For nearly a century, Washington has been the nation's leading apple-growing state. Washington's apple story began in the 1820s, when the first apple seeds were planted at Fort Vancouver. Early farmers grew apples for home and local consumption. With the coming of large-scale irrigation in the 1890s, orchardists discovered that the Yakima, Wenatchee, and Okanogan valleys in Central Washington were ideal for apple growing. When railroads arrived, growers were able to sell their fruit throughout the West. In the 1920s and 1930s, Central Washington apples were marketed nationwide and commanded high prices for their superior quality. The Red Delicious became the state's premier variety throughout the last half of the twentieth century, but is now being challenged by the Gala, the Fuji, and other varieties. As of 2020, the apple continues its reign as the state's undisputed No. 1 agricultural crop.
Seeding the Apple Industry
Apples -- except for crabapples -- are not native to North America. The apples we know today originated in Central Asia, spread to Europe, and were brought to North America by the earliest colonists. Settlers were soon planting orchards in the East and Midwest. Around 1826, the first apple seeds finally came to what would later become Washington state -- to the Hudson's Bay Company post at Fort Vancouver, to be exact.
Several stories exist about the origin of Fort Vancouver's first apple seeds. The most romantic one involves a farewell dinner party in London. A young woman was sitting next to a young Hudson's Bay man, who was about to set sail for the Northwest. The smitten lady wrapped up the seeds from her apple in a napkin and slipped it into the young man's vest pocket. When he arrived in Fort Vancouver, he put his hand in his pocket and found the seeds. Thinking fondly of the young woman, he planted the seeds in the fort's employee village.
Other versions of the story are considerably less romantic. One story maintains that the man at the dinner party slipped the seeds into his own pocket. Perhaps the most plausible version includes no dinner party at all. A Hudson's Bay ship's captain, Aemilius Simpson (1792-1831), simply brought the seeds on a voyage and planted them at Fort Vancouver. Considering the high regard that people of European descent placed on apples, it was inevitable, in any case, that some traveler would arrive in the Northwest with apple seeds.
The planting dates in these stories vary from 1825 to 1828. We know for certain that by 1836 several apple trees were already bearing fruit at Fort Vancouver. Missionary Narcissa Whitman (1808-1847) wrote about them when she visited Fort Vancouver that year. Seeds from those original trees were spread throughout the Northwest. Narcissa's husband, Marcus Whitman (1802-1847), took some of the seeds and planted them at his own mission at Waiilaptu near Walla Walla. Other missionaries took seeds and planted them at missions in Idaho and near present-day Tumwater. As European settlers arrived from the east, they brought more apple seeds, because they considered apples a key component of civilization. Apples provided fruit that kept well for several months, and provided the ingredients for hard cider, an indispensable pioneer beverage.
In one crucial development in the 1840s, pioneers began bringing grafted saplings over the Oregon Trail. Apple varieties do not grow true from seed -- you never know what kind of apple variety a specific seed will produce. But with branches grafted onto rootstock, farmers knew they would get the variety they wanted. By 1847, commercial orchards were established in Oregon Territory. Over the next two decades, apple orchards proliferated in both Western Washington and in Southeast Washington around Walla Walla.
These were tiny orchards by today's standards, because almost all apples were grown strictly for home or local consumption. There was no way to store fresh apples for more than a few months and no way to transport large quantities to faraway markets. The varieties grown on most farms bore names unfamiliar to most shoppers today: Baldwins, Spartans, Spitzenburgs, and Grimes Goldens, to name a few.
Western Washington proved to have decent conditions for many varieties, with plenty of rain and few killing frosts. Central and Eastern Washington did not seem as promising, since large portions consisted of sagebrush lands without enough rain. However, farmers east of the Cascades soon discovered that apples did spectacularly well near rivers and in bottomlands. The long summer days produced large fruit. The winters were cold enough to induce winter dormancy, but usually not cold enough to produce deep, killing frosts. The soil had plenty of deep volcanic ash, "rich in the minerals on which apples thrive" ("Story of Washington Apples ..." p. 5).
Yet without rainfall in reliable amounts, and without reliable transportation to get apples to distant markets, Washington's apple industry remained mostly local and sleepy through the 1880s. This was about to change beyond most orchardists' dreams. The reasons -- irrigation and railroads.
Irrigation and Expansion
The air in central Washington may be dry, but the looming Cascade Range piles deep with snow every winter. All of that snowmelt comes roaring down the Wenatchee, Yakima, and Okanogan rivers in spring and summer. Before long, farmers began to harness water from those rivers. The first irrigation projects in the Wenatchee Valley were mostly small-scale ditches, dug with shovels. Historian Al C. Bright, who chronicled Wenatchee's apple history, lists several small ditches prior to 1884, some of which supplied water to early orchard plots. According to Bright, the "first really commercial orchard in Wenatchee was the Patterson orchard, planted in 1884" (Bright, 2).
