TOP O' THE MORN: Memories are fruitful

One of the requests early settlers on Ebey’s Prairie made of family and friends back East was for apple seeds or any other seeds that would produce fruit trees. Fir, juniper, pine, willow, maple, oak and others were abundant as were berry bushes. But fruit trees had to be brought in. Some pioneers went to Oregon to procure cuttings.

In Oak Harbor in the late 1800s, the McCaslin family arrived in Oak Harbor. Mr. McCaslin was a nurseryman with connections. One of his daughters married Jerome Ely who was to become Oak Harbor’s first mayor and whose farm was on the original Sumner donation claim in what is now the middle of Oak Harbor. Perhaps at his father-in-law’s urging, Ely planted an orchard in front of his home. Old pictures show the orchard in what is today’s business district.

Many of the old trees, some at least 100 years old, still grow and flourish. Their fruit may not look anything like that in a grocery store, but the trees still produce fruit. Today old pear trees — part of Ely’s orchard — stand behind Help House.

We come from a tree family. Grandpa came to Mount Vernon in 1902 and planted on orchard on 10th Street. Some of his tres still stand. One of his favorites was a black cherry with exceedingly juicy fruit that had only a small pit. They made excellent jam and Grandpa served his special black cherry wine to visiting dignataries and son-in-laws on occasion. Grandpa’s orchard included pears, plums, four kinds of cherries and two or three apples including yellow transparent, Gravenstein and King. One recalcitrant peach, however, did not see eye-to-eye with Grandpa on production.

Grandpa often told our Mother “If you plant a tree, plant one that bears fruit.” She took his advice to heart. No decorative trees or shrubs for her.

When the family moved to Oak Harbor and bought a house at what is now Midway and Pioneer, someone had already planted fruit trees years before. In the spring a bouquet of pears, apples and cherries blossomed in the corner. Mother planted young trees among the old and enclosed the house within an orchard.

When Grandpa and Grandma Neil left the farm and logging behind for life in town, there were no trees on their lot. Grandma took the initiative and from a traveling nurseryman bought a willow, a maple and a hazelnut. Friends donated silver poplars and a purple lilac. Grandpa Neil hit the ceiling. He had been a logger all his life and trees were for cutting, not planting. He would be comfortable without any tree near his home. Grandma usually acquiesced to his wishes but about trees she was adament. The trees were planted and grew tall, providing blossoms and shade.

When we married, we remembered Mother’s admonition and added cherry and apple trees. A wayward flowering bush reverted to rootstock and bore little yellow plums in August. Gravensteins that make the best pie in the world drop to the grass in September. The pie cherry planted as a slip from one of Jerome Ely’s makes Washington’s birthday a success.

Dorothy Neil has been writing and recording Whidbey Island history for more than 50 years. Her books chronicle local life and times.

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