History of the Fruit Industry in Mesa County

by Joyce Sexton*

The Birth

The early history of fruit growing in Mesa County closely parallels the development of irrigation systems in the county. Low annual rainfall and high temperatures during the summer made irrigation essential before fruit trees could be successfully grown. Irrigation in the Grand Valley began in 1882 and consisted of inexpensive gravity canals taken from the Colorado River near the mouth of the Colorado River canyon. The Grand Valley Irrigation Co. consolidated several of these separate canals and covered nearly as much land as it does today on the north side of the Colorado River. Land south of the river and beyond the Big Salt Wash west of Fruita was brought under irrigation in the next few years and was all that could be irrigated at that time. The Reclamation Service began irrigation investigations of the Grand Valley in 1902; in 1903 a board of engineers recommended a survey of a canal designed to water about 15,000 more acres. Due to many delays, construction didn’t get underway until September 1912.

William Edgar Pabor was the first man to recognize the possibility of fruit production in the Grand Valley, and in 1883, he planted apples, pears, peaches, cherries, plums, and grapes near Fruita. About the same time, Charles W. Steele and Elam Blain set out apple and peach trees approximately three miles east of Grand Junction and produced the first fruit in that area. Rose and Miller of Colorado Springs set out the first large peach orchard in the area located east of Fruita. It was one of the largest peach orchards ever planted in the valley and covered 110 acres. Unfortunately, it winter killed and the peach business next appeared some years later near Palisade, where the canyon breeze from east of town protected the trees and blossoms.

A. M. Olds planted several varieties of apple north of Grand Junction in the area known as Fruit Ridges. The varieties included in the Olds planting were Pewaukee, Yellow Transparent, Red Astrachan, Belleflower, and others. The first nursery in the valley was started by D. S. Grimes and sold to Robert A. Orr in 1882. According to A. C. Newton, an early fruit grower and writer, the first apple varieties planted were hardy types such as Snow, Walbridge, Baily Sweet, Geniton, Red Astrachan and Maiden Blush. Present day varieties such as Jonathan and Winesap were not included in the early plantings.

In 1885, apples, peaches, and cherries were set by William Bomgardner and Robert Orr. There were as many as 84 different varieties of apple in Baumgardner’s orchard. Mr. C. W. Steele planted 35 acres of peaches in 1886, and in 1890, sixty acres of fruit were planted on Rapid Creek above Palisade, by Governor Crawford.

The installation of pumping systems to supply irrigation water from the Colorado River to the Orchard Mesa area resulted in the development of one of the most concentrated peach districts in the U.S. This area is also one of the most frost-free and retains some old trees to the present.

The Growth

The Grand Valley was struck with an apple boom about 1895 when promoters planted thousands of acres, in five, ten, twenty, and forty-acre lots. These people had very little knowledge of soils, varieties, and drainage requirements and inevitably many orchards were planted on undesirable sites. The valley from Loma to Palisade and in the Whitewater area was soon spread with many orchards and real estate soared in price.

As early as 1890, the pioneers felt that an annual cultural event, celebration, or community-wide pageant, which would unite the people and promote community spirit was needed. In September 1895, a festival was held in the Grand Valley. It was estimated that 10,000 people came to be served delicious Mesa County peaches. William Jennings Bryan was the guest speaker for the crowd of visitors.

Another celebration held in Grand Junction in 1909 was called Peach Day. President Taft, who was the guest of the city and the fruit growers, spoke of the wonderful fruit grown in Mesa County.

As it became more obvious that fruit growing in Mesa County was a profitable business, people began to invest in company Orchards and several were bought or planted in the valley. Two of these company orchards were located three to four miles east of Fruita. The Western Slope Orchard Co. and Hayes Orchard Co., later called Rose Dale Orchards, were planted about 1900. Each of these company orchards covered 160 acres and employed five to eight people year-round. During peak work periods, such as pruning and harvesting, 25 to 30 more workers were hired. For a period of ten to fifteen years, these orchards produced and marketed fine apples.

