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When Apples Were King

With vineyards everywhere one looks in Anderson Valley today, it may be hard to believe grapes weren’t always huge here. Believe it. Anderson Valley agriculture was much different during my time in the valley from the late 1950s through the 1980s, as this trip back in time illustrates.

To understand Anderson Valley agriculture in the 1950s and 1960s, one has to go back to the 1920s. The valley’s isolation and the difficulty in delivering fresh product quickly to major markets in the 1920s limited local agriculture to apples that were dried in the valley – a couple of the old drying sheds remain standing today - before shipping, prunes which were dried in the valley before shipping and sheep. I remember Leo Sanders, one of my grammar school teachers, telling us it took two days to drive sheep to the railhead in Cloverdale, with both flocks and herders spending the night at Mountain House. There may also have been a few fields of hops (another crop shipped dried) left in the valley then, but Prohibition already had rendered them commercially unviable.

Improvements to the road now called Highway 128, changing tastes and the advent of tourism between the 1920s and the 1950s resulted in a different mix of Anderson Valley agriculture by the time I first visited in 1957. Apples, sheep and – to a much lesser extent - cattle dominated valley agriculture then. Highway 128 improvements enabled fresh apples to be shipped to market or processor by truck, and fresh apples became the valley’s primary agricultural product. Sheep and cattle also traveled by truck, either to the auction yards in Ukiah and Petaluma or to various slaughterhouses in Sonoma and Mendocino County. Those same road improvements combined with the unspoiled beauty and quaint towns of the Mendocino Coast to increase visitor traffic through the region, and apple stands became fixtures along the highway.

Although there may have been more, I remember six apple growers in the valley growing up. Situated just north of Boonville, Archie Schoenhal may have been the region’s largest apple producer. His apples went to the retailers and probably the Sebastopol Cooperative Cannery (which produced apple sauce, apple juice and canned sliced apples). He didn’t have a roadside stand, but sold apples out of a barn across the driveway from his house. He also kept a sizeable herd of beef cattle. The land is now completely planted to vineyards.

About a half mile south of Philo, Johnny Peterson grew apples and sold them at his roadside stand. He also made wonderful unfiltered apple juice, which we bought frozen in gallon bottles. As a kid, it was fun to drink the bottle down halfway and know that the remaining juice, left to its own devices in the refrigerator, would turn into slightly fizzy, slightly alcoholic apple cider after a few days. After Johnny passed away, his property became Goldeneye Winery and his orchard was converted to grapes.

About a mile north of Philo, Art Gowan grew apples, made apple juice and ran sheep. His apple stand was called Art’s Apples. My parents bought apples from Art’s apples for their summer camp (El Rancho Navarro). I am uncertain as to the fate of the orchard: the apple stand, now abandoned, is located just south of Brutacao Winery. Across the road, Clarence Hulbert grew apples and ran sheep.

Gowan’s Oak Tree was situated just slightly north of Art’s Apples. Back in my childhood days, the orchard was run by James Gowan, though I remember seeing his father Cecil – then an old man – frequently at the apple stand. My parents bought apples and produce from Gowan’s Oak Tree for their summer camp, and my mother also bought cucumbers, which she canned as dill pickles. Although I now stop at Gowan’s Oak Tree only occasionally when in the valley, I like that this reminder of my youth continues to thrive.

Another mile farther north, Earl Clark also grew apples west of the highway. I remember a drying shed on the property and believe the orchard dated back to the dried apple era. I don’t recall Clark ever having an apple stand, so I assume he shipped his apples to market or to the Sebastopol Cooperative Cannery. Again, those apple trees now have been replaced with grapevines.

Anderson Valley used to be publicized as being home to 38 (or was it 39?) varieties of apples and in all likelihood there were many more. Everyone had a favorite or two. We Newmans were – and still are - partial to the Sierra Beauty, which we bought at Gowan’s Oak Tree by the lug.

Many of the valley’s apple producers showed their wares at the Mendocino County Fair and Apple Show back then. Usually one side of the Apple Hall was devoted to apples, with rows and rows of full lugs displayed on sloped racks for all to see.

As previously mentioned, sheep also were a major element of valley agriculture during my childhood in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In addition to those with flocks already mentioned, the Prather and Burns families ran sheep, as did Austin Hulbert (who was very active in the local 4-H when I was a member) near Yorkville, and Ray Pinoli and Leo Sanders (whom my brother and I helped with lambs on a couple of occasions) near Philo. I am sure there were others in the Valley with apples and sheep, and to those I have missed, I apologize.

Most of my family’s agricultural endeavors in the late 1950s and early 1960s were associated with the summer camp, though a couple of them became small commercial enterprises.

On our property when we arrived was a small French prune orchard, planted in 1903. My father hated waste of any kind, so we harvested the trees (by shaking them, with tarps underneath to catch the falling fruit) every autumn, and trucked the fruit to the dryer in Healdsburg and later in Ukiah. Due to Anderson Valley’s cool climate, our prunes invariably were the last to be harvested and the last to be processed. Often the dryer was closed for the season when we came back to pick up our crop; our prunes – usually 100 to 200 pound’s worth - would be sitting in a large box by the gate with “Newman’s” written on the side in chalk. We packed each year’s prunes in plastic bags and served them to campers as an afternoon snack. A steady diet of prunes as a kid made them among my least favorite foods as an adult for many years.

We got into small-scale dairy farming by accident. Soon after we moved to Philo full-time in 1959, my mother was sent to the auction in Ukiah with instructions to purchase a beef cow. Knowing nothing about cattle, she bought a handsome young pregnant Jersey heifer. So my father, brother and I built a small milking shed and – when the calf arrived – learned to milk. “Bessie” proved to be an unusually prolific milk cow, producing six gallons of milk a day – more than a family of six could ever use (and we tried). So we bought a pasteurizing machine (from Sears, Roebuck) and a couple of one-gallon plastic jugs, and my father sold milk to his fellow teachers at the grammar school. He later expanded his offerings to include butter, which – after a brief stint with a hand-cranked butter churn – my mother discovered could be made in the blender, and eggs from our flock of camp chickens.

Anderson Valley agriculture changed greatly with the arrival of wine grapes in the 1960s, though the Anderson Valley grape story began several decades earlier. It is a vineyard tale that will have to wait until my next article.

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