Washington Apple Country History

The History of Apple Growing in Washington

Washington's oldest fruit orchards date back to approximately the mid-1870s. It was at that time that those new arrivals who had come west to farm, rather than to seek gold or minerals, began to establish permanent settlements. Apples and other tree fruits were introduced by these early settlers perhaps more by chance than by design; they simply brought saplings for their personal use.

The fruit trees took particularly well to the semi-arid climate and soil and soon nurseries were being set up in the region. "The temperate zone is the native home of the apple. All around the world it finds its best general temperature for growth in this zone. In the temperate zone, it inclines to the north and finds there, rather than in the south, its best, or 'optimum,' condition [for] growth." That empirical observation, taken directly from the pages of The Encyclopedia of Practical Horticulture in 1914, could well have been written solely about the environment found throughout Washington's river valleys.

The first commercial apple orchard in Chelan County is believed to have been planted sometime in the early 1880s. As irrigation ditches and canals were constructed to supply more water to the orchards, apple production quickly expanded over the next twenty years. By the turn of the last century, other water resource projects were well underway.

The first of these, the Highline Canal, was carved directly through the center of the Wenatchee Valley in 1902, and extended across the Columbia River into Douglas County. This irrigation network laid the foundation for agricultural development in the Wenatchee Valley. In time, tree fruit production, primarily apples, came to dominate the county's industrial base.

The question is often asked, "Why [has] the Pacific Northwest become so famous for the production of apples?" From the afore-mentioned Encyclopedia of Practical Horticulture come three general answers to that question, answers which remain as true today as they were nearly one hundred years ago, when the three volumes which comprise this copiously researched monograph were first published. First, "the latitude is in the great apple producing belt of the world. Even where the latitude would seem not to be far enough north the altitude of the hills and mountain ranges often compensates for the distance south, and gives cool nights, and a temperature favorable for the growing of the best fruits. Second, in a large part of this country there is during the day a bright sunshine and at night a cool air, both of which tend to give color and flavor to the apple. Third, the character of the volcanic ash soil, o[n] which a large portion of this region is built, is favorable for the growth of the apple tree and its fruits."