A Rich History

Colorado is Old Orchard Country

In the early 1860’s Colorado fruit grower “Uncle” Jesse Frazer brought a bundle of fruit trees on his ox-pulled wagon from Missouri, settling in what is now Florence, CO. Frazer established the first successful commercial orchard and plant nursery in the state. He is remembered today for discovering and naming the renowned Colorado Orange apple.

Early fruit growers were told that orchards would not grow at Colorado’s high elevations. Defying convention, they experimented aggressively planting cherries, pears, peaches, plums, apricots, and hundreds of varieties of apples at a time that now represents the height of North America’s fruit diversity. They sought a premium on quality, employing techniques of their trade: breeding, grafting, harvesting, and marketing.

Rewarded for their efforts, by 1900, homestead and commercial orchards were well established across Colorado – from the Front Range foothills to the Arkansas Valley, across the mountains to the Grand Valley and into the remote Southwest – all regions winning premiums for their crops. Apples dominated Colorado’s early orchards, but by the end of the 1920’s the national trend had turned to the “shiny red apple”; orchardists were told to grow no more than three kinds. Yet, remnants of this early time of diversity remain in Colorado’s landscape – primarily apples – growing in subdivision backyards, sections of hay fields, abandoned homesteads, and open spaces. The trees are hidden or right in plain sight; sometimes forgotten, and other times revered by the families who always remembered.

Historic Southwestern Orchard District 

Fruit orchards once featured prominently in the agricultural landscape of southwestern Colorado. Many of these orchards, primarily apple, still exist. Remnants of themselves, they quite often are down to a few century-old or older trees growing in a fence line. Many of the folks who grew up around these old trees are still here to share their knowledge. Together, these descendants of early fruit growers and their trees, create a living history worth holding on to. 

The most favored district in Colorado is what was once said about our area’s fruit growing potential. At elevations fruit production was believed impossible, our region grew some of the tastiest fruit imaginable. Over one hundred years ago pioneers migrated west with knowledge of fruit and orchards planting thousands of small and mid-sized orchards in Weber Canyon, McElmo Canyon, Lewis, Lakeview, Arriola, and Lebanon.

They were aware of the numerous varieties that existed at the time, and experimented aggressively. There was a premium on quality. They could breed their own cultivars, graft, plant, harvest, and market their fruit. Indeed, much of the early history of the Montezuma Valley is about fruit production and orchard development. The reputation for quality spread far and wide.

In 1904 Montezuma County won three of the four Gold Medals awarded to Colorado at the St. Louis World Fair. Two years later, establishing a record “that has never been approached, much less equaled” Montezuma County fruits took 101 out of the 104 ribbons at the State Fair, 97 of them first place. Remnants of the work of these early growers are what led to the creation of MORP some 100 years later.

This class (video recording) was paid for in part by a History Colorado, State Historical Fund grant (Project Number #2018-M1-020). The content and opinions contained do not necessarily reflect the view or policies of History Colorado.