Congdon Orchards is one of the oldest continuously operating fruit ranches in the state of Washington. Located in the Yakima Valley, the company can trace its roots to 1887, when Chester Congdon, a Duluth, Minnesota, lawyer and business entrepreneur, first came to the area.
Mr. Congdon was a New York State native, a graduate of Syracuse University, and a lawyer who began a legal career in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1880. Just five years later, in 1892, he moved north to Duluth where he continued to practice law but also invested in a variety of commercial, agricultural, and financial endeavors. He became a prominent figure in the development of the iron and copper mining resources in northern Minnesota near Lake Superior.
Not limiting his entrepreneurial interests to the Midwest, Chester invested heavily in the development of the town of Gray’s Harbor, Washington, and its surrounding timber industry. In 1887, on one of his inspection trips to the Pacific Coast, he decided to stop for a few days in North Yakima, which had incorporated the previous year. He was impressed with the agricultural potential, even though he recognized the need for considerable investment in securing an adequate and dependable water supply. In association with several old friends, he began to acquire land and incorporated the North Yakima Canal Company in 1894.
Developing irrigation canals and securing water rights was complicated, and Congdon was busy with his Minnesota business and law interests. He persuaded his brother-in-law Alfred Bannister, an engineer, to take charge of the Yakima Valley development. The resulting construction of the Yakima Valley Canal was a great engineering feat, and what became known locally as the Congdon Ditch began delivering water in 1895.
The Yakima Valley Canal, or Congdon’s Ditch, continues to take water from high in the Naches Valley. It follows the north side of the ridge separating the Naches and Wide Hollow Valleys, reaches the western edge of the city of Yakima, and then loops back on the other side of the same ridge. Over 4,000 acres receive water each year from the Congdon Ditch.
Among the most unusual features of the Congdon Ditch are the siphons which use gravity to carry the water down and back up the sides of Cowiche Canyon. Without the use of the siphon, the construction of the canal would have required flumes to be built on a costly trestle across the entire width of the Cowiche Canyon, or the installation of an elaborate and expensive pump system.
Congdon was not simply a passive financial investor, but was intensely interested in the business of growing fruit. He managed the Yakima Valley ranch from his office in Duluth. He kept detailed records on his experimentations with various types of fruit trees, monitored soil and water conditions, and managed insect and disease infestations and all other aspects of the business of growing fruit. These records still exist in the care of Congdon Orchards, which remains in the ownership of Chester’s descendants. In the beginning, Congdon fruit was marketed through the Yakima Valley Horticultural Union, but in 1913, Congdon built its own packing and shipping facilities. From then on, Congdon fruit was marketed under the brand names A-na-wit, Congdon, Chekola, Blue Goose, and Trustworthee.
Chester Congdon built one of the Yakima Valley’s finest private residences. Known formally as Westhome (since the family’s principal residence, Glensheen, remained "back East" in Duluth, Minnesota), the home is more commonly called Congdon’s Castle because of its stone castle-like appearance. Although Chester died in 1916 before the house was fully completed, it remains a private retreat for the Congdon family. One of the less common Congdon Orchard labels features a rendering of the home’s stone tower.