Last Bite—Fruit first in Walla Walla
Washington State's first commercial apple plantings were in Walla Walla.
Is the young girl Frank Shields's sister?
Walla Walla County in the southeastern corner of what is now Washington State is credited with having the first commercial apple orchard in Washington. In 1855, Ransom Clark filed a claim on a 640-acre tract, the first such claim under the provisions of the Oregon Territory (of which present-day Washington State was then a part) Donation Act. His intention was obviously to farm the land, though there is no evidence of a written record. No action can be confirmed until March 1, 1859, when Clark reportedly left Portland, Oregon, with eight boxes of tree grafts which he planted in Walla Walla County immediately after his arrival on March 20. Clark was followed in the commercial orchard business the same year by Mr. C.M. Foster, who planted ten more acres of fruit trees in Walla Walla County.
The tree fruit business grew over the next several decades to the point that, in 1900, the United States Census was able to report that there were over 3,000 acres of bearing fruit trees in Walla Walla County. The Blalock Fruit Company was the largest of the growers at that time with 400 acres in production. Apples, pears, prunes, cherries, peaches, and grapes comprised the bulk of the fruit production, of which 510 carloads were consumed by the local population.
By 1914, Walla Walla had a population of 23,000 and was promoted as the Garden City with “…more bicycles, more pianos, more flowers, and more pretty girls than any other city in the Pacific Northwest.” It was also the principal city in one of the region’s richest farming areas. Not only was Walla Walla County home to the Blalock Fruit Company, whose lands had grown to include 1,600 acres of fruit trees, but it also contained more than 4,000 acres of dry-land wheat farms. Blalock was joined in the fruit business by the 500-acre Baker-Langdon Orchard, which was shipping 10,000 boxes of apples annually by 1913; the Dayton, Washington, J.L. Dumas Pomona Ranch, which was named for the Goddess of Fruit, the Walla Walla Produce Company; and the Valley Fruit Company. Valley Fruit was managed by Frank Shields, who later relocated to Yakima, Washington, where, among other endeavors, he published Appleland News, an ancestor of today’s Good Fruit Grower. While at Valley Fruit, Shields marketed fruit under the Valley label, which featured a girl believed to be a rendering of Frank Shields’s sister.
The peak of the Walla Walla County fruit industry came in the 1920s when there were over 3,000 acres of apple orchards in production (mostly in Rome Beauties and Jonathans) and annual shipments to eastern markets reached over 1,500 carloads. However, the Great Depression of the early 1930s resulted in declining prices at the same time as an unusually large proliferation of insects in the area required ever more expensive sprays to control. The Walla Walla apple orchards were dramatically reduced in size. For example, the Baker-Langdon Company, which had advertised itself as having “…the largest apple orchard in the world,” eventually turned that entire acreage into one huge asparagus field.
Prunes required less care and they fared better. Despite ups and downs, the commercial prune industry remained most viable of the historic fruit-growing businesses in Walla Walla County into the mid-1950s when the final blow to the region’s fruit industry is believed to have been a snowfall on November 11, 1955. It had been a mild fall, and the area’s fruit trees were still in full green leaf. By November 13, the thermometer had dropped to nine degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The remaining apple, prune, cherry, and other orchards—some 75 years old—were wiped out, and the Walla Walla fruit industry never recovered on the large scale it had once been. By 1977, there were less than 100 acres of commercial fruit orchard remaining in the former fruit-growing areas of the Walla Walla Valley. Projects drawing water off the Snake River in northern Walla Walla County opened land there for new large plantings of apples beginning in 1979, but the old Walla Walla orchards transitioned into the home of the now-famous Walla Walla sweet onions and wineries. Walla Walla County’s significant role in the beginnings of the commercial fruit industry in the Pacific Northwest lives on only in the extant fruit labels from that region.