By the 1890s, a revolution was underway. Large-scale irrigation projects were on the drawing board in both the Yakima and Wenatchee valleys, promising to open acre after acre of potential orchard land. Orchardists with an eye to the future started planting seedlings. Some of the canals were flowing by 1892. Those early planters had to wait a few more years, however, to see whether these valleys truly were conducive to quality apple production. Young apple trees "do not begin to bear fruit in commercial quantity until they are at least five years old, and they are eight or nine before they commence to pay their way" ("The Story of Washington Apples ...," p. 10). When those first apples finally reached maturity, it became clear that these two valleys (and the nearby Okanogan Valley) had all of the traits necessary for outstanding apple production.
Here's how an educational pamphlet, published several decades later by the Washington State Secretary of State, explained that productivity:
"The Cascade Range protects this region from the damp coastal winds and keeps the air dry, the way apples seem to like it best. The annual rainfall here is less than 12 inches and the summer days are unusually long. Thus, Washington State apples get more sunshine and are able to grow bigger, juicier, and more wonderfully tangy. Even the short cool nights in this region do their part in painting these Washington apples with more vivid hues of red and yellow. Cool nights, furthermore, make for special firmness, so that these Washington State apples crackle to your bite. Add controlled irrigation to these nature-given advantages of soil and climate, and you sum up an apple paradise" ("Washington State Apples: ...").
With the coming of irrigation, the region's dry climate flipped from being a problem to being a competitive advantage. Orchard growers could regulate the exact amount of water their trees needed and could provide it at the optimal times. The dry air discouraged a variety of diseases and pests that made apple growing a challenge in more humid areas. Farsighted farmers began planting acre after acre of trees. Most of these apples were also of varieties rarely seen today: White Winter Pearmains, Rhode Island Greenings, Rambos, Gloria Mundis, Pippins, Belleflowers, and other old-fashioned varieties such as Baldwins. The only name shoppers might recognize today is the Winesap.
One key problem remained -- how to get that growing volume of apples to market. This was soon solved. The railroads were finally arriving in Central and Eastern Washington, and orchardists began to ship large quantities of apples to the large population centers of Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, and California. The first railroad car of apples was shipped from the Yakima Valley in 1894. Rail transport didn't arrive in the Wenatchee Valley until 1901, which explains why most Wenatchee Valley orchards remained relatively small -- about five to ten acres -- up to that time.
Hard Lessons Learned
Apple growing presented daunting challenges to new orchardists. Farmers needed substantial loans to get them through those first five unproductive years. Many orchards were owned by absentees -- often Seattle doctors, lawyers and businessmen -- hoping for an eventual big profit. As one scholar wrote, "Irrigation systems were expensive to maintain, banks wanted returns on their loans, and railroads expected to make a profit from freight revenue. Contrary to the message promoted by booster literature, this was not a system where individualism could reign. Instead, individuals had to conform to the system for the greater good of all. Efficiency was the watchword of the era" (Van Lanen).
Growers of all sizes soon realized that apple growing "required a high degree of specialized horticultural knowledge" (Van Lanen). Washington growers "could not compete with Eastern growers in terms of cost because of high transportation fees" (Van Lanen), so they had to compete in terms of quality. Small, wormy, or discolored fruit was not good enough, so education was vital for producing quality fruit that looked and tasted better than apples from the East and Midwest. These early decades became "an era of experimentation in the industry as farmers and agricultural experts studied all aspect of the apple industry, from the time a tree was planted to when a consumer purchased the fruit" (Van Lanen).
Many orchardists failed, but others snapped up the failing plots and created large-scale orchards. Many growers joined regional cooperatives to share marketing and transportation costs. In Central Washington, the number of bearing apple trees went from 346,804 in 1900 to nearly one million in 1910. Wenatchee's first substantial commercial crop was harvested in 1904, and by 1909 it was shipping out 2,000 freight cars a year. In Yakima, growers were shipping more than $1 million worth of apples a year by 1907. The varieties had been pared down, through experience, to a handful of proven winners: Winesap, Spitzenburgs, Yellow Newtown, Rome Beauty, Grimes Golden, Jonathan, and Ben Davis. The problem of long-term storage had also been largely solved with the advent of mechanically cooled storage warehouses. Even the rail cars were now largely refrigerated.
