Whiskeytown Historic Apple Orchard
By Laura Christman
Apple of my Eye
By Laura Christman
Photos by Ron Gregory
Gnarled fruit trees at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area are rooted to its Gold Rush past — the era when a popular stage stop stood near what is now Highway 299 west of Redding.
Tower House Hotel was a welcome landing spot — a pleasant contrast to “the depressing effects of the great heat of the valley,” noted a patron in an August 1855 edition of the Shasta Courier. He described it “as one of the most delightful places in this State.”
The hotel had a reputation for hospitality and agricultural abundance — flowers, vegetables and fruits. Orchards produced apples, pears, peaches, figs, cherries and more. Pears weighing four pounds apiece and hefty peaches were acclaimed in the press.
The three-story hotel is long gone (destroyed by fire in 1919), but remnants of the orchards live on. Some 120 trees — mostly apples but a few pear, quince and others — remain from hundreds planted in the mid-1800s into the 1930s. They survived on minimal care for decades, toughing out searing summers, bears breaking branches, fire blight and other woes. Several apple trees are close to 150 years old and still put out fruit.
One “is just hanging on by a thread … hollowed out and leaning, but so productive,” says Whiskeytown Chief of Interpretation and Resources Management Jennifer Gibson. “It’s amazing to me.”
Whiskeytown’s annual Harvest Festival on Sept. 16 celebrates the pioneer orchards. Other National Park Service sites have historic orchards too, but Whiskeytown is unique in having such old trees, according to Susan Dolan, National Park Service Cultural Landscapes Program manager.
“The oldest (at Whiskeytown) date to the mid-1800s, which is exceptional for fruit trees surviving within the national parks,” says Dolan, author of “Fruitful Legacy: A Historic Context of Orchards in the United States.”
Pioneer orchards are a window into early horticulture. In the 1800s, more than 6,000 apple varieties were grown in the nation, Dolan says. Apples came in a range of colors, sizes, shapes, tastes and ripened at different times.
Tower House proprietor Levi Tower experimented with fruit varieties. He procured cultivars from Oregon nurseries and brought varieties to Shasta County by way of the Isthmus of Panama at a high cost. Charles Camden did his share of fruit-tree planting, too. Tower and Camden were friends, mining partners and brothers-in-law. Camden married Tower’s sister Philena and their home still stands in the Tower House Historic District.
Trees from the stage stop’s glory days no longer look glorious. Many survivors are stunted and brittle with hollow trunks. But efforts are underway to help the old trees. Slow, precise, restorative pruning during the past 15 years has removed damaged, decayed branches and encouraged new growth. Competing berry vines and other weeds near the trees have been cut back.
“We’ve made monumental strides,” Gibson says. “It’s a long-term process to get a wild and woolly tree to good condition.”
Redding-area arborist Rico Montenegro consults with Whiskeytown staff and has worked with volunteers to help the trees.
Some propagation of orchard oldsters has been done. Apple cultivars are reproduced from grafted cuttings rather than seeds. Whiskeytown’s plans call for more grafting of old varieties to preserve the genetic legacy of the orchards.
The park is working with Lorine Brakken, a consultant in the Seattle area, to help identify which old apple varieties it has.
“I love puzzles. I love going out and seeing the trees,” Brakken says.
She considers color, flavor, size, shape, skin, seeds, stems, juiciness and crunch of apples in her detective work, as well as many other factors. There are lots of possibilities because so many apple varieties grew in pioneer times, she notes. Apples were used in different seasons for different reasons — baking, cider, vinegar, animal feed and eating out of hand.
“I’m learning what these heirloom varieties taste like,” Gibson says. “Some are sweet; some are acidic.”
Chenango Strawberry Apple, with hints of strawberry flavor, is believed to be one of Whiskeytown’s varieties. Examples of others are Esopus Spitzenburg, reportedly a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, and Lady Apple, a tiny apple with a history going back to the 1600s that was popular for freshening breath and decorating wreaths and garlands.
“There are interesting stories and histories associated with each apple,” Gibson says.
The Harvest Festival is an opportunity to get a taste of Whiskeytown’s apple history. Visitors can sample slices of old varieties and can pick apples in the orchards.
“It’s fun to taste and enjoy these heirloom varieties,” Gibson says.
Harvest Festival • 10 am to 3 pm Sept. 16, Camden House grounds of Whiskeytown National Recreation Area
Heirloom apple-tasting, tours of the orchards and Camden House, Gold Rush-period games, live music • www.nps.gov/whis