Years ago, when non-Indian settlers moved into the area and set up housekeeping on their homestead claims, many planted fruit trees as part of the government’s requirements to prove residency.
Those pioneers are long gone, and although some of their descendants continue to plow the land their ancestors settled on, all that’s left of many of the original homesteads are old pictures in history books and yellowed newspaper clippings.
That, and the fruit trees.
Drive around the prairie or along the river breaks this time of year, and you can spot ancient groves of knotty apple, apricot, pear, plum and cherry trees that still produce fruit — mainly for the worms and the birds.
The bark is scabby, and the branches bang together in a breeze like brittle bones. But there’s a story behind those fruit trees that has long outlived the people who planted them.
For one thing, many of the non-Indian settlers came from back East or the Midwest, where the soil and climate were different from this part of the country. The fruit trees they planted may have been common in their home states but probably were not native to this area, and the fact they’ve lasted so long is remarkable. The fig tree near the Salmon River some neighbors of mine discovered a few years ago is an example.
Yes, I know there are people in the lower elevations now who plant fig trees, but they’re not a plant you’re likely to come across on the Camas Prairie. People say, “What do you think this is — the Middle East? Fig trees can’t grow up here,” and yet it does.
A friend of mine and I discovered ancient apricot trees growing on an old homestead called Jackass Flats, and for several years we’ve collected the fruit to make jam. We don’t mind the worms — they just help the cooked fruit to gel.
Other folks I know drive around the prairie in the fall and pick bushels of old, bug-eaten apples from abandoned homesteads and squeeze them for cider. Homestead apples are what God intended apples to be — none of these fancy-schmancy varieties that are bred for flavor bubbles that burst in your mouth and cost $3 a pound.
Mostly these old trees on the abandoned homesteads are ignored and forgotten. The fruit falls to the ground and rots, providing a little late-year snack for bears, birds and other wildlife.
But they are a reminder of a sturdy group of pioneers who left familiar lives behind to start over in a new territory and planted fruit trees to make it home. I can’t think of a more pleasant way to be remembered.
Hedberg may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 983-2326.