The Decline & Fall of Mendocino Apples

by Malcolm Macdonald, September 21, 2016

Though there are far fewer examples of apples today than when I was a boy it is good to know that last weekend's gathering in Boonville was still called the Mendocino County Fair and Apple Show. Of course, that appellation is a smidgen off the mark from the original title, “Apple Annual.” The earliest events were sponsored by the Mendocino County Farmers and Apple Growers Association. The first Apple Annuals were put on in the city of Mendocino (anyone looking at vintage coastal newspapers will notice that Mendocino was referred to as a town or city and not as a village and next to never as “the village” — a pretentious affectation of the lowest order).

The original Apple Annual was held in Mendocino at the Odd Fellows Hall, but much later in autumn than the September Boonville fairs most of us have grown accustomed to. That first gathering of the Mendocino Apple Growers took place from Thursday, November 23rd through Saturday, November 25, 1911. Admission for opening day was fifteen cents. The cost skyrocketed to a quarter for the weekend. Frank Bean, nurseryman of East Mendocino, had a display at the first apple show. If one looks carefully and closely the remains of his orchard can still be seen on the south side of Little Lake Road a little more than two miles east of Highway One.

Somewhat ironically the first organized apple show in Mendocino County came seven years after a 1904 federal government study calculated that the United States was once home to about 16,000 varieties of apples. By the time of the 1904 survey the number had dropped to less than half that (approximately 7,000). In the century and a decade that has passed since more than 85% have disappeared. In contemporary times a mere fifteen varieties of apples account for 90% of those sold in grocery stores.

That first “Apple Annual” of 1911 was a humble affair compared to those that followed. By the following summer a more permanent Apple Hall was constructed at the corner of Little Lake and Kasten Streets. The Baptist Church that sits at that intersection today is a much smaller building than the grand Apple Hall of a century ago.

My family’s interest in the early apple shows stems from a basket full of ribbons won by my paternal grandmother, Lillian Robertson Macdonald, dating from the Second Apple Annual. Though humble compared to vast orchards like those still nurtured by the Gowans of Anderson Valley, our ranch does contain many flourishing apple trees planted in the 1800s by Lillian and John Macdonald.

Among the varieties of apples earning prize ribbons for my Macdonald grandparents at the earliest of Mendocino “Apple Annuals” were Maiden’s Blush, Black Ben Davis, Northern Spy, Missouri Pippin, Rome Beauty, Spitzenburgs and what was spelled Halliday’s Bouquet, but I believe to be a form of Holiday apples. A variety noted on one of the prize ribbons that remains a mystery was labeled “Early Maine.”

One notch higher on the hill than the trees planted by John and Lillian Macdonald are those planted by my parents, Margaret and Lorne Macdonald in the 1940s. These include Gravenstein and Baldwin trees that are trying their best to withstand repeated attacks by bears in the last half decade. Where I live, another half mile up the hill from the Albion River, bears have not yet gathered the courage to come over the fence and into the yard to get at Red and Golden delicious apples as well as several other varieties and a hybrid or two.

What is taken for granted in this century proved a novelty ninety-seven years gone by. The 1919 Apple Annual in Mendocino included “exhibitions of flight” by Lt. Dayton Murray who flew his aeroplane from Eureka to Mendocino for the event. Four years later, in 1923, the Mendocino Apple Annual hosted automobile races on a track on the headlands. Gus Mendosa and Herman Fayal were among the early drivers. By 1926 the apple show and fair had moved to Boonville where it remains to this day.

From the time my ancestors first planted apples here in the 1800s automobiles and airliners have supplanted horses and wagons, but perhaps just as significantly agricultural change has struck this area with a wallop in my lifetime. No, I'm not talking about marijuana. Take Anderson Valley for example; a land not so long ago abundant in apple orchards. Now it’s mostly vineyards. In a county that appears to pride itself on “going green” and being ecologically savvy, the destruction of apple and pear orchards in favor of vineyards seems to fall somewhere between sadly ironic, counterproductive, or perhaps just drunkenly stupid.

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