Solano's Rich Fruit Sections
From: History of Solano County, California
By: Marguerite Hunt
And Napa County, California.
By: Harry Lawrence Gunn
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., Chicago 1926


Fruit growing has been a successful industry in Solano County for nearly seventy years. Within its boundaries is included one of the richest fruit growing sections of the entire State of California, and for this reason, coupled with the fact that Solano is equally successful in so many kinds of orchards, it has been named the King County of Varieties. While the industry can be carried on in a large area of Solano, there are four distinct fruit sections - namely Vaca Valley and Pleasants Valley, far ahead of all sections of the state in the production of early plums, peaches, and apricots; Suisun Valley, noted for its Bartlett pears and cherries, and Green Valley, in which is the largest cherry orchard in the world. This is owned by F. S. Jones, and is located near the little town of Cordelia which, in fact, is the shipping point for the output from this rich valley. In one season alone 90,000 boxes of cherries were shipped to eastern markets from Jones' orchard. The first full carload of cherries to leave California each year for the East pulls out of Cordelia the last week of April. In 1924, it left on April 26, and was made up, as is always the case, of cherries raised in Green Valley and Vacaville. It brought $9,960 in the New York market, the highest price ever paid for a car of California fruit in the East. The first box of cherries to be sent East each year, and which always brings a fabulous price, is raised in Vacaville.

These fertile sections lie along the eastern base of the coast range, separated from the excessively hot Sacramento Valley by a low range of hills. At the same time they are protected from the strong trade winds and fogs of the Pacific Ocean, which are so prevalent in the summer months, as well as from the cold wind of Suisun Bay. These factors make for a warm and pleasant climate in summer, while in the winter, although there are days when frost is much in evidence, it is seldom even that young orange trees suffer serious damage.

In the years of the early settlement of Solano County these valleys were the grazing grounds for the herds of cattle which formed the principal industry of the pioneers. So fertile was the soil that the natural vegetation attained great growth and there are a few of the early settlers still living who state that a man riding on horseback could reach the standing oats on either hand and tie them together over his head while seated in the saddle. Even within the last decade it has been no uncommon sight to see oats, planted in soil just cleared of its natural vegetation, attain a height of over seven feet. Some idea of the prolific growth of the natural crops may be gained by the statements of old settlers, apparently of unquestioned authority, that when cattle were grazing in these valleys it was possible to see them only when they crossed the paths which they had stamped down themselves.

Just who first planted fruit in Solano can not be definitely settled, but John Wolfskill, the first settler to locate on Putah Creek in 1842, is credited and correctly with the first planting of figs and olives. This was in 1845. His nearest neighbor, J. M. Pleasants, from whom Pleasants Valley derived its name, planted a family orchard of apricots, apples and pears in 1852. Some of the trees planted by the pioneers of fruit raising in Solano are still producing good crops. In 1856, M. R. Miller, who made the first commercial use of the Solano County fruits, planted a family orchard of apples, figs and peaches and started raising the Mission grapes. These vines he grafted with Muscats and there are records of his loading his four horse wagon up with these and hauling them to the mines where he had no difficulty in selling them at fifty cents or more per pound. Contemporaries of Miller in the fruit growing business in the late '50s were such men as J. R. Collins, E. R. Thurber, Sol Decker, Joseph Wilgon, Ansell Putmann, G. W. Thistle, and others. So successful was Miller with his Muscats that about 1863, he tried the experiment of shipping a supply packed in cork dust to New York via Panama. But the Muscat was too tender a variety for this and the experiment was a failure. San Francisco and Sacramento did not provide large enough markets as the number of fruit growers increased and the acreage planted to vines and trees reached full bearing, and so, when the Central Pacific Railroad was completed, small shipments were made to eastern markets from time to time. These went sent by express and brought high prices. Offsetting what would otherwise have been a good profit however, was the excessive cost of shipment. When the Centennial Exposition was held in Philadelphia in 1876, a carload of choice grapes was sent East for exhibition purposes. One half of the carload was contributed by the growers in Pleasants Valley as an advertisement for California. The remainder of the carload was used as a commercial venture and was successful. Grapes were more plentiful with the growers of early days than were fruit trees, but in the '70s many of the vines had to be torn out owing to a pest and from about 1880, the real fruit growing industry in Solano may be dated. For some of the early settlers in Vaca Valley various varieties of peaches are named. Thus the Decker peach came from a chance seedling found on the ranch of Sol Decker and later propagated for commercial purposes by L. W. Buck, who, by the way, was one of the first growers in California to risk shipping his fruit to the eastern markets. At that time fruit was shipped in ventilated cars, as to send it by freight would be too slow and would mean a loss to the shipper. The charges were over $1,000 a car and as the business increased the railroad company was forced to limit the number of cars, the maximum to each train being four. The necessity for engaging space in these long before the fruit was ready for shipment can easily be seen. From this resulted the California Fruit Growers Union, organized largely through the efforts of Senator Buck.

