Roy and Theo Thornton sold their Okanogan County apples under two of their own labels, Britevale and Thornton’s. Operating their own warehouse had been a dream of the couple from their start in the fruit business.
By 1924, northern Okanogan County in Washington State was becoming well known as a region ideal for the production of apples. And with the advent of regular service by the Great Northern Railway just a few years earlier, the marketing of the Okanogan-grown fruit was easy and convenient.
Roy C. Thornton and his wife, Theo, who owned a small orchard near Wenatchee, Washington, had always dreamed of selling and shipping their own fruit. When they heard about the newly improved conditions in the Okanogan region, just north of them, the Thorntons decided to relocate. They sold their 12.5-acre Wenatchee orchard, negotiated with realestate –brokers with large holdings in the Okanogan, and eventually purchased a 25-acre piece of property four miles north of the community of Tonasket. On January 1, 1925, Roy and his wife, Theo, moved into an existing two-story log house on the property, which was known locally as the "Happy Valley Ranch." The property also had a number of mature apple trees, which primarily produced the Winesap, common Delicious, and Stayman varieties. However, the area had no electricity, no paved roads, and no bus service. And the rail service required travel into Tonasket, where one could take a train to Wenatchee one day and return the next.
Roy planted 3,000 Starking Red and Golden Delicious trees in the spring of 1925. It was a grueling task because every tree hole was dug with a hand shovel. And all were a total loss when they were freeze-killed during the subsequent winter of 1925-1926. Thornton persevered. He ordered 3,000 new trees, and set them out in the spring of 1926. This time, the planting was easier, as it was accomplished with the help of a new Cletrac Crawler tractor purchased from the Wenatchee branch of the Yakima-based Lindeman Power and Equipment Company. This was one of the first crawler tractors purchased for orchard work, and people stopped along the road to watch it work. To help pay for this new piece of equipment, Roy rented it to the contractors working on nearby land reclamation projects.
The orchard grew, but hard winter freezes and the Great Depression of the early 1930s delayed realization of the Thorntons’ original dream of a warehouse in which to pack and sell their own fruit. Finally, in 1935, a small shed was built three miles north of Tonasket, although electricity had to be brought north two miles, with the Thorntons buying the wire and poles in return for installation and maintenance by the –Washington Water Power Company. Roy allowed neighbors to hook into "his" new electric line, and for the first time, the farmers in the region had electricity, even though there were still no adjacent rail facilities.
The next year, in 1936, the Thorntons constructed a one-hundred-foot-long wooden warehouse on their own ranch.
Electricity was brought in, and when Roy agreed to purchase the rail and ties, the Great Northern constructed a 240-foot rail spur. At long last, the Thorntons had the infrastructure in place to realize their dream of selling and shipping their own fruit. The business grew, and in 1946 the railroad spur was extended to a 508-foot sidetrack. A new pumice-stone warehouse with cold storage was built and was the first to utilize overhead steel roof support beams rather than internal pillars; this allowed for the use of large apple bins rather than boxes for storage.
During World War II, the Happy Valley Ranch took advantage of the program that used German prisoners of war to pick fruit; local manpower was largely fighting the war elsewhere. After the war, in 1947, parolees from the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe were sent into the Okanogan area as pickers to help solve the continuing labor shortage. The Thorntons were assigned 75 men who were promised that they would be given their freedom if they stayed until the job got done—the Happy Valley Ranch 1947 crop was fully harvested in record time.
Roy and Theo Thornton, through years of hard work, saw their dream come true by developing their own orchards, building their own warehouse and cold storage facility, and becoming independent shippers of apples. They eventually sold under their own labels, Thornton’s and Britevale, to every state in the United States and throughout the world. At one time, the Happy Valley Ranch was the largest Golden –Delicious grower in Okanogan County and had the largest orchard acreage cultivated in one tract under one owner in the Oroville—Tonasket Irrigation System.
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