An early Lorane orchard getting sprayed.

An introduction

Oregon’s earliest history lessons usually involve the stories of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the hunters and trappers who provided pelts for trading with the Native Americans, the migration over the Oregon Trail by its early settlers, cattle drives, and gold seekers passing through the area in search for gold in Southern Oregon and California.

They tell about the impact that the Oregon Territory’s bountiful and beautiful Douglas fir, pine, and cedar forests have had on our economy throughout its history. But little is told about an industry that also helped grow Oregon’s economy long before it became a state.

In 1847, Oregon’s own “Johnny Appleseeds” – Henderson Luelling, his brother Seth (who spelled his name “Lewelling”) – and other family members, brought 700 one-year-old fruit trees by ox-team from Iowa.

It’s very possible that some of their apple trees descended from seeds propagated by John Chapman (1774-1845), aka the real “Johnny Appleseed,” whose religion and goal in life during the early-to-mid-1800s was “to produce so many apples that no one would ever go hungry.” The itinerant preacher, painted by legend as an aimless wanderer, was, in fact, a sharp businessman who also bought and sold tracts of land and developed orchards with thousands of apple trees throughout the U.S. for almost 50 years.

Oregon catches attention

Upon settling in what was to become the Milwaukee, Ore., area, the Luelling brothers established Oregon’s first nursery and began grafting a variety of fruit trees they had brought to Oregon to produce new and better varieties. By 1853, they had over 100,000 trees for sale. Their orchards provided homesteaders throughout the Oregon Territory with not only apple, but cherry, pear, peach, black walnut and shell-bark hickory trees in addition to quince, grape, currant and gooseberry plants to begin their own home orchards.

In 1848, Philander and Anna Lee bought “squatters rights” from James Baker, one of the very earliest settlers in Oregon who had arrived on a cattle drive in what is now the Canby area in about 1832. Philander and Anna planted 80 of their acres to apples and it’s very possible that those young trees came from the Luelling orchards. In 1850, the Lees were able to gain title to 647 acres through the Donation Land Claim Act which brought a flood of settlers to the Oregon Territory. When his apple trees began producing, Philander shipped the fruit to the California gold fields for premium prices.

Orchards boom

More and more orchards began springing up all over Oregon, especially in the fertile lands of the Willamette Valley and the Columbia River Gorge. Areas in Southern Oregon, where the soil had too much clay for other farm crops, also welcomed the growth of fruit trees. With the eventual easy-access to the railroads in the latter part of the century, markets were found for the fruit in the Midwest, East and Southwest parts of the United States and packing houses began to be built to ensure that the apples, peaches, pears, plums and other fragile fruits arrived at their destinations unbruised and flavorful.

A.B. Pulver, a newspaper reporter and big fan of Oregon’s apples, wrote a detailed account of his love affair with the fruit and the state of Oregon in The Mansfield News, Mansfield, Ohio, on Sept. 30, 1911, and I include a few quotes from it here:

“What a revelation it has been to most of us to see the open box of Oregon apples, their size and their color and their perfection in form are charms we never thought possible, and whoever expected to see the day when the finest and largest oranges could be bought for 50 cents a dozen and see apples lying beside them that really sold for twice the money; single apples are frequently known to be in tremendous demand in the east and in Europe at 50 cents each and one stand in Ceylon, India, sells all the apples it can possibly buy at an average price of $1 apiece in American money. All of the big trans-Atlantic liners carry a large assortment of Oregon apples. The trans-continental trains across the United States serve Oregon apples in all the diners, giving Oregon the credit on their menu cards for the raising of them. The very term ‘Oregon apple,’ spoken in the open market, commands attention, excites interest and lays the foundation for a high price

“... Seventeen years ago (in 1893) at the World’s Fair in Chicago, Oregon scored its first great apple victory, capturing the first prize. In 1902 Oregon apples were awarded the first prize at the Pan-American exposition in Buffalo. Oregon apples won the first prize at the Louisiana Purchase exposition, St. Louis, 1904. At the Lewis and Clark exposition held in Portland, Oregon, 1905, Oregon apples again carried all the honors and in 1909 Oregon apples captured the first prize at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific exposition, Seattle, Washington.

Again at Denver in 1909, Rogue River apples were awarded first prize. Oregon apples won the grand sweepstake prize of $1,000 at the National Apple Show at Spokane in 1909 and 1910 and were awarded all first honors and were selected and sent to President Taft and King Edward VII.

“... A resume of medals bestowed upon Oregon fruit will reveal the interesting conclusion that the soil, climate and character of Oregon must be the most adaptable for horticultural purposes of any district in the United States, or even the world ... Crop failures in the fruit valleys of Oregon are positively unknown. Here, it is literally true that, ‘Money grows on trees.’”

The article goes on to proclaim that the Yellow Newtown Pippin and the Spitzenberg apples ‘are the two highest priced apples in the markets and are successfully grown only in Oregon.’

Investors see opportunity

By the turn of the century – in 1900 – the orchard industry was strong and it began to attract the attention of Midwest investors who came up with a plan to reap an additional bounty from the flourishing industry.

These investors came to Oregon and bought individual farms and small orchards in order to amass large acreages of 1,500 acres and more. They then platted the properties into mostly 5-acre parcels which they offered as investment opportunities to speculators all over the U.S. The original investors would maintain and harvest the crops which would be sold to markets all over the world and the profits would be shared.

Other investors began offering 10- and 20-acres parcels to those who wanted to buy them and build homes on them so they could move to the area and maintain their own crops.

A.B. Pulver continues, “Land is being developed in 5-, 10- and 20-acre tracts for fruit, and one would think the income from these tracts were more imagination if he did not see the fruit selling in every city in the world at the most fancy prices.”

By the turn of the century, the neighboring communities of Creswell and Lorane had proven to have the topography and type of soil for growing large acreages of fruit trees and they became local examples of this “new wave” of investments in orchards in the Pacific Northwest which proved to have major impacts on both. 

NEXT WEEK: “This is the Creswell Story”