Other parts of Eastern Washington had begun staking their futures on apple trees. The Spokane Valley was so heavily planted in apple trees that the main thoroughfare was named Apple Way. In spring, auto tourists enjoyed views of miles of apple blossoms. From 1908 to 1917, Spokane hosted a huge annual event for apple growers, the National Apple Show. Some years up to 100,000 people attended, and 2 million apples were on display.
Creating a National Brand
Washington's trees -- and its apple industry -- had come of age. Now the challenge was to find lucrative markets for those tons of apples. At first, growers were shipping apples mostly to the Puget Sound region and Portland. But now Central Washington orchards were boxing so many apples that new markets were essential. In fact, the industry was in crisis as the 1920s began. More trees combined with a stagnant market meant plunging prices. Washington apples had to go national.
The industry staked its future on one overriding strategy: Convince the nation's shoppers that Washington apples were superior. To pull this off, the burden was on the growers, above all, to produce exceptional fruit. They did this by adopting uncommonly strict quality-control standards. A grading system separated apples into Extra Fancy, Fancy, and "C" grades. To reach the highest and most profitable grade, an apple had to be large, perfectly shaped, and free of even the slightest blemishes and defects. The growers' cooperatives sent out their own inspectors to makes sure that each orchard's apples were up to the group's high standards. By 1922, the leading varieties had been pared down further to Winesap, Jonathan, Rome (or Rome Beauty), and Standard Delicious, the precursor to an apple that would overtake them all over the next few decades -- Red Delicious.
Good fruit was not enough; Washington apples also had to be packaged and displayed in a way that made them look exceptional. Most Eastern apples were packed in barrels, where they were inevitably subject to bruising. As the adage says, one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. Then they were sold in open barrels or in unruly heaps. Washington's growers resolved to pack their apples carefully in wooden boxes, with the apples nested in paper so they wouldn't bump up against each other. An entire wooden-box industry sprang up in Wenatchee. Proper packaging was so important that "packing schools" were launched to "train workers in the proper methods of packing and handling apples" (Van Lanen). The apples were also branded with the name of the grower or cooperative. Within a few decades, apple-box branding would reach a new artistic level with beautiful labels illustrating, in many cases, the beauties of Washington's mountains, streams, and wildlife. Or in other cases, seemingly random images of tennis rackets, camels, or Trojan warriors.
The industry also embraced more aggressive forms of advertising. In 1912 the Wenatchee-Columbia Fruit Co. purchased the rights to the name Buster Brown, a hugely popular comic strip character. The company put Buster Brown's face on their labels, along with his dog, Tige. The company also took out newspaper ads in which Buster Brown says, "My friends in New York don't know much about Wenatchee apples, yet they will before Tige and I get through with them" (Van Lanen).
Many advertising campaigns touted apples' nutritional and medicinal properties. A 1914 newspaper ad for Skookum-brand apples showed a smiling little boy alongside this copy: "This youngster is happy. He's healthy, too. He has the apple-eating habit. 'An apple a day keeps the doctor away'" (Van Lanen). The Washington apple industry did not invent that adage, but it invented plenty of similar ones, including "The Health Fruit" and "Nature's Toothbrush" ("The Story of Washington Apples ..."). The advertising efforts were furthered in 1928 by a growers' association called the Washington Boxed Apple Bureau. These campaigns succeeded in making Washington apples a truly national product. By the 1920s, Washington had surpassed New York as the top apple-producing state in the U.S., a spot it has never relinquished.
The Depression and Recovery
Then calamity hit with the Great Depression. In 1932 the price of apples had dropped to such a low point that growers were advised to not even bother picking certain varieties, such as Jonathans. In 1935 the federal government declared the Wenatchee Valley an "economically stricken area" (Bright, p. 69). Thousands of acres of trees were uprooted, and many orchardists survived only with the help of government loans and stimulus payments. Unemployed men sold apples for a nickel on New York street corners -- and some of those apples were from Wenatchee and Yakima.
However, as the 1930s ended, it appeared the industry's marketing strategies had worked, and shoppers in places like New York were now familiar with brand names like Skookum and Blue Goose -- and even more familiar with the names Wenatchee and Yakima (the Spokane district's apple industry largely faded in the 1920s). The Washington Boxed Apple Bureau encountered financial trouble in 1934 and -- after a few twists, turns and false starts -- it was replaced in 1937 by the Washington State Apple Advertising Commission, established by legislative act. Every grower was assessed one cent per box to fund it. The name was soon shortened to the Washington State Apple Commission. Today it is called the Washington Apple Commission and it has the same mission it began with in 1937: To increase consumer demand for Washington state apples.
