefly to transport a backhoe. The truck, perhaps because it travelled largely only locally in Westbank, was kept in great condition, and is now parked in a ready-to-drive state outside the Westbank Museum thanks to a 2009 refurbishment.
Nelson and Milson bought out their brother Adrian’s share of the business in 1956 (though they kept his name, rendered as T.A. Reece, on the truck) and converted the company into a limited corporation. In 1967, they added the first controlled atmosphere cold storage and more additions to the packinghouse. The Reeces continued owning and operating it until it was leased to the BC Fruit Packers in the 1990s and then sold off in 2006. In 2007, tragedy struck as almost all of the original packinghouse burned down due to an act of arson by a group of teenagers. Though the new additions were saved and there were no deaths in the blaze, the company offices, including all the historical records, were lost. Unfortunately, this was hardly the first tragedy to befall the Reeces: in 1959, 12 years after he sold off his business, Tommy Reece and his wife Eleanor were headed to cross the then-new bridge to Kelowna to pick up passports for an upcoming trip to Wales and Australia when they were involved in a major accident, which injured Tommy and killed Eleanor. Tommy later remarried in 1962 before passing at the age of 86 in 1973.