We can be ten thousand miles from the Cowiche-Tieton-Naches-Heights area somewhere in a hotel lobby, restaurant or store and see an apple and almost, instinctively, we think of the high plateau of the Tieton River Valley. Many of us grew up in the region and worked the orchards and the fruit processing plants, without caring much at the time as to whether it was always as we knew then.
It wasn’t always as we knew it then, so we track the history of the apple in the region from the days of the apple bag, the apple basket (pecks), the apple box and the apple bin that were used to harvest and store the fruit at various times in history. Greek and Roman mythology referred to the apple as a symbol of love and beauty. For many of us the apple is more a symbol of hard work and a place we once called home.
Botanists theorize that the apple originated somewhere in central and southern China. Scripture leads us to believe that the fruit originated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia (Iraq). However, all knowledgeable Cowichians know that the ‘best’ apple originated on the high Tieton Plateau in Eastern Washington after being introduced to the Pacific Northwest in 1825 by Captain Aemilius Simmons, who planted the first apple seed at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia.
Captain Simmons procured the seeds for those first trees while he attended a farewell banquet in his honor in London. At that farewell party it is said, a young lady slipped some apple seeds into his pocket and bade him plant them in the wilderness. Some time after Captain Simmons arrival at Fort Vancouver, he handed the seeds over to John McLoughlin, Chief Agent of the Hudson's Bay Company. McLoughlin, delighted by the gift, gave the seeds to his gardener to plant. The first tree was said to have produced only one apple, but the seeds of that single fruit is said to have bore future generations of hardier stock.
Whether any of that Fort Vancouver tree’s offspring ever reached the Cowiche region is unknown. We do know that all kinds of fruit trees, including apple trees, were being shipped along the Oregon Trail west, starting in about 1844. It is likely the trees that John Goodwin and John Wellard Stevenson II planted at the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Cowiche in 1867 and 1870 respectively, came along the Oregon Trail to Cowiche. There is however, a very good chance that those first apple trees in Cowiche that Stevenson planted came from that planting at Fort Vancouver as Stevenson first homestead on the Columbia, not far from Fort Vancouver. One could assume Stevenson was a frequent visitor at the Fort.
Apples, of course, are a perishable fruit. They were used for apple cider, applejack, apple brandy, and vinegar with its multiplicity of uses by those that came first to settle the land of Cowiche. Those early Settlers in Cowiche also used the apples from their home gardens and orchards for applesauce, apple butter, apple juice, jams and jellies, and they used them for feeding livestock, especially hogs. Being perishable, they could not be stored for long periods, so the Settlers dried them and hung them in burlap sacks in the attic and other places where they were kept out of the reach of mice in a location where it was dry. Pies and deserts then could be made from the dried fruit long into the winter.
Some of the local farmers grew fruit along the creek as a cash crop, but not many. The store in Old Cowiche often had to turn away farmers selling their produce. There was more of a market in Yakima City (Union Gap), but to market there took a full day of travel away from work on the farm with its daily chores.
The apple varieties farmers were growing along the creek in the late 1880s and 1890s included varieties like Baldwin, Esopus, Spitzenburg, Green Newton, Jonathan, Hawley, Newton Spitzenburg, Swaar, Winesap, and York Imperial. There were over 500 varieties of apples by the time the first apple tree was planted along the Cowiche. The varieties mentioned here were the popular, uniquely American varieties developed by John Chapman and others. Within a hundred years, most of these first varieties could no longer be found in the orchards of the area.
Johnny Appleseed, whose real name was John Chapman, was a popular folk character in early nineteenth-century America. Born in Massachusetts, in 1774, Johnny Appleseed started seedling apple tree nurseries throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. Traveling by canoe or on foot, he gave apple seeds from cider mills to any farmer who promised to plant them and take care of them. On his travels he also planted seedling nurseries in clearings. At his death in 1847, he had established apple trees over 100,000 square miles of territory.
By 1900 significant acreage in the Cowiche region was already under irrigation from the waters of the North and South Forks of the Cowiche and canals like the Dolly Vardon and Cowiche Ditch. However, the major cash crops other than cattle and horses were dairy products, sugar beets and potatoes.
Three things occurred near the beginning of the twentieth century that was to bring significant changes in farming in the area. First, the railroad came to Yakima in 1885 and to Weikel in 1912, and later in 1917 to what is now Tieton City. Secondly, between 1890 and 1930, the refrigerated rail car had been developed and refined to allow the transportation of all manner of perishable products, including apples. Thirdly, irrigation expanded between 1910 and 1912 placing thousands more acres under irrigation. Now fruit became the cash crop of choice for most because fruit could be preserved and shipped to markets far to the east. As Margaret Crews would say, the area went from “rags to riches.” Almost overnight the value of the land went from a few dollars an acre to over a thousand dollars an acre by the early 1920s.
The change from sugar beets and potatoes to fruit, as a cash crop was gradual with both planted between the rows of the seedling fruit trees until they reached fruit bearing age.
The first crops from the small trees were picked in apple baskets of a bushel or less in size. Fruit was piled on wagons and hauled to a location where often they were simply stored on the ground. Shown in the photo below is Ethel (Wheeler) Anderson, the grandmother of Barbara (Patterson) McLemore, graduate of Highland High School in 1957. The photo was believed taken about 1915 north and west of present day Tieton City. The first fruit harvested was packed in barrels and prepared for storage or shipment to Weikel Siding and Naches. The local school buildings were used for packing facilities until some farmers were able to construct warehouse facilities for storage and processing on their own land.
Firms involved in the processing and distribution sprang up starting in 1917 with C. M. Holtzinger constructing the first commercial warehouse, where he hoped the railroad would terminate in the area at what today is Old Cowiche Road and Forney Road. Other co-op businesses like the Cowiche Grower’s Inc. in 1923 and various family operations like Marley Orchards and Stand Fruit were added over the years.
The railroad didn’t terminate where Holtzinger had hoped, but was extended all the way to present day Tieton City. There at end of tract other storage and processing facilities were constructed, including The Tieton Horticultural Union Plant, F. H. Cubberley Fruit Company, and Richey and Gilbert, Marley’s Fruit, among others.
These processing facilities provided seasonal work for many and permanent jobs for a few. With the harvest in the fall personnel were hired to receive and store fruit and to begin sorting and packing the fruit preparing it for sale. Early on the fr