Pioneer trees: GeerCrest orchard receives heritage status

October 2018 Posted in Arts, Culture & History, Community, Garden
Geercrest Historic Orchard (1)

Jim Toler, fifth-generation family owner of GeerCrest Farm, in the farm’s fruit orchard dating back to the 1850s. The grove was recently given Heritage Tree designation by the Oregon Travel Information Council. Brenna Wiegand

By Brenna Wiegand

A couple years ago Jim Toler of GeerCrest Farm outside of Silverton approached Oregon Travel Information Council about adding the farm’s historic fruit orchard to its list of Heritage Trees.

Oregon Travel Information Council is a semi-independent state agency whose projects include the blue highway logo signs directing motorists to gas, food and other services at exits and providing onsite supervision of the state’s rest areas.

It also administers the Oregon Historical Marker and Oregon Heritage Tree programs to ensure that significant trees and historical markers retain their significance for future generations.

It so happened the agency had been looking for a way to commemorate Henderson Luelling, whose “traveling nursery” was brought by covered wagon across the plains in 1847. He, with other plant pioneers, including GeerCrest founder Ralph Geer, is credited with starting the fruit tree industry in Oregon and beyond.

The Heritage Tree committee was unsuccessful in finding any sign of Luelling’s initial nursery in Milwaukie, Oregon, and Toler’s proposition provided a wonderful way to recognize the early pioneers of the nursery and fruit industry in pre-territorial Oregon.

“All of the fruit trees in this grove date back to the first settlers,” Toler said. “We at the farm mapped out an area where there are 13 trees that date back to the 1850s – fruit, nut and a couple descendants of the Riding Whip Tree.”

A black cottonwood, GeerCrest’s Riding Whip Tree is already a state Heritage Tree with a story of its own but, sadly, the tree is now in decline. However, new starts were taken from the top of the tree when it was blown out during the 1962 Columbus Day Storm.

However, there is no end in sight to the fruits of a friendship struck up between Henderson Luelling and Ralph Geer, founder of GeerCrest, in 1847 as both journeyed west along the Oregon Trail.

“Luelling was bringing two wagons full of growing fruit trees,” Toler said. “They struck up a bargain on the trail… Ralph had seeds for apple and pear trees; he would grow rootstock and trade it to Luelling for scion wood. Luelling started his nursery up in Milwaukie and they traded and that enabled Ralph to put his nursery in down here and grow and sell fruit trees up and down the West Coast. It was the time of the 49ers in California and there was a good market for fruit trees everywhere. They worked together to start the fruit tree industry in the territory.”

The 1851 surveyor report says there were about 20,000 trees in each one of Geer’s two nurseries. Later on, when the fruit tree industry went into a slump, the enterprising settlers ventured into hops, flax, short-horned cattle; whatever it took to survive. Their labors went a long way toward making Oregon’s ag industry what it is today.

About three years ago the GeerCrest crew began creating a memorial orchard that will contain most of the varieties of fruit trees brought over by Luelling. Thanks to trees that were sold to surrounding farms in the 1850s by Ralph Geer, the material is available to carry out such a project.

“We have about 30 of those trees set out and a bunch more in the nursery; it’s another way to see more fruit trees that were grown in those days,” Toler said. “We were able to get grafting scions from Nick Botner’s Spearheart Farm in Yoncalla, Oregon, and from the Home Orchard Society and did our own grafting on the farm. Our oldest ones are three years old and some produced fruit this year.”

After the recognition program Oct. 19 the farm will be open for exploration and tours, and Toler is hoping they will be able to fire up the old cider press.

“It’s an old hand-cranker that has been in the family since the 1800s,” Toler said.

Both the 1851 Geer farmhouse, the oldest residence in Oregon that remains in the original family, and its stone fruit cellar are on the National Register of Historic Places. Jim and Erika Toler are the farm’s fifth-generation owners. The farm itself, settled by Ralph and Mary Geer, dates back to 1847.

Oregon Heritage Tree Ceremony

GeerCrest Farm. 12390 Sunnyview Road NE. Friday, Oct. 19, 11 a.m. Free. All welcome. www.geercrest.org

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