The Big M Brand is a beautiful example of a rare Montana label; it bears the production date of September 30, 1932, by Traung Label Company. Bitterroot Valley, printed by Schmidt Lithographic Company, and Equity are equally attractive apple labels.
Most fruit box label collectors focus on the Pacific Coast states—undoubtedly because labels from this region are easily available and relatively numerous. Not so well known are labels used in other areas such as Montana, which does have some labels, though they are scarce and quite expensive.
According to a University of Montana report, the first apple trees were planted in Montana in about 1866 by Thomas Harris, who lived near Stevensville, just south of Missoula in the Bitterroot Valley. Harris’s orchards and those planted soon after by others, included a large variety of fruit, both in types of apples and in stone fruits such as peaches. Since these orchards were successful, they demonstrated that there was a potential for fruit growing in Montana, and the 1890 census confirmed the existence of over 9,000 apple trees in Missoula County.
Just as was the case in the Pacific Northwest, the arrival of the railroads and governmental land policies encouraging settlement attracted homesteaders and others to seek their fortune in the fruit industry. These new arrivals brought varieties and seeds from their former homes in the eastern and southeastern United States, but many of these did not grow well in the vastly different Montana climate. There were also problems with new types of diseases, pests, drought, and insufficient capital to allow the seedlings to grow and become commercially viable. Other farmers further west in Washington and Oregon had the same problem, but the Pacific Northwest soils and climate were a bit more forgiving; and the Montana fruit industry grew much more slowly.
Nevertheless, with the arrival of refrigerated rail transport and greater experience by the Montana growers, McIntosh apples, in particular, took hold, and in the period between 1906 and 1913, over one million apple trees were planted in the Hamilton area of Ravalli County in Montana. It seemed as if the commercial fruit industry in Montana was up and running, but it was not to be. The climate was simply not all that favorable for fruit, and, probably because the industry was so fragile, Bitterroot Valley growers never succeeded in establishing an effective marketing association. Eventually, commercial apple production was phased out in Montana, but the Montana apple industry has a terrific legacy in some wonderful labels.
The area around Flathead Lake in northwestern Montana, near the Idaho border, has a more moderate climate, which encouraged growers in that area to experiment successfully with sweet cherries. The industry there remains viable and since 1920 has grown to about 1,600 acres in production. Cherries also have a role to play in the Bitterroot Valley, which, while ultimately unfavorable for apples, does allow for the growing of tart cherries used in processing.
Certainly, Montana is not noted today for its tree fruit industry, other than its relatively modest sweet and tart cherry production, but serious collectors prize their Montana labels very highly. Those illustrated with this article are rare survivors of the growers who once had hoped to be serious competitors to their fruit industry neighbors to the west.