Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Bitterroot Apple Trees

Even before the 1909 Enlarged Homestead Act was underway, the Bitterroot Valley apples drew a large population to Ravalli County. The valley’s especially long growing season was realized very early. The first apple orchards in the Bitterroot Valley were planted in the 1860s. Thomas Harris in the Three Mile area planted fruit trees in 1866. The Bass brothers planted the first commercial orchard, obtaining their trees by mail order from Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1870. Removal of the Salish to the Jocko reservation in 1890 opened land for investors. Refrigerated rail cars made long-distance shipment possible. By 1894, the commercial apple trade was underway. Investors bought land for 2 to 15 dollars an acre and planted thousands of MacIntosh apple trees. During the early 1900s, railroad companies sold their unneeded land, new dry land farming methods became popular, and investors began aggressive booster programs to entice easterners west. Montana and the Bitter Root Valley were part of these schemes. By 1906, the boom was on. During the teens, western Montana had nearly one million apple trees. Bitter Root MacIntosh apples were eventually marketed and sold across the United States.

Montana advertised its apples and orchard produce extensively. These early 1900s labels were reproduced in
Good Fruit Grower magazine, April 2010.

Two trees at St. Mary’s Mission in Stevensville are believed to be the valley’s oldest surviving apple trees. Both are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of St. Mary’s Mission Historic District. Father Ravalli’s surviving crab apple tree dates to 1869 and serves as a reminder of the agricultural skills the Jesuits brought to the valley. Its aged trunk still puts forth shoots, and its buds, grafted onto rootstock, have produced numerous offspring. The other, a Wolf River apple tree, dates to circa 1870.

Father Ravalli's crab apple tree, planted in 1869 at St. Mary's Mission, still puts out shoots. Ellen Baumler photo.
These trees are all that remain of Father Ravalli’s extensive gardens. Grafts from these trees form the small orchard to the north in adjacent De Smet Park and are the parent trees of many in the Stevensville area.

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