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Fruit on your doorstep

The story of how homegrown fruit became a driving force for a gift-industry juggernaut has multiple beginnings.

One start was in 1840s Angers, France, when horticulturists Hilaire Dhomme and Pierre-Aimé Millet first bred the pear known as Doyenné du Comice, roughly translated to "The Fruit of Kings." The fruit, known for its succulent flavors and fragile constitution, became a delicacy among aristocrats and was served in fine European restaurants.

The pear required a very particular set of soil and weather conditions to prosper, but by the late 1890s, Rogue Valley orchardists had discovered Southern Oregon provided an ideal climate for the pear, especially when the variety was grafted onto the roots of sturdier Winter Nelis trees.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Rogue Valley and award-winning pears drew newcomers to the fruit industry. Among them was Seattle businessman Samuel Rosenberg, who in 1910 purchased Bear Creek Orchards' 237 acres of fruit trees for $300,000. Four years later, Rosenberg died of pneumonia, so Rosenberg's sons, Harry and David, both recent Cornell graduates with agriculture degrees, took over the orchard.

By the end of the 1920s, the orchard had a cold storage plant and modern techniques that kept pears fresh for weeks, making it possible to sell them at higher values in Europe and on the East Coast.

But supply is only one half of basic economics, as the brothers learned by the early 1930s. As the Great Depression closed restaurants and resorts that once had been the orchard's customers, Harry reached out to West Coast businessmen, offering to ship boxes of choice pears through the mail as gifts for $1.95.

In 1934, the company issued its first mailer to promote its gift baskets. Meanwhile Harry headed to the East Coast to promote the gift idea. He had a meeting with New York advertising executive G. Lynn Sumner. It was Sumner who suggested Harry send his pear boxes to captains of industry at Chrysler, NBC and others, including a folksy note written from the voice of two brothers. Sumner also advised they advertise in Fortune magazine, with a similarly down-home message and the heading, "Imagine Harry and Me advertising our PEARS in Fortune!"

Fast forward to 2014, when Harry and David was purchased by 1-800-Flowers.com. Harry and David makes up about three quarters of 1-800-Flowers' Gourmet Food and Baskets group, which 2015 reports show as a growth driver for the Long Island, N.Y. gift company.

The story of 1-800-Flowers began in 1976, when Jim McCann opened his first Flora Plenty shop in New York City. The florist had grown into a chain of 14 stores in the New York metro area by the time it merged with Rosalia Florist in 1983. In 1986, McCann purchased the assets of a Texas company that owned the phone word 1-800-Flowers, which he adopted as the name for his company.

In the early 1990s, the toll-free number and company became a household name, thanks in part to prominent CNN advertising during the Gulf War, and AT&T highlighting the company in a campaign during the 1992 Summer Olympics. 

Back when laypeople thought of Amazon as a river and the Web as something for spiders, 1-800-Flowers was pioneering the ordering of gifts by home computer. It partnered with the CompuServe online service in 1992 and America Online in 1994 before launching the website that now bears the company's official name in 1995.

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Workers harvest pears at Harry and David's Coleman Creek Orchard near Phoenix in 2013. Mail Tribune file photo
About 8,000 pounds of peaches are ready to leave Harry and David for ACCESS Inc., which distributes them to hungry families throughout the valley. Mail Tribune file photo