Sunday, July 21, 2024

Roots of abundance: A journey through Leavenworth’s Pear Industry

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This is the first article in a series about the pear industry in Leavenworth. With thanks to the Leavenworth Public Library and the Greater Leavenworth Museum, this installment provides a brief origin story and general history of the orchard business in Leavenworth. The following installments will detail the industry’s growth in the intervening decades, two major waves of migration for work in the orchards, its current status, and future.

LEAVENWORTH – In the Odyssey, Homer describes the pears that Odysseus admires in the garden of Alcinous, King of the Phaeacians, as one of the ‘gifts of the gods.’ The noble tradition of pear cultivation began in Leavenworth in the late 19th century and continues to this day.

Leavenworth has a rich history tied to the tree fruit industry. The area’s nutrient-rich volcanic soil, favorable climate - with ample sunshine followed by cool nights in the spring, summer, and fall - and abundant water supply from Icicle Creek and the Wenatchee River make it an ideal location for fruit cultivation. 

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, settlers in the area, first known as Icicle Flats, began planting apples along Icicle Creek amidst the logging industry, recognizing the potential for fruit production. Leavenworth’s first commercial orchard was planted in 1906 by John B. Adams. Other orchardists followed suit, including John Emig, who planted Bartlett and Flemish Beauty pears alongside his apples in his orchards on the upper reaches of the land between present-day Pine Street and Ski Hill.

In the first decades of the 20th century, pears were commonly planted alongside apples. Pears soon outpaced their industry cousins, though, to become a significant part of the local industry and marking the beginning of Leavenworth’s specialization in the fruit. The cooler microclimate in the upper end of the Wenatchee Valley, situated in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains, created ideal conditions for pears to flourish. 

With advances in irrigation techniques, including miles of irrigation canals completed, together with the incorporation of the Great Northern Railway to facilitate distribution to broader markets, the tree fruit industry in Leavenworth expanded significantly during the 1920s and 1930s. Farmers began experimenting with different pear varieties most suited to the climate. Bartletts and Anjous became particularly successful, known for their flavor, ability to thrive in the region, and reliability during transportation and storage.

The continued success of the orchards during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years led to the migration of “Okies” and “Arkies” from the American prairie to the Wenatchee Valley in search of agricultural work. Mexican immigration to the orchards followed as early as the 1940s and began in earnest in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

By that time, pear cultivation had become a significant part of the economy in Leavenworth and nearby communities, and the area gained recognition for its high-quality produce. The introduction of modern agricultural practices, including the use of pesticides and fertilizers, continued to improve crop yields and quality. In addition, packing and storage facilities were modernized, allowing for better preservation and distribution.

While the Upper Valley from Monitor to Leavenworth remains a major world producer of world-class pears, Leavenworth’s orchard footprint has become smaller with land development. Nonetheless, orchards remain and continue to produce fruit commercially.

Beyond its economic importance, pear cultivation in Leavenworth has also had a cultural impact, influencing festivals, football rivalries (i.e., the “Pear Bowl” between Leavenworth and Cashmere), and events celebrating the harvest season. Together with its Bavarian theme, agricultural heritage and the pear remains an integral part of Leavenworth’s identity.

Caroline Menna is an intern for Ward Media and a rising senior (Class of 2025) at Cascade High School. She will serve as Editor-in-Chief of the Cascade High School Publications Group for the 2024-2025 academic year.

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