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Land feuds have long history in Southern Oregon

Long before the pot boom spurred conflict and change in Southern Oregon, old-school subsistence farmers looked with suspicion on a new breed of growers invading the Rogue Valley.

Wealthy men from Chicago and other far-off locales bought up land and planted orchards. Focused on pears and apples, the new Rogue Valley residents were far different than the self-sufficient pioneer farmers who grew a variety of crops and animals.

Settlers who arrived in the 1850s were largely cut off from outside markets. They grew food to feed themselves and their families, sometimes selling to miners drawn to the area for gold.

“The way they were farming was the way their parents and grandparents had farmed,” said historian and Central Point resident Larry Mullaly.

The transcontinental railroad arrived in the 1880s and tied Southern Oregon into the rest of the nation. Sensing an opportunity, orchardists soon followed and began shipping their fruit across America and abroad via the railroad.

Mullaly will describe the clash between the two agrarian cultures on Wednesday, Nov. 6, from noon to 1 p.m. at the Medford library, 205 S. Central Ave. He will speak again at noon Wednesday, Nov. 13, at the Ashland library, 410 Siskiyou Blvd.

His “Bounty of the Land” talk is part of the free Windows in Time lecture series co-sponsored by the Southern Oregon Historical Society and Jackson County Library Services.

The lives of subsistence farmers were filled with work from dawn to dusk, Mullaly said.

A typical day for a man might include plowing, weeding, pruning, moving his cows, selling pigs, salting pork, getting his horses shod and sharpening his plow. Women cooked, cleaned, raised the children and tended kitchen gardens for their families’ use. To make some extra spending money, women often sold milk, butter and vegetables, while men might sell off mules and pigs.

“They tended to be land rich and cash poor,” Mullaly said.

Farmers helped each other out and the economy was heavily reliant on the barter system. The Jacksonville newspaper announced it would sell subscriptions for butter and eggs.

In contrast, many of the orchardists arrived with the financial wherewithal to launch their new businesses. They frequently hired foremen and workers to do the physical labor.

“Orchardists didn’t do the work themselves. The orchardists were city folks who hobnobbed with politicians and lawyers and paid attention to the stock market. They were using a lot of labor. They were using some of the same labor that the farms needed. The harvest seasons overlapped,” Mullaly said. “The orchardists had far less total acreage than the farmers, but they were earning 10 times as much per acre.”

Some of the traditional farmers and ranchers took advantage of new opportunities offered by the railroad, shipping cattle out of the area. But crops like hay and grain weren’t competitive against larger growing regions like the Willamette Valley, Mullaly said.

The early settlers typically relied on dry land farming or got water from creeks. Wanting more reliable water, the orchardists laid the groundwork for vast irrigation systems with reservoirs and canals that still exist today. They also championed the construction of roads and an electrical system, Mullaly said.

Southern Oregon orchardists marketed their fruit as “clean” — using the Harry & David system of carefully selected, blemish-free fruit. They wrapped the premium fruit carefully in paper and packed them in attractive crates decorated with full-color illustrations.

“Packing became a major art form,” Mullaly said.

The orchardists, who also dabbled in real estate, trumpeted the Rogue Valley as a veritable Garden of Eden — sometimes with unanticipated consequences.

“They were so effective at telling people about why they should move here that people were camped out at train stations. They were living in tents because they couldn’t find enough housing,” Mullaly said.

An economic crisis struck in 1912 when orchards were hit with prolonged drought, insect infestations and hard freezes, he said.

The downturn was part of a cycle of ups and downs as the economy continued to change.

The Rogue Valley diversified beyond agriculture as the 1900s progressed, with timber, health care, retail and services gaining ground.

Although hemp and marijuana have taken over as the top crops in Southern Oregon, Mullaly said it’s too early to tell how they will impact local agriculture. He prefers to view change through the lens of decades, not months or a few years.

“We’re getting a lot of fallow farmland being brought back to life again because of the hemp industry, but some of the economic projections seem extravagant,” he said. “I’m curious about what the next major boom will be.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Subsistence farmers didn't always get along with new orchard growers who arrived in the Rogue Valley in the 1880s.