The story of Salem's cherry
industry begins in 1847 when pioneer nurseryman Henderson
Lewelling (also spelled Luelling) arrived from Iowa.
Lewelling brought with him 700 tiny fruit trees in earth filled
boxes. Shortly after arriving in the Willamette Valley,
Lewelling took up a land claim near Milwaukee where he established
an orchard and the first nursery in the Northwest. In
1850, he was joined in the enterprise by his brother, Seth,
and William Meek, who had married one of his daughters.
By 1851, the Lewelling nursery had over 18,000 fruit trees
ready for sale. This allowed them to establish branch nurseries
at Salem and Albany. (No pun intended.)
Among the cherry trees brought
from Iowa was one Napoleon Bigarreau which, for reasons now
long forgotten, Mr. Lewelling called "Royal Anne."
From this single misnamed tree, the most profitable cherry
variety grown in the Northwest had its origin.
Seth Lewelling is best remembered
for his work in developing new fruit varieties. Among these,
two black cherries stand out. In 1860, the original Black
Republican tree was grown from a seed of a Black Eagle cherry
and, in 1875, a Black Republican planting produced a promising
seedling that Lewelling named "Bing" after his faithful
Chinese helper. The Bing cherry would be Seth Lewelling's
When Bing cherries were exhibited
at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, people
at first thought, because of their size, they were crabapples.
According to reports, the large Bings averaged 35 cherries
to the pound and sold in the East for three cents a cherry.
A third black cherry important
to the Salem region was developed after the Lewelling orchards
were sold to Joseph Hamilton Lambert in 1857. Mr. Lambert
developed the "Lambert" which he introduced in 1870.
Royal Annes, Bings, Lamberts,
and Black Republicans were the most important varieties in
the early Oregon orchards. Due to a lack of fruit canneries
in Oregon, cherries from these early orchards were marketed
fresh. By using now available rail transportation, Oregon
cherries could be refrigerated with ice and shipped to the
eastern part of the country where they brought a good price.
The hills surrounding Salem
were ideal for cherry orchards, and Salem-grown cherries soon
became noted for their quality, size, and flavor. When Robert
Stuart Wallace opened the Salem Canning Company in 1890,
cherries were included in the initial pack.
Salem's first Cherry Fair, held
in 1903, was a three day celebration sponsored by the Salem
Elks Lodge. Events on the program included the queen's coronation
and ball, games, and contests at the State Fairgrounds, a
parade with decorated automobiles, and boat races on the river.
Industrial displays and exhibits of cherries were arranged
in booths along Court Street.
Salem became known as the Cherry
City as a result of the outstanding exhibits at the Cherry
Fair held in July, 1907. Sponsored by the Marion County Horticultural
Society, this fair was held in conjunction with the fifth
annual convention of the Pacific Coast Association of Nurserymen.
It was these men who, after viewing the cherry exhibit, passed
a resolution declaring it to be "the greatest and finest
display of cherries known in history." By unanimous vote
they christened Salem the Cherry City.
Between 1908 and 1912, the Cherry
Festival was sponsored by the Salem Board of Trade. After
the Salem Cherrians were organized in 1913, they were designated
as the group responsible for the annual Cherry Festival. Festivals
under their sponsorship were held in 1913 when George F. Rogers
was King Bing, and 1914 when Milton Meyers held that post.
The passing of years, however, saw the discontinuance of the
annual festival, and the yearly celebration became only a
memory of oldtimers.
During the first part of the
20th century, Salem's canning industry grew from one plant
to more than ten, and canned cherries were an important part
of the Salem pack. With improved refrigeration, rail shipments
of fresh cherries also increased in the 1920s. One of the
largest shippers was Salem Cherry Growers Association, formed
in 1925. Their fresh packing operation was set up at the Max
Gehlhar dryer in West Salem.
In 1927, the Gehlhar dryer was
the site of the first brined cherry pack using the new brining
method developed by Professor Ernest Wiegand of Oregon Agricultural
College (Oregon State University). Prior to Wiegand's method
for brining cherries, most brined stock used in manufacturing
maraschinos was imported from Italy.
The Salem trading district in
1928 had more than 2,500 acres bearing cherries. With twelve
canning plants operating in the area, cherries found a
ready market. The average price paid by canners for Royal
Annes in 1928 was five to seven cents a pound, with picking
costs at one to two cents. Growers received ten cents a pound
for Lambert cherries shipped to the East under refrigeration.
The largest Lambert cherry orchard in the world, Lambert Cherry
Company, was located east of Salem in the Waldo Hills near
McCleay. Some red tart cherries of the Montmorency and Kentish
varieties were also being handled by the Salem canneries.
With the start of the National
Depression in 1930, the demand for canned cherries dropped.
This resulted in a large surplus of fresh cherries.
To accommodate the oversupply, a number of the Salem processors
began brining cherries. Hunt Brothers, Allen Fruit Company,
Producers Cooperative, and Salem Cherry Growers Association
all established brining operations at this time.
The demand for Royal Anne cherries
dropped in 1932, with local canners offering only two cents
a pound for the limited quantities they required. To market
their cherries, 53 Salem area growers formed a cooperative,
Willamette Cherry Growers, Inc. This cooperative became a
major force in the brined and, later, maraschino cherry business.
World War II brought a sharp
increase in demand for all types of canned food. As packs
increased, the price of cherries stabilized, making the war
years a profitable time for the cherry grower. Picker shortages
during the war created some problems, but the use of platoons
of local school children eased the shortage for many growers.
The Salem Cherry Festival had
a brief revival following the war. Sponsored by the Salem
Cherry Festival Association, a three day celebration was held
in July of 1947.
Canned cherry production remained
high in the 1950s and 1960s, but consumer tastes were changing.
The demand for all types of canned fruit began a decline in
the 1970s that continued through the 1980s and 1990s. Today,
none of Salem's canners handle Royal Anne cherries, and only
two process black cherries. Red tart cherries are now
mostly frozen along with some black cherries. Royal Annes
and other light varieties are used almost exclusively for
The Salem cherry growing regions
have also experienced change in recent years. When orchards
no longer deemed productive were removed, they were not being
replaced. South and west of Salem, much of the land formerly
occupied by orchards is now covered with housing subdivisions.
As a sign of changes that have
occurred in the Salem cherry industry, the blossom tours held
each spring in the cherry growing regions have been discontinued
because so few orchards remain on the old blossom routes.
Written and compiled by Bill
Oregon Magazine, April 1933.
Lucas, William. Canning
in the Valley, 1998.
Oregon Grower, Volume IV/ Number
5, December 1922.
Salem Chamber of Commerce,
Come to Oregon, 1929.
Salem Cherry Festival, 1947.
Willamette Cherry Growers,
Inc., The First Fifty Years.