Saturday, April 25, 2020

Commercial Club Inaugurates Blossom Day in 1920, Made Possible by Cars

In 1920, wanting to attract visitors and "commercialize orchard blossoms" the Commercial Club of Salem "instituted Blossom Day," a tourist event around the flowering. It leveraged the expanded transportation range and speed of automobiles as well as improved road funding and road building.

Blossom Day headline and panorama, April 24th, 1927
Cherrians, their outfits, and the blossoms, perhaps in 1930
Published January 1st, 1931

"to commercialize
orchard blossoms"
March 11th, 1920
When we think of "Blossom Day," we probably think of the festival at the Capitol around the Cherry trees on the Mall. That flowering is over a month gone. As we have lost our orchards, the focus has shifted.

100 years ago it was a festival around the agricultural flowering in orchards, around culinary cherries, prunes, pears, and apples. Truthfully, it was probably prunes most of all. Boosters wanted to show off the "beauty and productivity" of Salem and the surrounding area.

The festival was also made possible by car travel, and so the festival is indirectly dependent on auto technology and road engineering. Maybe similar events took place elsewhere by horse and carriage, but scenic loops of several miles aligned with auto technology more conveniently.* Organizers also leveraged, even pressured, Salemites for volunteer jitneys to drive around those who came by train:
Every person in Salem with an automobile, and a grain of civic pride, is urged to be on hand at the drive the thousands of the various scenic parts of the county.
April 24th, 1920
And in a different story, "Salem people must volunteer [their cars and time] for use of hundreds of visitors."

March 26th, 1920
In 1920 the winter and spring didn't cooperate. Though the Commercial Club wanted to feature the flowering trees on April 11th, a cold winter and cooler temperatures generally delayed blossoming until the end of the month.

Assessing the big freeze, December 26th, 1919
After being delayed once from April 11th to April 18th, it was again moved to April 25th.

April 14th, 1920

April 22nd, 1920
But even on April 25th,
blooms were not out as fully as they might have been had weather conditions earlier in the week permitted [when it was sunnier], those trees that were cloaked in their sheens of pink, white, and gray shall linger as a pleasant picture in the memories of those who saw. Trees on higher sections were not so fully in bloom as those in the low lands....
April 26th, 1920 (and some Hoover talk)
There are inconsistent stories about the origin. I cannot find any newspaper evidence of a "Blossom Day" celebration before 1920. The March 11th clip about the Commercial Club wanting to "commercialize orchard blossoms" also makes no reference to any prior festival and its tone, about the "creation of a blossom day," is about a new thing, not about the latest instance of an ongoing thing.

But in 1928, and in other years, they claimed it was older. Here's the 1928 list of Blossom Day dates. 

Historical Blossom Day dates
April 15th, 1928
Even beyond trying to establish the "first Blossom Day," it's hard to know how to interpret it. It's not a log of first flowering or anything definite. It's an estimate of peak flowering, and mainly fitted to a Sunday. It shows a good bit of weather related variance, and it's hard to discern any trend in climate. Still, the center of it seems meaningfully later than we see flowering today.

So I don't really know yet what to make of that list.

On Flowering Dates and Climate

The winter of 1914 was very mild
and blossoms came early -
but no reference to "Blossom Day" on the 29th
March 20th, 1914
I would like to read about sometime a local orchard log, something with more exact observations, of flowering and harvest dates - like the log Wilbur Bluhm made of the Capitol Cherries! The onset of flowering here could tell us something interesting about changing climate.

In 1920 blossoming at the end of April and into May seems late, but that collection of ornamental Cherries at the Capitol runs interference and has become our new standard. Those Cherries are early. The culinary Cherries I see regularly in a remnant orchard flower about a month later. They started to shed petals three weeks ago, and now are blown. But that's still meaningfully earlier than in 1920. But maybe not earlier than the seasons in 1914 and 1915.

Finding heirloom varieties thought to be lost
Some of the most interesting history that filters into the popular press is a different kind of horticultural quest. The story a week ago about finding lost heirloom apples is more typical. It certainly is one kind of history that is fascinating, but the story of changing growing seasons would be another of great interest.

