Celebrating Fruit Growers Past and PresentDelta County Independent
By: Tamie Meck
Before the trains arrived, before high-paying mining jobs, and long before construction of the Paonia Project, the industrious new arrivals to the North Fork area planted fruit trees in the rich soil.
“We have such an amazing and rich history when it comes to fruit-growing in the area,” said Jaylene Park, a native Paonian whose grandfather was part of that history. Fruit orchards once lined the valley floor, from current day Bowie to the south end of Rogers Mesa.
It’s those early arrivers, and the world-class fruit they marketed, that put Paonia on the map and helped usher in the railroad.
What began as a search for the iconic lithograph fruit labels from those early days — Tom Tom, Grizzly, Gem of the Mountains, Stag and Tomahawk, to name a few — for inclusion in the annual Mountain Harvest Festival Art Walk led Park to dusty, cobweb-lined barns, sheds and attics on a hunt for artifacts relating to Paonia’s once world-famous cherries, apples, pears and peaches. What she found, with the generosity of the community, was displayed in a month-long exhibit at First Colorado National Bank. The bank itself, in which Park and husband Stan are majority owners, was chartered in 1903 and remains family-owned. It was the only Paonia bank to survive the Great Depression and its current location was once itself the site of a packing shed.
“To me, these old lithographs, these old fruit labels, are just works of art,” said Park, whose Quaker grandfather, Shyrl Knight, arrived in Paonia in 1919 to work on Earnest Allen’s fruit farm. He eventually formed his own company, and she was already searching for his grower number and a “Tutti-Fruitti” label that he may have used.
Early on she contacted Marilyn Bruce Tate, daughter of Ray Bruce. Tate grew up in the historic Bruce home located on Highway 133 near what is now Delicious Orchards. “Marilyn has spent a lifetime accumulating pieces of history,” said Park. “This would not have been possible without Marilyn.”
Tate shared numerous notebooks filled with historic photos and documents, including labels Park had never seen before. “It’s just amazing what she’s compiled,” said Park. Among her photos are “then and now” images of packing sheds. Park said that while some of today’s old buildings were obviously packing sheds, she had overlooked many others.
Park took the search to another level, seeking out the actual boxes, labels and tools in the pictures through the descendants of those who once used them. Eventually, “It took on a life of its own and really got fun,” said Park, who can hardly contain her exuberance for local history.
She also contacted many of today’s growers as a way to honor both past and present during Harvest Festival — Austin Family Farms, Berg Harvest, Orchard Valley Farms, Delicious Orchards, First Fruits. They contributed a great deal, including stories and artifacts.
She also contacted Connie Johnson, the granddaughter of farmers Ward and Anna Beezley, who arrived shortly after Samuel Wade and William Clark established Paonia. Park would mention an item she saw in a Tate photo, and Johnson would pull it from a shed and ask, “You mean like this?” When Park asked about a pair of stilts shown in a Beezley photograph, Johnson disappeared into a building and emerged with one in each hand. Johnson believes the stilts, used in pruning, were made by the Beezleys in the 1920s.
A grafting knife owned by her great uncle, Ward Beezley, was used to attach bing cherry branches to hearty bitter almond root stock. He was a true craftsman, said Johnson. The Beezleys grew cherries that were boxed 10 to a foot and had photos to prove it. “Those were the real bings,” she said.
A rare 1900s pamphlet, once mass-produced, touts the area’s fruit, and a special edition 50th anniversary phone book lists all the names and numbers from 1903-1953. “Think of any name,” said Park, “and it’s there. It’s kind of a great historical document without even trying to be.”
Johnson also loaned a ledger of Anna Beezley’s documenting cherry shipments beginning in 1923. It lists shipments to almost every state, and customers from state dignitaries to post-World War II Aspen skiing icon D.R.C. Brown.
Those early harvests are hard to imagine. The largest, the 1912 harvest, required 3,000 workers to process. (That was also the year John and Anna Beezley were married, said Johnson.)
The fruit trees were huge, said Glenn and Tony Austin, of Austin Family Farms, during the October Chamber Mixer held at the bank. Today they plant 800 trees per acre. “It used to be 40 trees per acre,” said Tony Austin. In 1910, a single peach tree yielded 71 boxes of 80 peaches. Stina Frazier, a member of the Lund family, said at the mixer that her grandfather, Christian Lund, came to Paonia after hearing of that tree.
Much of this history is included in numerous locally-authored books, including “Images of America: North Fork Valley,” co-written by Claudia King and Kathy Addams McKee. King is a life-long Paonia resident whose dad operated Palmer & Company packing plant. She began picking fruit in the 1940s at age 10, long before child labor laws. “My family had strong work ethics,” said King, who worked her way up in the packing shed to pasting labels on boxes and “gate girl,” opening certain gates in order to sort fruit by size.
The pioneers were quite self-sufficient, said King. Using a simple tool that was part hatchet, part hammer, also on display, King said a good box-maker could make 800-1,000 boxes a day.
Almost everything requiring industry was made in-house, both out of necessity and due to lack of transportation, said King. “They built the ladders, they built the stilts, they built the smudge pots.” The entire town was quite self-sufficient and boasted a power plant, cannery and evaporator, all cooperatively owned.
The collection grew throughout the month as locals brought in treasures from their own families’ past. One woman let Park pick through some 400 fruit boxes stored in a barn, which led to other connections, and yet more artifacts for the display.
Among the items were stencils, saws, hand carts, buckets, canning jars, apple peelers, pruning loppers, ladders, scales, picking sacks, baskets, original photos including two turn-of-the-century panoramic images of town touting Paonia as “The Great Fruit District of the West,” and sets of ice tongs and an awl used by the Beezleys to harvest ice from the river, which was packed in sawdust and stored in packing sheds to await harvest season and the long process of transporting tons of fruit across the country. With most tools made by hand, right down to the forging of parts, few items were ever exactly duplicated.
“This has been fun because everyone’s wanted to get in on this,” said Park.
Park gave several talks on the display, and at times everyone in the room was somehow connected to the local history. People came to the bank just to see if their own families were represented. They called and texted and stopped her at Eagles football games.
Bank employees also told of connections to the exhibit. Vice president Brad Harding is the great-great-nephew of John Bruce, who served on the first board of directors in 1903, and whose image was among Tate’s photos, and the great-great-grandson of Angus Bruce and nephew of Marilyn Bruce Tate.
Teresa Menzel said she’s from Oklahoma, but grew up on Tom Tom apples. “Learning about Paonia history has been so interesting,” she said.
One of the oldest items is an undated Underhill box. Park said she was unable to get Samuel Wade’s Bible, which would have made it the oldest item.
Local kindergartners were the first to experience the display during the Sept. 25 Art Walk. Lee Bradley brought a 1920s model truck used in hauling fruit, and the Austin family pressed cider in their antique press. Teacher Tammy Benson told Park the history lesson fit perfectly into her curriculum, and their thank-you notes became the most recent items on display.
People suggested that Park leave the display, or at least move it to a permanent home. But everything must be returned to its owner. “It’s kind of sad,” said Park.
But the search isn’t over. She plans to continue looking for the Shryl Knight family growing number and label, along with an elusive “Red Robin” fruit label and “Gold Buckle” labels from Malcomb Drake’s Gold Buckle Cannery once located east of downtown.