A recent view of the Old Apple Tree, located near downtown Vancouver. Photo by Jessica Antoine, Vancouver Urban Forestry.
The first apple tree in the Pacific Northwest probably grew at Fort Vancouver – the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fur-trading post established in 1825, now the site of Vancouver, Washington. A reputed offspring of the original tree still bears fruit on the same spot. The historical significance of this tree, hailed locally as “the matriarch of Washington State’s apple industry,” recently forced highway designers to relocate their first choice for a major freeway interchange because it threatened to obliterate the site.
An early fanciful tale of the tree’s origins has a decidedly romantic twist. It involves a dinner attended by several young HBC employees in London on the evening before their departure for the Oregon Country, then largely controlled by the British. According to this version:
One young lady at the party, smitten with the young gentleman beside her, saved the seeds from the apples served at dinner, gently wrapped them in paper, and tucked them into the man’s vest pocket as a token of remembrance. Upon his arrival at Fort Vancouver, the young man discovered the seeds and gave them to the company’s gardener for planting.
A similar but less sentimental account maintains that an HBC sea captain, Aemilious Simpson, planted seeds for the tree himself in 1827. Supposedly, he had saved the seeds in his vest pocket at a dinner party in London just before sailing for the Northwest Coast. Other stories claim it was 1826 and someone else planted the seeds – no one knows for sure.
Regardless, Narcissa Whitman, the wife of Dr. Marcus Whitman, noted the presence of apple trees at Fort Vancouver in 1836. Dr. Whitman took seeds from these trees and planted them east of the Cascades at their mission station, Waiilatpu, near present-day Walla Walla. By the mid 1840s, the Whitman’s irrigated garden and orchard included 75 apple trees. Seeds were also planted at other early white settlements, including the Catholic mission at Ahtanum near Yakima, although reportedly these seeds came from France.
Cover courtesy of Washington State University Press
The Vancouver community has honored its “Old Apple Tree” in every way imaginable. In 1934, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to the Northwest for an inspection tour of the Grand Coulee Dam construction site, local officials contributed some of the tree’s apples for a pie presented to the president upon his arrival in Portland. The site of the Old Apple Tree is now a public park. An annual Old Apple Tree Festival, typically held in early October, was discontinued for a few years, but was back on schedule in 2009. The festival focuses on historical and environmental themes with a number of activities for both kids and adults, including an apple-pie baking contest. Cuttings from the tree are given to visitors. In June 2009, the tree suffered serious damage when two of its main limbs snapped, but experts were called in for consultation, and the central section is still thriving.
More from Tree Top: Creating A Fruit Revolution:
Reprinted with permission from Tree Top: Creating A Fruit Revolution by David H. Stratton and published by Washington State University Press, 2010.