EDITOR’S NOTE: The columns of Bill Duncan are being reprinted in The News-Review. Duncan, who died in November 2011, wrote a weekly column for The News-Review and The Capital Press of Salem from 1981 to 2011. Duncan wrote the following column in June 1991. His thoughts are still pertinent to today.
At one corner of my property in Roseburg, there is an Italian prune plum tree. It produces enough prunes per season to keep me regular. I gave it minimum care and little thought.
That is until recently, when Henry Weber of Roseburg wrote me a letter saying that I live on land that formerly belonged to his family and it is located only a couple hundred yards from the house where he was born in 1909.
Weber’s letter was a history book of early agriculture in Douglas County. Prunes, he said, were once the big crop and the county was the prune capital of the Pacific Northwest. My surviving prune tree was once one of many in an orchard.
“It seems like it was only yesterday that a movie was made in Roseburg (actually, it was 1920) appropriately called ‘The Queen of Prune City,’ in which some of the locals starred,” Weber reminisced. He said when the premiere was held at the only theater in town, those “stars” arrived in “style equal to Hollywood.”
Weber recalls when prune orchards covered vast acres in these fertile valleys. In North Roseburg, he said, there were three prune-packing plants.
The opening of school was delayed so that whole families could help harvest this valuable cash crop. He remembers that one of the biggest markets for prunes was Germany and reckons this “could be the reason the Germans are such regular people and always seemingly on the run.”
When prune prices dropped most of the orchards, Weber remembers, were “pulled out like decayed teeth,” and in their place were planted row crops, mostly broccoli. But alas, like all the fortunes of farmers, a hard freeze came and wiped out the broccoli production.
Weber’s agricultural history includes the years that watermelons and cantaloupes grown in Dillard were famous all over the U.S., but one year a wilt killed the vines before the melons could become ripe and ended the county’s role as the melon capital.
He also recalls that strawberries from Douglas County were such an important crop that once a year Roseburg hosted a strawberry carnival.
Farmers excelled in growing apples and pears and many of those orchards still remain. Grapes were another top cash crop in the county, most growers have now turned from table grapes to wineries.
Growers planted hops and there was even a hop dryer located in Winston, but Weber says that the hop market waned and the dryer closed, leaving the growers with a transportation problem.
Despite all the agricultural economic woes, Weber said, he still remembers the good ol’ days fondly: “Life was good. Farmers raised most of their own food and there was no income tax — of course there was little income to tax. Stores in town gave credit to the farmers who paid their bills once a year when their produce was sold.”
Since my lone prune plum tree is one of the last relics of those years, I went out this year to prune and fertilize it — and to name it Henry.