The Apple Capital of the World
It may be surprising to learn that Washington state’s No. 1 crop is not native to North America. In fact, the first apple tree, affectionately known as the “Old Apple Tree,” was planted by European settlers in the 1820s at Fort Vancouver. Many settlers planted fruit trees because the fruit kept well for several months, could be fermented into hard cider, and sold for a profit to traders and trappers.
For the next 50 years, early farmers realized that apples grew fantastically near the cold rivers and in the long, hot summers east of the Cascades. Small-scale commercial orchards began growing different apple varieties, but were not able to store the fruit long-term or transport it long distances. They mostly relied on local sales. All of that changed when the railroad came to town, catapulting central Washington and the town of Wenatchee to the top of the apple game.
How one Washington town brought apples to the masses.
Wenatchee is known as the Apple Capital of the World, and for good reason. Since the 1890s, it has been a hub for fruit orchards of all kinds. Industrial irrigation projects facilitated larger orchards with more trees and led to more efficient farming practices. After the arrival of the Great Northern Railway to the Wenatchee Valley in 1901, orchardists were able to transport their ever-increasing quantities of fruit to places like Seattle, Tacoma, Portland and even to California. In 1904, Wenatchee growers harvested the first substantial apple crop for commercial distribution, and by 1909, they were shipping out over 2,000 freight cars of apples per year.
For the next decade, the apple industry grew steadily. However, by the 1920s, the industry was in need of better marketing. They needed to convince the consumer that Washington apples were the absolute best in the country. With aggressive, nationwide advertising, and by introducing very strict quality standards, Washington state took over as the nation’s top apple producer, developing a reputation for the most beautiful apples—carefully hand-packed in wooden boxes and rid of all blemishes and defects.
The Great Depression brought hardship to every area of the country, but in Wenatchee, the government declared it an “economically stricken area,” and many orchardists survived only on loans and stimulus payments, as the price of one apple dropped to less than a nickel. During and post World War II, the apple industry bounced back due to the Washington Apple Commission’s dedication to radio and print advertising, as well as post-war prosperity.
The 1960s brought an alternative business to the apple industry—juices. Instead of wasting the small or bruised apples, a few smart salesmen created their own processing plants for fruit juices using the blemished fruit. Juicing is an important use for the fruit that wouldn’t be consumed in the fresh market but is still good for consumption in alternative forms. This prevents waste and provides another nutritional product to the market.
Since the arrival of temperature-controlled storage facilities in the 1950s, advancements in technology have revolutionized the industry. Washing and sorting by hand were replaced by automated machines. Picking the fruit and packing it in boxes is done by both machine and people to ensure the highest quality, most beautiful fruit in the world makes it to consumers. Washington remains the nation’s leading apple producer, harvesting 6.9 billion pounds in 2020.
And what happened to that Old Apple Tree at Fort Vancouver? Sadly, it succumbed to old age in 2020 after nearly two centuries. Luckily, the National Park Service grafted young shoots from the tree’s roots and planted them alongside the original, to be enjoyed for 200 more years.