Prunes prominent in Clark County's past

Prune orchards covered much of local landscape a century ago; a pair of farmers continue tradition

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

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photoMayor N.E. Allen crowns Mary Pierce at the 1923 Clark County Prune Festival. Betty Watts and Gerldine Brown are the Queen’s attendants.

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On July 4, 1923, President Warren G. Harding’s train stopped in Vancouver, where he gave a speech to 5,000 residents. At the event, A.W. Calder presented him with several boxes of Clark County dried prunes.

On August 2, 1923, Harding suddenly died after suffering from a respiratory illness. Despite a long-running myth, the prunes were never implicated.

Before there was a Burgerville, before our hills and valleys were covered with homes, grocery stores, pizza joints and bowling alleys -- Clark County was ruled by the prune.

Just a century ago, prune orchards covered much of the landscape. At a downtown celebration each year, residents would crown one lucky girl the “Prune Queen” and the Prunarians, led by their much revered “Big Prune,” would host a wide variety of prune-related events.

“When we moved here in 1942, the whole Mill Plain area to the top of Prune Hill -- pretty much everybody had prune trees,” said Joe Beaudoin, 71, owner of Joe’s Place Farms. “When they were ripe, you’d shake the tree and if they were ready, they’d fall to the ground and be ready for drying. And there were dryers about every quarter-mile.”

In the 1920s, parades and men decked out in military uniforms would march through the streets of Vancouver hailing the prune. The county shipped about 10 million pounds of dried prunes annually to places all over the United States and the world, including Germany, Russia and France.

“When I first came here and worked for the railroad, a lady I worked with, Mary Pierce, she was prune queen one year in the 1920s,” said Frances Kunze, owner of Kunze Farms. “She was proud of that. They had festivals and everything. Vancouver used to be just a huge farming community.”

Today, Beaudoin and Kunze could well be the last remaining prune farmers in the county. Beaudoin only has about six trees and Kunze has a small orchard of about 3.5 acres.

“We’ve grown them for at least 50 years,” Kunze said. “Most of ours now is ‘you pick.’ And you know, the most people who come and pick are the Russians. They love them. They gather just pails and pails of them. I think it’s just more of an Old World thing now.”

When Beaudoin was young, he remembers dried prunes being served at just about every restaurant. Their popularity started to wane in the 1940s, though, and as markets dropped, many of Clark County’s prune orchards also were abandoned.

“When I was young, my dad and I would go after work and we’d go after the trees and be cutting them up for firewood,” Beaudoin said. “The orchards weren’t being taken care of. Most of them had cattle running through them, and people just weren’t doing much with them anymore.”

Back in the day

Two men are generally credited with planting Clark County’s first prune trees and orchards back in the mid- to late- 1800s: S.W. Brown and Arthur W. Hidden.

Brown, who worked for the U.S. Land Office, planted the first trees in a small nursery that he maintained near the intersection of East 19th and D streets starting in 1861 or 1862.

Hidden started getting interested in commercial production of dried fruit in 1876. Before planting his orchard at what was then West 26th and Main streets, he asked his friend Brown for advice on what trees to plant.

According to a 1928 story in The Columbian, Brown told him to plant apples.

“But Arthur Hidden could think of nothing but prunes,” the story said.

Prunes are basically plums that are capable of being dried. They also have seeds that don’t attach to the surrounding meat of the fruit, unlike plums.

In order to commercially market fruit, Hidden needed a product that could be easily dried and preserved for the shipping process, and prunes seemed ideal for that purpose.

He ended up planting a 3.5-acre orchard in 1876 and soon after launched what became a very successful drying and shipping operation.

In 1883, Hidden built Washington’s first regular prune dryer, which produced 5,000 pounds of prunes that year.

And after that, Clark County’s prune fate was sealed.

“From the time that Hidden harvested his first crop of Clark County prunes, neighbors began following his example,” the story continued.

