Did you know that two men were mostly credited with establishing plum tress in Clark County? Arther W. Hidden and S.W. Brown. Brown, who worked for the U.S. Land Office, planted the first trees in a small nursery that he maintained near the intersection of East 19th and D streets starting in 1861 or 1862. Hidden started getting interested in commercial production of dried fruit in 1876. Before planting his orchard at what was then West 26th and Main streets, he asked his friend Brown for advice on what trees to plant.
According to a 1928 story in The Columbian, Brown told him to plant apples.
“But Arthur Hidden could think of nothing but prunes,” the story said.
Prunes are basically plums that are capable of being dried. They also have seeds that don’t attach to the surrounding meat of the fruit, unlike plums.
In order to commercially market fruit, Hidden needed a product that could be easily dried and preserved for the shipping process, and prunes seemed ideal for that purpose.
He ended up planting a 3.5-acre orchard in 1876 and soon after launched what became a very successful drying and shipping operation.
In 1883, Hidden built Washington’s first regular prune dryer, which produced 5,000 pounds of prunes that year.
And after that, Clark County’s prune fate was sealed.
“From the time that Hidden harvested his first crop of Clark County prunes, neighbors began following his example. By 1888, Vancouver prune orchards were marketing 200,000 pounds of dried prunes a year in the county’s eight commercial dryers — and more than 300 acres of land was covered with prune trees.
In the early 1890s, prune growers had organized themselves into the Fruit Growers Union as a means to help further market the product.
By the early 1900s, especially before World War I, Clark County prunes were being shipped to Russia, Belgium, London and several other European ports.
In the early 1890s, prune growers had organized themselves into the Fruit Growers Union as a means to help further market the product. Prune production continued to rule Clark County through the 1920s, with production in some years spiking at 14 million and 17 million pounds.
As the economy began to tank and the Great Depression set in, the market price for prunes began to drop.
That, coupled with several years of unfavorable growing conditions and an attack by an insect called a thrip that destroyed buds and fruit, caused prune production in the county to drop from 9 million pounds in 1929 to 1.2 million pounds by 1937-1938.
Production continued to decline through World War II and beyond, and by the time Kunze and Beaudoin arrived in the area, the industry was heading toward full collapse, they said.
“There’s really not much of a market left for them today,” Beaudoin said. “A lot of people associate it with a laxative effect, and they think of it as a kind of old people food.”
Still, a few aficionados of the humble prune remain, and the two local farmers continue to cater to them, in part because of a sense of and dedication to the region’s history, Kunze said.
“When I came here, Fruit Valley was filled with prunes, but at that time industry was also coming in, and new houses were being built, and after that the prune industry shrank to almost nothing,” Kunze said.
Rferences: The Columbian