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Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

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Clark County History: The Prunarians

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The Prunarians gather during their 1920 Prune Festival for a photo in front of the Prune Princess. Three men formed the group to save the prune business in Clark County after a silver thaw damaged the harvest so much it never quite recovered. The group grew to about 60 and included men beyond the industry, including Judge George Simpson. Despite the groups&#039; enthusiasm, the area lost to Southern California and the local prune business dried up.
The Prunarians gather during their 1920 Prune Festival for a photo in front of the Prune Princess. Three men formed the group to save the prune business in Clark County after a silver thaw damaged the harvest so much it never quite recovered. The group grew to about 60 and included men beyond the industry, including Judge George Simpson. Despite the groups' enthusiasm, the area lost to Southern California and the local prune business dried up. (Contributed by Clark County Historical Museum) Photo Gallery

A silver thaw softened Clark County’s prune business and endangered an economic resource for Clark County in 1916. The prune economy involved more than fruit growers. It included an infrastructure of pickers, packers, printers, marketers and distributors working to send thousands of tons of the fruit worldwide. Pickers could earn up to $30 in a season and receive a half-cent bonus a box if they worked the entire season.

World War I inflated prune prices. Three worried Vancouver businessmen started a booster club to buoy the flagging prune industry in 1918, the Prunarians. Their approach was hardly original. Already Salem and Newberg, Ore., had their Cherrians and Berrians.

From this humble start of three sprouted a club of 58, whose purpose was to create better communication among prune growers in Clark County by consistent advertising of the county being the greatest in the Italian prune business. Shortly after the Prunarians formed, they built a modern packing plant, the Washington Growers Packing Corporation.

The Prunarians went all out. They planned to have a parade, music, drinks, dancing and even a prune princess. During the first Royal Prune Festival in 1919, five torpedo boats arrived with their crews and went on shore leave, boosting interest in the event. Community groups provided free drinks, music and dancing for the sailors and locals. They also offered rides to local farms. The festival included three-legged races, sack and wheelbarrow races and pie, apple and prune eating contests.

On the final day of the festival, the crowd enjoyed an airplane circus of 16 biplanes at Pearson Airfield.

By 1924, technology and California competition entered the business. That year prune prices dropped from 15 cents a pound to 4 cents. A 1924 issue of the Oregon and Washington Growers magazine carried advertisements for refrigerated shipping, ventilated crates and a prune dryer with ferriswheel-like rotating shelves.

Prune sales dove when rumors speculating that President Warren G. Harding, who received many boxes of prunes during his July 4 visit in 1923, caused his unexpected August death.

Not so. Harding died of a heart attack. The fruit was falsely implicated.


Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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