In 1889, the first refrigerator cars were used for California fruits, the experiment being made by the California Fruit Transportation Company in conjunction with A. T. Hatch of Suisun, who was then the largest grower of deciduous fruits in the state. Hatch and Frank B. McKevitt shipped the first carload of fruit including grapes from Suisun but it was some time before the eastern markets could be prevailed upon to make purchases, so sure were they that the contents of each car as it reached its destination would quickly spoil. In fact a campaign of education along these lines was necessary and the first season's shipments cost the promoters a cool $10,000 loss. But to return to the origin of the names of some of the peaches for which Solano is noted. A seedling found in the orchard of M. R. Miller was extensively planted by him. This ranch later became the property of Alexander McKevitt and the McKevitt clingstone peach was thereby named. The Muir and Lovall peaches are said to be first raised and commercialized on the ranch of G. W. Thistle.

Some of the apricot trees planted in the orchard of the J. M. Pleasants family in 1852, are thriving. In the early days probably twenty five per cent of all plantings in Solano County was apricots, one of the earliest fruits of the season, until the cherry orchards were started and usurped this honor. For many years large crops of apricots were dried, but as it was found that the cost of labor was constantly increasing and that other sections of California were strong competitors, many of the apricot orchards were grafted into different varieties of plums and prunes. Of late years, however, it has been found that Solano can successfully ship apricots in their ripe state. Vaca Valley and other sections send out this early fruit and the acreage has also been heavily increased once more for canning and drying. The apricot may be said to be one of the pioneer fruits of California, as it was grown by the Mission Padres in Santa Clara as early as 1792. Although grown in ten states of the Union, it is only in California that the crop is sufficiently large to have a great effect on market prices. The United States Crop Report for 1924, issued by the California Co-operative Crop Reporting Service, E. E. Kaufman, agriculture statistician, quotes the state as having 73,118 acres in bearing in apricots, of which Solano had 3,506; non bearing, (1924) plantings not included) state, 25,874; Solano, 432 acres. The ripening season in Solano is from May 1, to July 1.

The first plums to leave California each year are shipped from Vacaville before the middle of May, as is also the case with apricots and peaches. Pears are shipped as early as June 5. Indeed, the fact that Solano fruits are marketed so early places them in a class by themselves as far as returns for the growers are concerned. In 1923, 1,713 cars of fresh fruit left Vacaville while 632 cars of pears alone were shipped from Suisun Valley. In addition an immense tonnage of pears, peaches and apricots was both dried and canned. Green Valley also produces over 200 carloads of grapes each year. When the Eighteenth Amendment was enacted there were those who thought that the grape industry was ruined. On the contrary it is better than ever, for since then grape prices have soared. Besides the fruit shipments quoted above a large part of the fruit shipped from Winters, Yolo County, is raised in Solano.

While the varieties mentioned above and the famous Bartlett pears have made Solano famous, the county also raises fruits generally regarded as peculiar to Southern California. Oranges, for instance, are successfully grown in the northwestern part of the county and are of the highest grade. Surprising as it seems, Solano oranges are shipped during November and December - before Southern California oranges are started to market. Lemons and grapefruit do comparatively well, while some of the finest fig trees in the state are to be found in the county and yield large crops yearly. Olives are among the products and apples are confined largely to family orchards. English walnuts, California black walnuts, almonds, and pecans are among the nut trees successfully raised.

In the Solano County booth at the State Fair at Sacramento, September 5-13, 1925, there were on display 325 different varieties of fresh deciduous fruits, the largest collection ever shown by a county of the state, according to figures issued by Carl H. Spurlock, county horticultural commissioner. These include 125 varieties of plums, 54 varieties of apples, 47 varieties of pears, 18 varieties of prunes, 40 varieties of peaches, 13 varieties of olives, 7 varieties of quinces, 4 varieties of figs, 4 varieties of persimmons, etc.

