California Genealogy and History Archives
San Bernardino County and Riverside County
W. H. BACKUS. There are many who struggled and won, held an important place in the annals of Riverside, did much to advance and put it in the position it now occupies who are in a great measure forgotten except by their contemporaries who lived, achieved and won. Among those none are more worthy of mention than W. H. Backus. Mr. Backus came to Riverside from Ohio in 1882 with his father, Orrin Backus. Like so many others of the earlier settlers of Riverside, he came here for his health, having been engaged in clerical work in his Eastern home. Here, again like so many others, his puritan ancestry showed in his activity in colony lines. He was a descendant in a direct line from John Aldon of Mayflower fame, who has been better known than any of his compatriots on account of his fame in the courting by proxy of Priscilla on behalf of Miles Standish and marrying the lady himself. Mr. Backus, however, did his own courting and brought his wife along with him. He and his father bought 13 acres on what was known at that time as the Government tract, and proceeded to improve it by planting to raisin grapes and oranges. Mr. Backus, the elder, did not survive for very many years, but lived with his son and family until he died.
From the very first Mr. Backus was a success, having good taste in the arrangement of his fruit at all the fairs and exhibitions from the time he had any for exhibition. His vineyard came into full vigor about the time Riverside was at the height of her fame in raisin production and much the largest producer of raisins in the state. His raisins carried off at all the fairs and exhibits in Riverside and Los Angeles most of the blue ribbons and first premiums. It seems strange at this late day to look back and find that Riverside took such a large part in raisin development in the state, and to know that Riverside does not now produce a single pound of raisins in a commercial way. In addition to being a leading exhibitor of fruit he was frequently one of the committee on judging fruit and awarding premiums. Southern California in the early days was the only place in which fruit fairs were held in the state, with the exception of the State Fair at Sacramento.
The first fair at which Mr. Backus obtained distinction was at Los Angeles at the Twenty-eighth District Fair in Hazards Pavilion, February 10-19, 1890, where he took five first premiums, one second and one fourth, in addition to which he took $137.50 in money. This seemed quite a transition in the short space of nine years from bookkeeper in a bank in Cleveland to a fruit ranch in Riverside, California. The reverses experienced in the raisin business on account of meager returns for fruit from middlemen, coupled with the greater returns promised from oranges, drove Mr. Backus, as it did everybody else, from the raisin business to that of orange growing. His proximity to the two original Navel trees gave him excellent opportunity for obtaining first class trees, which in a measure accounted for the success he made as a grower and his exhibition of first class fruit.
At all the fairs in California and at New Orleans, when Riverside established her reputation as grower of the finest fruit in the world, Mr. Backus was at all times ready with his exhibit (and on one occasion he was about the sole exhibitor), he always came out ahead. His family has now preserved in a scrap book about fifty blue ribbons and records of his success at fairs.
In his later years he was very much handicapped by ill health and unable to devote the time and attention his grove required, and between that, public street improvements and the demand for building lots the grove has vanished and what now remains of it is devoted to alfalfa.
Mr. Backus died in 1919, but his family, consisting of wife and two daughters, still occupy the comfortable home. One son occupies a grove in the northern portion of Riverside.
In addition to being a successful horticulturist Mr. Backus had a "fad" for the study of the natural history of the rattlesnake (Crotalus Durissus), and probably knew about as much of the rattlesnake and left about as good a selection of photographs, rattles, etc., as any amateur in the country.
Transcribed by Peggy Hooper 2011