Montana's Early History of Apple Production 1840s - 1890s
Research and editing by Mary H. Williams
Summary by Katrina Mendrey
"It is now no unusual sight to see one or more wagons moving through our streets [Virginia City, M.T.] with several luscious apples stuck upon a stick, announcing the fact that an abundance of this classical fruit is for sale. These teams are from Bitter Root Valley where the apples are raised. They are of several splendid varieties and will compete with those raised in the western states [Washington, Oregon]. The time is not far distant when in Montana will be raised a sufficient quantity of fruit to supply all the wants of her people.” 13
Early pioneers proved that certain areas in Montana were favorable for growing apples and other tree fruit over 150 years ago. While many homesteaders planted apples for their own needs, others planted hundreds to thousands of apple trees in valleys across Montana. These early orchards were planted not only in the famed Bitterroot Valley but also the Stinkingwater (A.K.A. Passamari or Ruby Valley),14 Madison, Clark’s Fork, Flathead, Missouri,5 Gallatin, Smith, Yellowstone, River, Paradise and beyond.27
Infographic of key points during Montana's apple boom
The earliest record of apple growing in Montana was in the late 1840s when Fathers Ravalli and DeSmet planted an orchard near the state’s first settlement of Stevensville in the Bitterroot Valley.25 Not long after, several settlers reported planting trees bearing apples as early as the mid-1860s. Milton Tipion—one of the territory’s first white settlers— planted an orchard on his farm near Frenchtown prior to the discovery of gold, which occurred in 1860-1861.15 Other sources report commercial-size plantings by brothers Thomas and Ben Harris and James Meinsinger (Bitterroot),11 D.T. Goodell (Helena),24 and “Mr. Brundy” (Passamari/Ruby) in the late 1860s.14
Many of these early plantings were ordered by mail or sold by traveling brokers from nurseries in Oregon, Washington,3 Utah,28 and New York for around $1.00 per tree.8 A majority were unsuccessful, dying of winter kill. Fruit Pioneer W.B. Harlan wrote, “In 1868 W.N. Smith planted $100.00 worth of trees on his place near where Victor now stands, but the only thing in evidence of the planting the next year was one live tree, and a very live note for $100.00 bearing three per cent per month interest.” 11 Smith was not alone in his failures, as W.B. Harlan reported “Most of these early trees died, only a few lived to bear fruit and the planters had to hear lots of ‘I told you so." 10
Others, however, were successful enough to keep hope alive for future orchardists. In a letter to the editor dated July 14, 1866, the author wrote of a visit to Brundy’s Mill Ranch in the Passamari Valley, “We had occasion to call at Mr. Bundy’s and were not a little pleased at the neat and tasteful appearance of the house and its surroundings. In company with Mr. B., we took a look at his farm and crops....We were also shown a bed of strawberries, rows of currant bushes, and some four or five hundred peach, apple, plum, pear and cherry trees, which looked well.” 14 An advertisement from the same year reported a host of trees for sale at the same ranch including apples, pears, plums, peaches, cherry and apricot.17 Harlan himself became a successful orchardist, “I bought several hundred…and set them out against the advice of some of my neighbors, one of whom said I was a fool for planting apple trees on good wheat land....Later I shipped the first straight car of apples grown in Montana....” 11
It wasn’t until brothers D.C. and W.E. Bass planted their Pine Grove Farm orchard near Stevensville around 1870 that fruit production in Montana was taken seriously. W.B. Harlan wrote of the brothers in 1910, “For although they did not plant the first trees, they were the first to make a success of it, and were also the first to go into the business upon a commercial basis.” 11 D.C. Bass reported, “For about 20 years we ran a sort of experiment station. People laughed at us because we spent so much time and money experimenting with fruit trees. We planted a few trees in ’70 and ’71. The trees came by mail from Plymouth, Massachusetts. They were about three inches long and, as it took a month to get them through, mostly by stage coach, they were packed in steam rubber paper…In those days we never thought of varieties; apples were what we wanted.” In 1877, the Bass’s reported their first crop of apples from Duchess of Oldenburg trees planted nearly seven years prior.1
While varieties were not a top consideration for the brothers in these early plantings, they would become crucial to their later success. Of the over 50 varieties reported to have been grown by the Bass Brothers, D.C. Bass wrote that in 1909 they had realized only about a quarter of those were worth growing. Even so, he wrote, “But, at that, we made good money, netting $500 per acre from seven and eight year old Alexanders.” In 1910 after 40 years growing trees in the Bitterroot Valley, Bass recommended the following to commercial orchards, “I would plant Red McIntosh, Alexanders and crab apples. There is big money in Northwest Greenings, and the Original Bethel, from Bethel, Vermont, is the best winter apple we have. . .. I have made more money out of crab apples, particularly the Transcendent and Hyslop than from any other varieties, either standard or crab. There are 200 crab apple trees on the Pine Grove Farm that are easily worth $200 per tree.” 1
The Bass Brothers were not only pioneer fruit growers but also influential in distributing young trees to orchards around the state. In 1873, the New North West reported, “Bass’s tree marketing trip took him from Deer Lodge to Warm Springs, over Deer Lodge Pass to the Jefferson and Boulder Valleys, thence to Helena and from there to the Madison and Gallatin Valleys. He returned to the Bitter Root via Passamari [Ruby] Valley, and Beaverhead Valley. Among those who purchased trees from Bass were J.H. Batterton, C.H. Manning, John O’Neill, Addison Smith, and Sorn Peterson.” 9 In 1878 the brothers reportedly had 1,000 bearing apple trees, 9,000 young trees, and several bearing crabapple trees.29 They were joined in commercial endeavors by other pioneer orchardists including J.G. Pickering of Helena, Frank Redfern and John Redfern of the Stinkingwater Valley and Bitterroot Valley growers W.B. Harlan, Roe Fulkerson, David Haacke, N.J. Chaffin, Frank Tudor, R. Childs and Amos Buck among others.16
By 1890 the mining camps and growing settlements in Butte, Helena, and along the Great Northern to Canada were driving demand for Montana apples, and the Bass Brothers shipped their first carload of apples.1 In 1890, orchard yields ranged from 2,000lbs (J. Silverthorne) to 100,000lbs (Bass Brothers).16 The Montana Apple boom had begun!