According to statistics in 1909 and 1910, the Fruita area was leading in production of apples. In those years, this section yielded a net annual income per acre equal to the net annual income of any farmland in the world. In 1909, the apple crop in Mesa County totaled 1,400 rail cars, which was nearly double that of the previous year. Prices obtained varied from $1.25 to $2.00 per box. One report states that the fruit industry in Mesa County reached its peak in 1911, when the value of the fruit crop passed the million dollar mark. Apple, pears, and peaches, in that order, were a central part of the Mesa County economy.

In 1915, it was reported that 15,340 acres were in fruit and the Grand Valley from Loma to Palisade had remarkable enthusiasm about the fruit industry. Western Slope fruit won prizes in all parts of the U.S. for its beauty, color, and taste. At Cornell University in 1908, fourteen varieties of Grand Valley apples won sweepstakes. When thirteen carloads of fruit from Colorado and other Western states were placed on exhibition at the National Apple Exposition held in Denver in January, 1910, Grand Junction won the sweepstakes for the best carload of apples. This carried a prize of $1,000. Fruita won the second prize of $500 and Miss Mable Skinner of Fruita was crowned queen of the National Apple show. In 1913, Grand Valley apples took first prize in Cleveland, OH. By all reports, Grand Valley fruit won blue ribbons in all the large cities where it was exhibited.

From 1915 to 1925, 47% of the fruit was shipped from Grand Junction, 34% from Clifton, 12% from Fruita, 6% from Palisade, and 1% from Loma. Following the removal of apple trees from the areas around Grand Junction, Fruita, and Clifton, the industry started heavy plantings of peaches in the Palisade area, including the East Orchard Mesa district.

Marketing

The early development of the fruit industry in Mesa County found markets available in gold and silver mining camps of the state. The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad narrow gauge line from the Eastern Slope to Sale Lake City, Utah, was completed in 1883 and provided the only means of shipping fruit out of the valley. It was not many years before a surplus of fruit developed which was shipped to areas in the Midwest and east by carload lots. This meant standardization of fruit maturity, color, quality, grades, and containers to meet competitive markets. As the volume of fruit increased to a level for profitable shipment, the containers for such products were added to suppliers available from local lumberyards.

An electric train system was constructed through the Grand Valley from Grand Junction to Fruita about 1910. It was called the “Interurban”. This system was used extensively by the apple growers to transport packed apples to the railroad loading docks in Grand Junction and Fruita. The “Interurban” also had a passenger service and ran passenger cars on round trips eight times a day. During apple harvest, more freight cars were added and the number of runs increased to accommodate the large shipments of apples from the orchards along the route.

Around the turn of the century, three pioneer orchardists of the Grand Valley formed a corporation called the Grand Junction Fruit Growers Association. The Associations’ sales were handled through commission men. Exorbitant handling charges and alleged unfair reports led to dissatisfaction among the growers. Growers rallied around the Grand Junction Fruit Growers Association and it immediately grew into a very active and successful cooperative which handled most of the fruit grown in the county for many years. The very successful Grand Junction Fruit Growers Association was a pioneer in fruit Cooperatives, and largely responsible for the success of the fruit industry in the early years. The Association had loading platforms in Fruita, Grand Junction, Clifton, Palisade, and Bridges Switch. Eventually a few grower members with a $5.00 investment made a million dollar nuisance of themselves at annual meetings and those carrying the brunt of financial responsibility finally took over control. The result was formation of competing cooperatives.

The Western Colorado Producers Cooperative was organized in 1937 with Harry Bridges of Palisade as the first manager. (The name was later changed to the Cooperative Producers Association.) The Grand Junction Fruit Growers Association had the Mountain Lion as its brand name and symbol and when the Association discontinued operations in 1936, the Mountain Lion brand was carried on by the Western Colorado Producers Cooperative, and then by the Cooperative Producers Association. Because of the brand name, the Cooperative Producers changed to Mountain Lion Fruit, Inc. in 1961. Mountain Lion operated loading platforms at Palisade and Clifton. Fred Powell became manager of the Western Colorado Producers Coop. in February 1938, and continued in that capacity until 1950, when James Doyle took over as manager from 1950 to 1960. Fred Powell returned to manage the Mountain Lion Fruit Inc. from 1960 through January 1969. In February 1969, Mr. Jacobs became manager and remained in that position until Mountain Lion was bought out by United Fruit Growers Association in March 1971.

