Franciscan monks established missions in California, to which they brought seeds of fruit trees, including cherries. From its introduction at approximately the close of the 18th Century, the cherry continued to be cultivated until California passed into the possession of the United States. A new era in horticulture began in California soon after the influx of gold seekers in 1849, some of who noted the opportunities of fruit growing and at once began the importation of seeds and plants to the state.
Modern fruit growing on the Pacific Coast, however, began in Oregon. Until 1847 the few cultivated fruits found in Oregon were seedlings mostly grown by employees of the Hudson Bay Fur Company. On Saturday morning, April 17, 1847, Henderson Lewelling along with his wife and their eight children left Salem, Iowa where they had owned and operated a commercial tree farm and nursery. With them they took 700 precious fruit trees. Another Iowa fruit orchard owner, William Meek joined them with his own assortment of trees. It took 31 weeks to cross through rugged territory to reach the banks of the Willamette River not far from Johnson Creek on November 19, 1847. About 350 of the original 700 trees survived the amazing trip. Among them were May Dukes, Black Hearts, Black Tartarians and the most favored of all, the Royal Ann (known as the Napoleon when the seeds were brought to the United States). Only the Royal Ann is grown commercially today. The light skinned Royal Ann adapted very well to the Oregon weather & soil conditions producing exceptionally large, sweet and delicious cherries. Later, the Royal Ann would become the most desired cherry for brining to make Maraschino cherries. Early pioneers along the way found that Oregon and Washington were wonderful places to grow fruit. Subsequently, luscious and productive cherry orchards took root in the Columbia Valley and along the Willamette.
Meanwhile, modern day Cherry production in Michigan began in the mid-1800’s. French colonists from Normandy brought pits that they planted along the Saint Lawrence River and on down into the Great Lakes area. Among them was a man named Peter Dougherty, who was a Presbyterian missionary living in Northern Michigan. In 1852 he planted cherry trees on the Old Mission Peninsula (near Traverse City, Michigan), much to the surprise of the other farmers and Native Americans who lived in the area. Dougherty’s cherry trees flourished and soon other residents of the area also planted trees. The area proved to be ideal for growing cherries because Lake Michigan tempers Arctic winds in the winter and cools the orchards in the summer.
At first, because of the limitations of travel, pioneers satisfied their taste for cherries by enjoying them fresh and then canning them for use year round. A major expansion developed with the introduction of the refrigerated rail car in the 1880s. In the early 1900s most orchards were family owned and fairly small. However, many small farms found it difficult to purchase expensive equipment and supplies. As such, neighboring farmers would purchase the land of the farmers in distress. Many family farms grew through this phenomenon and today almost all cherry orchards are of the larger variety and are still family owned and operated. Many go back as far as six generations.
Today, almost all of the cherries grown in Oregon & Washington are hand picked just as they were in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There have been many advancements in the machinery used to transport and keep the orchards healthy but the familial influence has not changed nor have the hardships created by weather, fluctuating crop sizes, prices paid to the grower and the lack of cherry picking labor.
Washington now grows in excess of 80 percent of all sweet cherries on 40,000 acres owned by approximately 1,600 growers.
Most of the cherries harvested in California, Oregon and Washington are pick by hand to retain the stems for fresh sale. In Michigan, most of the cherries are machine harvested and without stems for use as ingredients.
Research and Development is a very important part of the modern Cherry Industry. Colleges and Universities across the nation are continually working on the health benefits of the sweet cherry as well as new cherry cultivars. For example, Washington State University’s Dr. Harold W. Fogle developed the Rainier Cherry in 1952.