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A century ago, pears were king, but wine grapes are the stars now

When was the last time you bought a pear, waited a few days for it to ripen, then, drooling with anticipation of its amazing flavor, let yourself bite into it, experiencing near culinary bliss?

A century ago, in the 1920s, this was a common occurrence — and Southern Oregon’s famous pears were in demand worldwide, yet people still complained, “An apple is ready when you are; a pear is ready when it is.”

That age-old quip is relayed by Rick Hilton, entomologist and faculty at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Central Point.

The fact is, Hilton adds, that people now have so many food choices, flown in from so many parts of the world — pineapples, bananas, wine, avocados, candy — that pears have slid down the chart, and orchards, for the last three decades, have been getting cut down, many to make way for wine grapes — and now hemp.

“Demand for pears has not increased a lot. It’s because of foreign competition, especially from processed and concentrated fruits and canned pears,” says Hilton. “If you want instant gratification, you do not get a pear. You get a mandarin or apple, ready to eat when you buy it.”

The 1920s pear boom was greatly enabled by the invention of refrigerated railroad cars, which spread them all over the continent. With new irrigation canals and reservoirs, the Rogue Valley became the nucleus of the pear world. Blight back East kept the fruit from growing as well there.

The valley became a “niche pear district,” fostering locally discovered pear mutations: a “well-russeted (bronze-colored) bosc variety and, secondly, comice pears.” These, Hilton notes, thrived as adornments to Harry & David’s popular gift baskets.

Hilton bemoans the “pushed over” orchards he’s viewed in the past year or two, on South Stage, Fern Valley and Colver roads, the latter turned into housing.

It was very prescient of the 1973 Legislature and Gov. Tom McCall to pass statewide land-use planning laws, or, says Ashland historian George Kramer, “The old orchards would all be condos now. For all the flak statewide land use laws have taken over the years, the original intent of the law was to protect agricultural land from development. It was the farmers who lobbied for it.”

In addition to water, rail and investment cash, the initial success of pears here must be attributed to orchardist organizations, where growers “only let the best fruit out of the valley,” kept it uniform and attractive, and developed a good system of packing, says Medford historian Ben Truwe.

“The Rogue Valley between 1904 and 1912 quadrupled its population, and real estate people seized on the fact that well-developed orchards, with the best minds behind them, the scions of wealthy Eastern families, were making $1,000 an acre, an astounding amount of money at the time,” says Truwe. “So the price of real estate went up, up, up to the point where you couldn’t recoup your investment, so in 1912, it toppled like a house of cards. By the ’20s, it was a period of recovery, and it was the time when pear trees came into production and really started to boom.”

Fruit wasn’t the only game in town. There was timber, which had been harvested for decades by clumsy, inefficient horse-and-wagon operations. By the 1920s, motor vehicles had come of age, says Truwe, and could access the steep and heavily forested hills, schlep trees to mills and get the finished lumber on rails. Voila! Jobs, money.

Today, the Rogue Valley wine-growing region is the southern-most of Oregon’s 19 federally approved American Viticultural Areas, according to the Rogue Valley Winegrowers Association website.

Established in 1991, the Rogue Valley AVA encompasses nearly 1.15 million acres and includes the Applegate Valley AVA (established in 2001) and consists of four main growing areas: the Bear Creek Valley, Valley of the Rogue, Applegate Valley and Illinois Valley.

The region has about 180 vineyards growing more than 50 varieties on roughly 4,000 acres producing nearly 10,000 tons of grapes.

Workers at Hillcrest Orchard spray pear trees for mildew control around 1920. Photo from Hillcrest Orchard