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June 21, 2011 > History: Queen of the Fruits

History: Queen of the Fruits

Apricots originated in Armenia and nearby regions. They were cultivated in India by 3,000 B.C., brought west to parts of the Roman Empire by 200 A.D. and to America by English Colonists and Spanish missionaries.

Growing apricots started in California soon after the founding of Mission San Diego in 1769. Apricots were grown at several missions including Mission San Jose. E. L. Beard took over this orchard, cared for it and sold fruit from it.

The garden at Mission San Jose, which the priests had planted, contained a mystical seedling apricot tree that was said to be a symbol of the "Garden of Eden, the Tree of the Fall of Man." Native Americans feared the tree for they had been taught that it was sacred and not to be touched. To them it really was the "Tree of Forbidden Fruit."

Fruit became a major part of agricultural production in Washington Township by 1880, limited at times by pest control problems and occasional frosts. American nurserymen introduced improved varieties including the Moorpark and Blenheim. Apricots grow readily from seed and this led to the development of interesting seedlings. Some 20 varieties were developed in California, but only about three remained by 1938.

Reverend W. W. Brier purchased trees from local nurserymen and planted an orchard that included apricots. In 1880 he and his son William Jr. patented their own variety of apricots called "Brier's Royal Golden Apricot Variety."

Dried apricots became popular in the 1880's. The Alden fruit drier at Centerville was probably the first in our area. It operated briefly in the late 1800's and was followed by more successful driers by 1900.

Apricot production increased rapidly in the early 1900's, and even though our local fruit was known to be the best, price was usually a problem. Growers were paid about $35 per ton in 1914 but buyers were offering only $20 the next year because the European war had destroyed demand for dried and canned fruit. By 1923, Niles area growers were irrigating their orchards, yielding about eight tons of apricots per acre and commanding a price of about $50 a ton.

The dried apricot run in 1931 was five times greater than the previous year. Many apricots were small or of poor quality because the farmers could not afford to spray. Tony Garcia hired some 100 workers and dried over 300 tons of fruit. A chart printed in 1932 showed the price for canning apricots had dwindled from $125 per ton in 1918 to $25 in 1932. Problems in 1934 included brown rot, but the fruit was highly colored with relatively high sugar content and brought about $75 per ton.

The price dropped to $32 in 1936, a serious blow to Washington Township which produced about 70 percent of the county crop. Growers were employing between 300 to 400 hands picking and cutting apricots. Fast pickers made about $15 per week and expert cutters $20 to $25. Canneries always needed lots of help in canning season. In 1944 Booth Cannery advertised for 200 women to help can apricots for the armed forces.

Washington Township weather was perfect for growing apricots but sometimes there were problems. Rain and a late season freeze killed 40 percent of the blossoms in March 1953.

A local paper reported in 1969 that the "Queen of the Fruit, lush Blenheim apricots, are ripening all over Fremont, but local growers are plagued with serious problems." Prices were low, the fruit was smaller, fungus was infecting the trees and the leaves were sun burned. Air pollution from flourides was determined to be the problem. Fungus disease and air pollution were destroying Fremont's number one fruit business. The 5,000 acres of "cots" grown in Fremont in 1945 declined to 600 acres by 1968; new trees were not being planted.

People talked about having an apricot festival, but it didn't happen until 1946 when an Irvington square dance club decided to sponsor this great event. They appointed committees chaired by Gus Robertson and spent several months planning a three-day celebration. Between 10,000 and 20,000 people jammed the streets of Irvington on June 22, 1946 to watch the huge parade.

The parade was the main event but there were many other attractions for the two-day celebration. Sixty-four local girls signed up for the queen contest. They sold tickets to decide who would be queen and queen's maids from each village in Washington Township. Ellen Hall won the contest and was crowned queen in front of 8,000 people. Other events included a P.T.A. breakfast, a grand ball during which the queen was crowned, costume dancing and folk dancing.

One of the last apricot orchards of the area began in 1875 when Joseph Nunes built a farmhouse on seven acres of fertile land on the banks of Alameda Creek. His son James and wife Mary moved there in 1935. James died in a tractor accident in the orchard in 1976 but Marry carried on and kept the orchard alive. Her Blenheim apricots drew people from miles around and in the 1980s it was recognized as a "Garden of Eden" and the last apricot orchard in the area.

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