Orchard Industry in Bitter Root Dates Back to Tom Harris in 1866
Editor's note: The Bitter Root apple industry, although small
by earlier standards, continues as one segment of agricultural endeavor in
Orchards have been a part of the valley scene since 1866,
according to research by the Daily Republic, and Northwest Tribune staff.
Some of the background information is included below.
The best information available shows the first fruit trees
in the Bitter Root were planted in the Three Mile area by Thomas W. Harris,
one of the valley's first white settlers, in 1866. Harris was born in Woodford
County, Kentucky, in 1827. He crossed the plains in 1851 to Fort Hall, Idaho,
then entered into employment with Major John Owen at Owen's trading post in
the Stevensville area. He continued as Owen's right-hand man until the two
men parted company following a disagreement in 1865. Harris moved to the
Three Mile area, where he farmed and started an orchard.
Other members of his family also came west about the same
time and many Harris descendents still live in this area. His youngest son,
George, was a veteran of the Spanish-American War who died only a few years
ago. Another early day orchardist was W.N. Smith, who in 1868 planted $100
worth of trees on his farm where Victor now stands. Many of the trees failed
to survive, however, and Smith apparently gave up on his venture.
Credit for establishing the first commercial orchard goes
to a pair of earlyday settlers, W.E. and D.C. Bass, who in 1870 planted a
number of mail-order trees on their Pine Grove farm northwest of Stevensville.
The Bass brothers obtained the trees from Plymouth, Massachusetts. Several
oak trees also were ordered and a few of these are still standing on what
is now known as the Schearbrook Ranch near Stevi.
The fruit and hardwood trees were only about three inches
long and were packed in steam rubber paper for the journey which took several
weeks by rail and stagecoach. The brothers were thrifty farmers and believed
in cultivating their trees. The trees first produced apples in the year 1877,
the year Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce came through the valley.
W.E. and D.C. continued to plant more and more trees of
all varieties and were in fact the pioneers of orcharding in Montana as well
as the first commercial growers. There was a strong local demand for their
apples, with people cheerfully paying $9 per box, regardless of variety.
In 1890, they began setting out commercial orchards with
varieties adapted to this section, and from then on became more selective
as to variety. It was in this same year they shipped the first carload of
Bitter Root apples to Butte. After this, they annually shipped cars to Helena,
Butte and into Canada, where they found a vast and growing market.
The first fruit fair was held at Stevensville on October
1, 1894 in Henry Buck's Hall, and the discovery was made that Montana was
a fruit-growing state. Almost every Bitter Root resident was there and a
trainload of politicians, including Governor Toole, came from other parts
of the state. They were amazed. J.F. Kelley purchased the Bass Brothers exibit
for $500 and took it back to Butte. The brother's success gave others courage.
Those who had orchards were encouraged to plant more. Capital came in and
farming lands were bought up and large commercial orchards were planted up
and down the valley.
This was the beginning to what is now called "the orchard
boom." Remnants of these orchards may be seen today throughout the length
and breadth of the valley. The Bass brothers prospered, although not quite
in the millionaire class. Later they sold their Pine Grove farm and might
have gone almost anywhere to live, but chose to move to Stevensville, where
they built and furnished a home according to their ideals. As they had married
sisters, the two couples lived together all their lives.
Leo Bass, son of D.C. Bass and only child of both couples,
made the mansion his home until a few years ago, when he sold it and moved
to a new home, built on a small farm he owns south of Stevensville. He and
Mrs. Bass raised their three children, sons Dudley and Stuart, and daughter,
Barbara, in the lovely spacious old home, with the boys playing basketball
in the third story attic and Barbara maintaining a playhouse in the room
over the portico.
The stately mansion, with its two-story columns, stands
today, amid its tree-shaded lawns, on North College Street. It is presently
the home of Mr. and Mrs. William Siphers and family.
Ravalli Republic, December 27, 1974