The status of the Washington apple industry in the late 1930s was encapsulated in a brochure produced by the commission and printed by the Washington Secretary of State. The cover sported a Delicious apple -- by now the state's most popular variety, along with Golden Delicious and Winesap. Inside, the brochure told readers that Washington produced one-fourth of the apples in the country. The Wenatchee district (which included the Chelan, Okanogan, and Methow valleys) had reached a preeminent position, producing 55 percent of the state's total. The Yakima Valley, which had diversified into hops, hay, and other fruit crops, was in second place with about 43 percent of the state's total. The commission went to great lengths to tout the health benefits of apples, even citing a statistic that "life expectancy is greater in Washington State," because residents eat a great deal of "protective foods, one of the greatest of which is the Washington State apple" ("Washington State Apples ...").
The industry thrived during the World War II years because of a strong apple market. In 1948, however, sales plunged, and growers feared that they would be stuck with a record number of apples in storage. The Washington Apple Commission then embarked on a 90-day radio and newspaper advertising blitz, the largest in its history. One ad featured the slogan "Health for Sale: They're Washington State Apples!" and another showed a cartoon version of William Tell shooting an apple off a boy's head as the boy says, "You can't miss, Pop! It's a Washington State apple!" ("The Story of Washington Apples ..."). The campaign worked and a disastrous season was averted.
Meanwhile, growers had found a new and lucrative use for the small or blemished apples called culls, normally dumped in rivers or landfills. A fruit-juice salesman from Portland named Bill Charbonneau (1906-1978) grew tired of selling "fruit drinks" that contained only 15 percent of real juice (Stratton). In 1944, emboldened by the new popularity of orange juice, he bought an apple-processing plant in Selah in the Yakima Valley and resolved to make pure, fresh-tasting apple juice by buying mountains of culls. He also set out, through advertising, to convince people that apple juice was as delicious and healthful as orange juice. It worked. He named his juice Tree Top, and at first he marketed it mostly on the West Coast. By 1971, Tree Top had become a growers' cooperative and was selling fresh and frozen apple juice throughout the U.S. Generations of American kids grew up with Tree Top juice in their lunch boxes. The days of dumping culls into the Columbia River were over.
Migrant Labor System
In 1960, the Washington State Apple Commission produced a small "textbook" -- actually a 32-page educational pamphlet -- that described every step in the complex process of growing apples. It began with choosing the right site for an orchard -- an elevation of 1,400 feet with deep mineral soil was considered just about perfect in central Washington. Orchardists then planted one-year-old trees on two-year-old rootstocks, about 108 trees to the acre. In what was "probably the most important single phase of developing an apple orchard," they were carefully pruned and trained as they grew to maturity ("The Story of Washington Apples ...").
Then the work really began. Blossom time in spring was the most beautiful season, but also the most perilous. An untimely cold snap could kill the blossoms, and many growers employed heaters, smudge pots, and wind machines. Growers also brought in thousands of beehives to ensure good pollination. Delicious and Winesap varieties will not produce fruit from their own pollen -- they require pollen from a nearby variety. Growers did not want too many blossoms, which produced small apples, so sometimes blossoms had to be thinned chemically.
In June, the fruit was hand-thinned further, in order to produce the biggest apples. Meanwhile, orchardists sprayed throughout the growing season to prevent codling moths and other pests from ruining entire orchards. Different varieties of apples ripened on different schedules, so apple-picking was spread out over two months in the fall.
The pamphlet declares that "most picking is done by 'professionals' -- men and boys, and some women -- who work in orchards the year around" ("The Story of Washington Apples ..."). This is true as far as it goes, but it barely describes the complex reality of seasonal orchard labor. In the early years, farm families could pick their own five-to-ten acre plots themselves. But as orchards got bigger, this was no longer possible. Historian Tony Zaragoza, in his doctoral dissertation about Washington apple labor, writes that at first apples were picked by local men, women, and children recruited from nearby towns and farms. Then came European-American migrant workers, often Scandinavian, German, or Irish. In the years prior to World War I, growers sometimes recruited Chinese and Japanese immigrants and Native Americans. During the labor shortages of World War I, growers began turning to Filipinos and Mexican workers, creating the seeds of a migrant-labor system that continues to the present day. By the 1930s, the Wenatchee Valley required 10,000 additional workers at harvest time.
These same workers were commonly found in the packing houses, although the apple commission's pamphlet says that in the 1950s "the packing is performed almost entirely by women, many of them wives and daughters of orchardists" ("The Story of Washington Apples ..."). Packing was a complex and highly mechanized process, involving humming conveyor belts and automatic sorting machines. Yet in this era apples were still handled with kid gloves -- or at least cotton gloves -- and carefully wrapped in paper or placed in individual molded-cardboard nests inside the box.