The United Fruit Growers Association was formed in April 1923, one of the first to be set up under the Colorado Cooperative Marketing Law. It was operating continuously out of Palisade and for a time had a platform at Bridges Switch. Mr. Crissey was the first manager, followed by A.M. Echternach from 1925 to 1943. Carl Hoisington then became the manager from 1944 until his retirement in 1974.

There was also a group of independent growers in the valley, most of whom shipped through Schmieding Brothers, Inc. which was privately owned. Schmieding Bros. operated their business in the valley for about 35 years and became incorporated in 1955 and was managed by Ms. Margie Wentzel.

 The Decline

During the apple boom of 1895, a large number of the newly planted orchards were sold to eastern buyers, mostly professional people with very little knowledge of fruit growing, soils, and soil drainage. It was eventually noted by the most observing growers that in many orchards, the trees began to wither and die in the lower ends of the rows. This condition tended to spread higher and higher in the fields. At first the cause was not suspected, but later it was found that overuse of irrigation water and poor soil drainage led to accumulation of salts in the soil and a high water table which resulted in unhealthy trees and lowered production. Many orchards were eventually pulled from these poor sites and were replaced with other more tolerant crops.

Another serious problem that confronted the apple and pear growers was wormy fruit caused by codling moth. Due to lack of knowledge, the fruit industry was ruined before the growers fully realized their serious predicament. At that time, lead arsenate was the primary treatment for the insect and when the scientists came in to survey the condition they found the Grand Valley codling moth had a resistance to arsenate greater than any other place in the world. It is supposed that the insect population had built up its own immunization through survival of arsenate tolerant individuals.

There were neglected orchards of apples and pears everywhere that were so infested with pests that hope for any solution without modern day chemicals was futile. Orchard land was waste land and the trees were rubbish. As a result, more than half million trees were pulled up and destroyed. The peach trees were not affected by the codling moth, but they were threatened by the peach mosaic virus and chlorosis. This last disorder was slower in action and there was no general wide spread devastation but it was a serious problem and was eventually fatal to the orchard. Other problems that confronted the fruit industry were inexperienced growers, neglect, high cost of land resulting from speculation, increased cost of pest control, and unorganized marketing. All of these contributed to the removal of thousands of acres of apple, pear, and peach in the Grand Valley area.

 The Rebirth

The rebirth of the fruit industry in Mesa County was in part made possible by the development of new, better, and safer chemicals. DDT played a major part in bringing the oriental fruit moth (on peaches) and the codling moth (on pears and apples) under sufficient control that it was once again profitable to grow fruit. Following the removal of apples trees from the areas around Grand Junction, Fruita, and Clifton, the industry started heavy plantings of peaches in the Palisade area, including the East Orchard Mesa district. The areas around Clifton planted pear trees on the heavier river bottom soils, and they proved to be successful. There was also extensive planting of peach and apricots in the Redlands area. During the period of replanting fruit trees from 1926 to the present time, there has been a reduction in total number of trees with fewer orchards, but the total production has almost equaled that of earlier days. Plantings are continuing to increase each year in Western Colorado with a trend toward fewer orchards, larger acreages under one management or owner, fewer varieties being planted, more careful selection of orchard sites for soil drainage and irrigation water supplies. Growers are more experienced, progressive, and alert to consumer demands and their support of research and extension programs has increased.

The fruit industry in Mesa County has passed through the difficult and costly promotion and development periods and although the total acreage planted in fruit trees in Mesa County has decreased, the industry is basically sound. The ability to produce satisfactory yields, a quality product, and meet changes is good, and should improve since expanded research facilities became available in Mesa County in 1962.

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*Biographical note: Joyce Sexton was the secretary at Colorado State University\’s Orchard Mesa Research Center until health difficulties necessitated early retirement in May of 1996. She was a native of the Grand Junction area and was very familiar with many of the “old timer” fruit growers in the valley. It was her strong desire to see that the story of the fruit industry in Mesa County not be lost to future generations. Accordingly, she prepared the above historical account by talking with them and taking notes of their stories and then sifting through other written records for the period. She completed her document in late 1986, in time for inclusion in the Proceedings of the Western Colorado Horticultural Society for the January 1987 Convention. Joyce died April 11, 1997.

– Harold Larsen, Acting Superintendent for the Colorado State University – Orchard Mesa Research Center, 1992 – 1998

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