A growth industry

Western-grown prunes became increasingly more popular as Eastern plum orchards were attacked by an insect called the curculio, which laid eggs in young fruit. Curculio and their grubs, which hadn’t made it to the West Coast, eat prunes and cause them to fall to the ground before they’re ripe.

By 1888, Vancouver prune orchards were marketing 200,000 pounds of dried prunes a year in the county’s eight commercial dryers -- and more than 300 acres of land was covered with prune trees.

According to the Vancouver Independent that year: “A good prune orchard will be worth thousands after it has come into bearing. In fact, an orchard of a general selection of trees will command a big pile of eastern money. A man of forethought is aware of this and prepared to reap the benefit. Put out an orchard. There is more money in it than the average gold mine, and much more sure.”

In the early 1890s, prune growers had organized themselves into the Fruit Growers Union as a means to help further market the product.

By the early 1900s, especially before World War I, Clark County prunes were being shipped to Russia, Belgium, London and several other European ports.

“Possibly the largest major market for prunes in the early days was Germany,” Beaudoin said. “And we went to war with Germany in 1917, 1918. And that slowed things down some.”

The Prunarians were formed in part to counteract markets that had lagged during the war. The marketing and public relations group launched the first prune festival in 1919, crowning Fay Vance Meneice as the first prune queen.

The crash

Prune production continued to rule Clark County through the 1920s, with production in some years spiking at 14 million and 17 million pounds.

After the stock market crash in 1929, though, things started to change.

As the economy began to tank and the Great Depression set in, the market price for prunes began to drop.

That, coupled with several years of unfavorable growing conditions and an attack by an insect called a thrip that destroyed buds and fruit, caused prune production in the county to drop from 9 million pounds in 1929 to 1.2 million pounds by 1937-1938.

Production continued to decline through World War II and beyond, and by the time Kunze and Beaudoin arrived in the area, the industry was heading toward full collapse, they said.

“There’s really not much of a market left for them today,” Beaudoin said. “A lot of people associate it with a laxative effect, and they think of it as a kind of old people food.”

Still, a few aficionados of the humble prune remain, and the two local farmers continue to cater to them, in part because of a sense of and dedication to the region’s history, Kunze said.

“When I came here, Fruit Valley was filled with prunes, but at that time industry was also coming in, and new houses were being built, and after that the prune industry shrank to almost nothing,” Kunze said.

Prune production

To counter some of the prune’s bad reputation as a laxative and an old person’s food, the state of California began marketing the product as dried plums, but the term is a bit misleading, Beaudoin said.

“The difference between a prune and a plum is that a plum will not dry,” Beaudoin said. “If you’re buying a dried plum, it’s a prune.”

Most prunes sold today come packaged and partially reconstituted. They’re soft and moist, but that’s not how they used to be, he said.

“When we dried prunes, they were dry and they were hard -- you could store them in bins and they’d last for at least a year or two,” he said. “When you reconstitute them, you lose the ability to preserve them. So you have to add a preservative and stew them. That’s what you see in most markets now.”

And with the old kind of prunes “you’d put them in your mouth and they’d just melt,” Beaudoin said.

Kunze has what both farmers think is the only remaining prune dryer in Clark County. It’s a wood-fire-stoked system that takes 24 to 36 hours of constant attention to produce a batch of dried prunes.

“It’s a day and night job,” Kunze said. “You have to set the clock to wake you up every couple hours so you can monitor the wood. You can’t get it too hot.”

Over the past few years, with unseasonably cold springs, production from her trees hasn’t been significant enough to make dried prunes. But this year, if conditions are good, Kunze said she hopes she might be able to make and sell some.

“It’s a wonderful way to preserve them,” Kunze said. “When we first started drying them, there was an old Finnish fellow who’d been farming here for a long time and he showed us how to do it.”

Still, mostly what she sells now are fresh prunes that haven’t been dried, she said.

“For us, although the market is a lot smaller than it once was, our sales are quite good,” Kunze said. “People who want them, they still really appreciate them.”

Sue Vorenberg: 360-735-4457; sue.vorenberg@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_suevo