While the early fruit growers of Solano had to depend upon their own knowledge or experience, such is not the case of those of the present age. At Davis, adjacent to Solano, is the College of Agriculture of the University of California and the University Farm, and here many of the ranchers go for short courses in the lines in which they are specializing. In addition, the county has an active farm bureau and twelve farm centers throughout the districts. J. W. Mills is the farm advisor and county agent of the Agricultural Extension Work in Agriculture and Home Economics, maintained by the University of California College of Agriculture.

During recent years the shortage of refrigerator cars has been a serious problem with the California farmer and in fact with those of the entire Pacific Coast. The question of shipping fruit in refrigerator ships was taken up in 1924, by the Vallejo Chamber of Commerce and much research work has been done along this line. Agricultural experts declare that the establishment of a line of refrigerator ships to carry fruit to the eastern coast would be the greatest boom to the fruit man, as it would relieve the congestion during the peek of the season when it is impossible to secure sufficient cars. So far however, no company has been found to undertake this business although it is expected to be a development of the near future.

Not only is Solano famous for her fruit orchards but in farming, grain and alfalfa, and in stock raising she also ranks among the leading counties of the state. Here one finds thousands of acres of the richest delta land in the world and rolling hills where grain has been raised successfully for over fifty years. Grain and alfalfa farms are to be found from Dixon and Rio Vista on through the Montezuma hills. The section surrounding the former town was originally devoted almost exclusively to grain raising, but eventually this industry was largely supplanted by alfalfa farms. These are increasing each year, but nevertheless the section still produces annually about 4,000 tons of wheat and 12,000 tons of barley. Over 10,000 acres are devoted to alfalfa. The most modern methods are used so that there are six crops a season. The soil is considered far above the average and there is a plentiful supply of subsurface water for irrigating purposes. In the Dixon district there are between 200 and 300 pumping plants, 80 per cent of which are operated by electricity. While many of the ranches are as large as 2,000 acres there is a tendency to cut many of these into smaller places.

With such a supply of feed it is only natural that the Dixon region early became celebrated for its fine herds and thoroughbred stock. The early winter feed sends cattle to market before the range cattle are ready, another advantage which Solano County farmers enjoy. Many of the land owners are specializing in thoroughbreds, among these being William Briggs and son, who have established one of the best herds of Herefords in the West with Rambouillets as a side line; Howard Vaughn, with his registered Shorthorns, Shropshires and Chester White hop; R. Holdridge, with registered Shrops; A. F. Johnson, Hampshire, etc. Here is found the Doyle Davey Dairy, the largest certified dairy in the world, milking 400 tubercular free cows while numerous other small industries have given Dixon the name of the "Dairy City". An irrigation district of 13,000 acres, supplied with water from the Sacramento River, has been formed and plans are under way for a 20,000 to 30,000 acre district to be supplied by the run off water from Putah Creek.

In the sheep raising industry, Solano holds third place among the counties of California for the number of lambs shipped, and seventh place for sheep population. So large was the industry in 1925, that 37,500 lambs were sent to eastern markets, while 15,000 were sent dressed. Solano furnished 1,000,000 pounds of wool during the year, many of the sheep being raised on small ranches. In the '60s and early '70s when sheep and cattle raising were among the principal resources, the common Merino was found. J. B. Hoyte later imported the heavy wool type Spanish Merino from Vermont. Later he and a few others imported the French Rambouillet sheep and these two types increased the wool production. Later came the Shropshire sheep from England, and so the industry grew until Solano holds the place she does today among the counties of California.

A portion of the Montezuma hills is used for pasturage and is famous for its fine stock valued at over $1,000,000. Within Rio Vista Township lies Ryer Island, one of the richest of the islands of California. It contains 12,000 acres, protected from the Sacramento River by strong levees, and of these 8,000 are planted in asparagus. Barley, beans and potatoes make up the majority of the crops planted on the remainder of the island, producing from 40 to 60 sacks of the former to the acre, 35 to 45 sacks of beans and about 230 sacks of potatoes. Fifteen thousand sheep are turned onto the island each year - first into the stubble, and later into the grain fields, thus preventing a too rank growth of grain.

At the Mid Winter Fair in San Francisco in 1894, Solano County won the $5,000 gold cup for the best display of county products, and she has never fallen behind the record then established.

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