Grasshoppers were the first pests mentioned impacting apple plantings in 1877,4 followed by aphids in 1896,23 apple scab and codling moth in 1900,22 oyster shell bark louse in 1905,18 cicadas in 1911,21 and blister mite6 and cankerworm in 1914.20 The diseases of fire blight19 and brown bark spot disease7 (possibly cytospora canker) were first mentioned in 1907 and 1910, respectively. The arrival of apple pests and diseases gave rise to government fruit inspections, horticultural advice and widespread pesticide use.
Apple production was doing so well in the Bitterroot Valley by the early 1900s that solutions were needed for surplus or unmarketable fruit. In 1903 a vinegar/cider plant was installed in the historic town of Carlton just in time for handling that fall’s harvest surplus.12 An apple canning plant opened in 1909 on the Bitterroot Stock Farm (owned by Marcus Daly)2 and a third-generation resident of the Valley reported that a massive apple press was operating near Victor at the time of the Curlew mine (R. Tout, personal communication, Nov. 15, 2020).
A more detailed chronology of Montana’s early fruit production will be uploaded in spring 2020.
- Bass, D. C. “First Commercial Orchard.” Western News. May 1, 1910: 11.
- “Canning Factory.” Ravalli Republican. Sept. 24, 1909: 1.
- Clark, William A. “Centennial Address.” New North West. Nov. 10, 1876: 1.
- “Corvallis and Skalkaho Farmers.” Rocky Mountain Husbandman. Aug. 2, 1877: 2.
- “Dean Discusses Orchards.” Missoulian. Dec. 15, 1912: 57.
- Dean, M. “The State Inspection Work,” in Proceedings of the 14th Annual Session of the Montana Horticultural Society. Missoula. Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 1911: 21.
- Foster, S.W. “Observations and Improved Methods in the Control of Orchard Pests, Based on Experiences of 1914.” Proceedings of the 18th Annual Session of the Montana Horticultural Society, Kalispell. Jan. 19-21, 1915: 42.
- “Fruit Raising.” Independent Record. Jan. 1, 1886: 4.
- “Fruit Trees.” New North West. Apr. 19, 1873: 3.
- Harlan, W. B. “The Infancy of Fruit Growing.” Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual Session of the Montana Horticultural Society, Billings. Feb. 9-11, 1909: 45.
- Harlan, W. B. “Pioneer Fruit Growers of the Bitter Root,” in “The Bitter Root Valley Illustrated” magazine supplement to The Western New. May 1, 1910: 10.
- “Headlines from the Past: Vinegar Factory to Be in Operation in September.” Ravalli Republic. July 16, 2003: 13.
- "Apples." Montana Post. Nov. 27, 1868: 8.
- “Letter from the Passamari Valley.” Montana Post. Aug. 18, 1866: 6.
- “Local News” (Diamond City).Rocky Mountain Husbandman. May 2, 1878: 3.
- Missoula Gazette. Jan. 1, 1890.
- Montana Post (advertisement for sale of fruit trees on Brundy’s Mill Ranche). May 19, 1866: 1.
- Montana State Board of Horticulture. First Biennial Report of the Montana State Board of Horticulture. 1899-1900: 29, 33.
- Montana State Board of Horticulture. First Biennial Report of the Montana State Board of Horticulture. 1899-1900: 50.
- Montana State Board of Horticulture. “Orchard Conditions” in Eighth Biennial Report of the Montana State Board of Horticulture. 1913-1914: 114.
- Montana State Board of Horticulture. Untitled report. Seventh Biennial Report of the Montana State Board of Horticulture. 1911-1912:15-16.
- Morris, H. E. “Apple Scab.” Report of the 17th Annual Session of the Montana Horticultural Society (Missoula). Jan. 28-30, 1914: 109.
- Parker, J. R. “Woolly Aphis.” Proceedings of the 14th Annual Session of the Montana Horticultural Society (Missoula). Jan. 31 – Feb. 2, 1911: 57.
- “A Rancher’s Experience.” Helena Weekly Herald. Jan. 26, 1888: 4.
- Rhodes, P. “Frank Lloyd Wright and the Apple Boom,” Ravalli Republican, Sept. 17, 1997: 5.
- Rocky Mountain Husbandman (advertisement from Geneva Nurseries). Dec. 4, 1879: 8.
- Sutherlin, R.N. “Fruit Raising East of the Rockies,” Proceedings of the Tenth Annual Session of the Montana Horticultural Society. Kalispell, MT. Jan. 16-18, 1907: 37-38.
- Sutherlin, R.N. “President’s Address” in Proceedings of the 16th Annual Session of Montana Horticultural Society and Second Country Life Convention. Bozeman, MT. 1/22-24/1913: p.5
- Wilson, F. M. “West Side Notes.” Helena Weekly Herald, 16, 1879: 1.
- Woody, F. L. “The First Fruit Trees in Montana.” Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual Session of the Montana Horticultural Society, Billings, Feb. 9-11, 1909: 30.