The end of an era: When the apple was king

A week ago, Robert Turner cut down the last of his apple trees, including the Turner Red Delicious.

Ronald Turner stands with his last Turner Red Delicious before the tree is cut down.

With the buzz of a chain saw came the end of a chapter in Salmon Arm’s history.

In 1895, Robert Turner, who has been called the father of the Salmon Arm fruit-growing industry, hopped off the CPR dining car where he worked as a cook to try his hand at farming. He purchased land in Salmon Arm with a small orchard. Over the years the Turner orchards grew, stretching over 70 acres from the site of the current Service BC centre down beyond McGuire Lake and up as far as the bowling alley.

The Turner Red Delicious apple became well-known both locally and afar.

Robert’s son Ronald Turner grew up working in the orchard. Although he eventually moved away from Salmon Arm, he came back when he retired. He inherited property near the Jackson campus of Salmon Arm Secondary at the corner of 16th Street NE and 6th Avenue NE, which included the remaining Turner orchard.

Still a going concern at 98, Ronald has been a stickler about looking after his trees himself. He hasn’t wanted them to be the source of damage to commercial fruit growers nearby by allowing pests such as the codling moth to flourish.

When caring for them became increasingly difficult, he made a decision about what needed to be done. A week ago, he followed through. The remaining trees were cut down, including the Turner Red Delicious.

“It’s the last I know of on this place,” he says, adding it’s possible there are more elsewhere in the area.

Ronald says the Delicious tree was amongst nursery stock his dad purchased from Coldstream.

“It always had solid red apples on it while all the others were half coloured. At that same time, a nursery in the States was advertising a red Delicious apple and called it ‘Star King.’ My dad thought, ‘What are they talking about? I’ve got one myself,’” Ronald recounts, explaining his dad decided to grow more of them. “In time it became quite famous. And it was called the Turner Red Delicious.”

At one time the area above McGuire Lake was all Turner Red Delicious variety until the highway took a lot of the land, he says, so too was the orchard where the bowling alley now sits.

But, it seems, an apple is only as popular as its last crisp.

“The strange thing with apples is the varieties keep changing. They keep discovering a better apple, a tastier apple, a more colourful apple. Now Delicious is pretty well out. So many varieties have taken their place.”

Ronald did leave one tree untouched – the Wealthy apple.

“In the much earlier days, when Dad first started in the orchard, he ordered some nursery stock from Minnesota,” recalls Ronald. “Among them…, I have reason to believe one of those is the Wealthy tree growing at the end of the driveway. That tree I figure must be close to 100 years old now.”

The Wealthy variety, he says, crops once every second year, which diminished its commercial viability.

“I think the MacIntosh took the Wealthy off the market, yet today, some of the oldtimers claim it’s one of the best pie apples we have today.”

Ronald remembers teams of horses lined up ‘downtown’ with their wagons of apples waiting to be unloaded. He remembers the rainy day chore of assembling apple boxes, which came in bundles. He remembers when apple trees were much taller.

“In the old days as the trees grow you’d end up buying taller ladders. At one time we ended up with one 14-foot ladder,” he laughs. “It was difficult to find a person who was a good ladder man.”

The hired help could expect to be paid 25 or 30 cents an hour, he recalls.

“Forty cents an hour was big wages. Some growers were only paying 15 cents an hour.”

He remembers innovations arising from the Turner operation. Like the method for spraying for pests. The old way involved going down every second row and dragging a hose halfway around a tree to one side and then to the other. One day one of the men was too sick to drag the hose any longer.

“They decided, why not just sit on the spraying machine and go down each row. Word got up to Summerland, some damn fool down there is riding the sprayer,” he laughs. “From that day on, they kept improving the method, putting seats on there, then ones where we got a little platform out behind, you could stand on it.”

But the biggest change for Salmon Arm’s apple business was “what we called the Big Freeze of 1949 -’50. That killed off more or less half the fruit trees,” he recalls. Around the same time, it became possible to buy fruit year round. “Almost anything – grapes, oranges… Today you can buy fruit from all over the world. That as much as anything contributed to the downfall of the apple industry.”

For Ronald Turner, though, apples remain part of who he is.

“Growing apples is in my blood.”

His daughter Janice Turner points out that along with growing his own garden and cooking his own meals, he still makes lots of applesauce and apple jams and jellies.

Asked about the secret to a long and healthy life, Ronald doesn’t mention apples, however.

“Keep on breathing,” he laughs.

“And his gin and tonic a day,” Janice adds.

Although the chopping of Ronald Turner’s beloved trees is significant to the history of Salmon Arm’s apple industry, he is not so much saddened as satisfied. As a conscientious apple grower, now he won’t have to worry anymore about taking proper care of them.

“It might be a bit of a relief.”

 

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