Washington's Top Crop
By the mid-1950s, the Delicious variety had evolved into the more deeply colored Red Delicious with its characteristic five distinctive points on the bottom. Because of its crunchy texture, hardiness, keeping qualities, and distinctive look (its silhouette now serves as the logo of the Washington Apple Commission) it had become Washington's most popular apple, with 1.5 million trees in production. By 1960 the Red Delicious and its cousin the Golden Delicious accounted for 80 percent of all Washington's apples, with Winesap, Rome varieties, Jonathans, and Newtons fading fast.
The 1960 pamphlet featured a map showing how widely distributed Washington apples had become. Apples were sold in every state, with California, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania the biggest customers. The commission estimated that the average Texan, for instance, ate 38 Washington apples per year. Washington apples had an international market as well -- Great Britain was an early and consistent customer -- but the majority were consumed in the U.S.
One longtime Washington tradition, the wooden box, failed to survive, and was finally replaced by cardboard in 1958. This also signaled the end of the apple-box label, much to the chagrin of the state's artists and illustrators. Yet those labels did not exactly fade into obscurity. They were given new life on the art market, where they are still traded and prized by collectors. The Washington Apple Commission today holds 750 labels in its collection.
By the 1960s the apple was one of Washington's most recognizable symbols, notably during the state's football-rivalry game every fall between the University of Washington and Washington State University. In 1963 the Governor's Trophy was replaced by the Apple Cup, a trophy depicting the state's premier fruit. Within a decade, people started calling the game itself the Apple Cup, and the name stuck.
The industry endured various challenges, including frosts and recessions, over the following decades, but the apple never came close to losing its position as Washington's No. 1 agricultural crop. Nor was the state ever challenged in its position as the nation's leading apple producer. In fact, it had begun to develop new markets overseas. Washington had exported apples for decades -- in 1930, it exported 25 percent of its crop, mostly to Europe. However, exports were "not considered a profitable part of the industry" because overseas markets were merely "a safety valve which would accept the small sizes unwanted in the U.S." ("Then and Now"). But in the 1970s, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan begin buying Washington apples. Today, about 30 percent of Washington's apple crop is exported to more than 60 countries.
The Modern Apple Industry
Advances in technology have changed the way apples are stored. In the mid-1950s, controlled-atmosphere storage facilities were developed in which most of the oxygen was removed from tightly sealed rooms and replaced by nitrogen. This extended the crispness and longevity by many weeks, making it possible to sell apples in what used to be the off-season -- spring and summer. Today, every shipper has a controlled-atmosphere facility.
Advances in mechanization have also changed the way apples are washed, inspected, and sorted. Yet most apples are still packed by hand in boxes. Changes have taken place in the orchards as well. High density plantings with dwarf trees bring apples into production sooner, and these trees are easier to pick without ladders. Yet one element has remained constant from the industry's beginning: Every Washington apple is picked by hand. "There are no harvest machines to pick apples" ("Crop Facts").
Perhaps the industry's biggest change over the last two decades has been in the popularity of new varieties. The longtime industry "backbone," the Red Delicious, was edged out as the leading variety by Gala in 2019. That trend continued in the 2020 harvest, when Galas accounted for 23 percent of Washington's total apple production, followed by Red Delicious at 17 percent, Fuji at 14 percent, Granny Smith and Honeycrisp at 13 percent each, Pink Lady at 5 percent, and Golden Delicious at 3 percent. A new tangy-sweet variety, the Cosmic Crisp, was developed by Washington State University's apple-breeding program and came to market in 2019 amid much fanfare. Today, shoppers can often find as many as nine Washington varieties on grocery shelves.
As of 2020, the average Washington orchard size was about 100 acres. There were about 1,260 apple growers, some of whom were tending the same orchards their families planted more than 100 years ago. Others were descendants of Mexican migrant workers who now owned their own orchards. The total 2020 apple harvest was 6.9 billion pounds, which easily made Washington the nation's leading apple producing state, far ahead of second-place New York's approximately 1.4 billion pounds. Apples continue to be Washington's most valuable agricultural crop, with more than $2 billion in sales, more than double that of second-place wheat.
One beloved symbol of Washington's apple history stayed alive for nearly 200 years. One of the original Fort Vancouver apple trees from those first legendary seeds was fenced and protected by the National Park Service for many decades. However, the Old Apple Tree, as it was called, finally succumbed to old age on June 25, 2020. Happily, vigorous young shoots had sprouted from the old tree's roots, carrying on both the genes and the legend of Washington's original apple tree.
Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, videos, and curriculum.