Vick Bros. had an orchard
in the Bethel hills
(Nov 1st, 1928)
For Earth Day I mentioned Bethel Heights Vineyard. Like many vineyards, it was originally an orchard, and the succession of orchard to vineyard is one of the larger agricultural, cultural, and economic trends here. It and several nearby plots were planted to walnuts in the early 20th century. In addition to the Vick Bros., whom we have met as car and tractor dealers, the Waring and Goodfellow families also had walnut orchards here. (Maybe sometime we will learn exactly which one is now Bethel Heights Vineyard!) Sometimes Blossom Day routes went out to Zena to see the orchards there, probably more fruit than nut trees, in bloom.**

Outside of atypical vineyards in Oregon like The Pines, a century-old planting by an Italian that looks more like something we'd find in California, our very earliest Willamette Valley vineyards date from the 1960s. The oldest family wineries have transitioned to the second generation now.

There are reasons beyond Prohibition wine grapes never took on here before then. In this note, also from 1920, about grape-growing, Howard Zinser says that European varieties like those planted in California (mainly those wine grapes) struggle to ripen here. It is possible that there was just enough warming by the 1960s and 70s to make cool-climate wine grapes feasible in a way even 50 years earlier they were not.

1920 consensus: Wine grapes don't ripen here
April 29th, 1920
By contrast, here's a note from Bethel Heights Vineyard on a recent growing season, and general thoughts on the 2010s, for some of those European varieties. "A string of easy warm vintages" is a very different set of climate norms than what Zinser was expecting in 1920, when only American grape varieties would ripen reliably.

Our warming climate - Notes on a 2018 Casteel Pinot Noir
More to the History of Orchards and Development

Histories of our orchards generally dwell on the city's development into the hills. Most recently we have seen this at scale on the Lindbeck Orchard in West Salem. Housing had already wrapped around it, however, and it was nearly inevitable it should transform.

There are other stories about our orchards we might tell, and maybe we'll come back to them in more detail later. Changing demand and cost of production for prunes is one of course, but there is more. The fact that the Vick Bros., primarily auto and tractor dealers and not primarily farmers, had an orchard also is interesting, and might tell a story about relations between the urban core and rural edges, or about the capital of Big Business (by Salem standards anyway) and its investment in the orchards. We like think of a corps of independent, yeoman farmers, but the reality is more complicated.

"Prune Culture," October 14th, 1890 and
"Tempted by the Devil,"
an ad for the Oregon Land Company,
 August 29th, 1895
There's also speculation. Here's an ad for the Sunnyside Fruit Farms offered for sale by the Oregon Land Company in 1892. Herbert Hoover had been gone from the firm for a year by then. It was a large chunk of land, and today the Assessor's Office lists fourteen Sunnyside Fruit Farm subdivisions that were ultimately redeveloped in South Salem.

Sunnyside Fruit Farms, October 8th, 1892
Twenty years later, in Ladd & Bush Quarterly, the bank continued to promote prune orchards, and specifically referenced the Oregon Land Company's sales. Over the course of the Quarterly's run, they return to prunes time and time again.

Ladd & Bush Quarterly, 1912
Generally it seems like there is a lot more to be told about the orchards here! Maybe we'll be able to come back to some of it.

Previously see:

* This seems like the kind of topic on which there would be a dissertation, and maybe we'll find one sometime.

* In a history of the Cherrians published by the Mill, "Celebrating Cherries in Salem," they reproduce the 39th Blossom Day map from 1952. It goes up Orchard Heights Road, but not out to Zena. Blossom Day may have petered out in the 50s and 60s as the Cherrians dwindled. The "39th" ordinal designation also dates the first Blossom Day to before 1920.


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Somewhat related, the Mill reposted a piece from 2018 about Sunset Magazine, professional baseball players, and investing in orchard land here.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

The Capital Press had a very nice piece, "How climate has changed NW farming," earlier this month.

"Gregory Jones...gave a presentation on climate change at the annual Oregon Wine Symposium in February. He used data from 13 long-term weather stations in agricultural regions around the state to illustrate the warming trend between 1948 and 2015.

The stations — including five in the Willamette Valley, four in the Columbia Basin and six in the Rogue and Umpqua basins of Southern Oregon — show average temperatures during the growing season increased between 2.2 and 2.9 degrees over those 67 years. Each station also saw an additional 5-15 days each year of temperatures above 95 degrees.

Growing seasons are also getting longer, with the last spring frost happening 19 to 23 days earlier, and the first fall frost happening 10-17 days later.

It also quotes Barbara Dudley of Bethel Heights and the prospect of losing our cool-climate Pinot Noir identity:

"If earlier harvests become more commonplace, Dudley said the farm is considering planting more warm-weather grape varieties such as Syrah to adjust."