Inner Southeast Portland was more important for the development of a fruit industry on the West Coast than you thought

The start of June brings about the much anticipated start of Farmers Markets in Inner Southeast Portland, and indeed throughout the entire State of Oregon. People line up to buy fresh lettuce and cabbage, apples, pears, and peaches, and the different varieties of Bing and Rainer cherries.

But little do most people hereabouts know that some of the cherries they buy today might have, at one time, actually have originated right in their own neighborhood. The Luelling Orchards, historically known as having the first grafted tree stock brought to the Northwest, were once thriving in the open meadows of what many of us know today as the Waverley Country Club, just south of Sellwood.

The laying-out and planting of orchards in Oregon Territory began as early as 1846. Around that time, Henderson Luelling – a Quaker and a staunch abolitionist, who was then living in Salem, Iowa – sat in his country store reading pamphlets about the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the West Coast, which had happened over 40 years earlier.

Luelling had already started a small nursery and orchard with a variety of fruits near his market; and, along with his nightly reading of letters he’d received, and in them prodding from previous neighbors and friends to go “out west”, he was anxious to move to where he thought the grass was greener.

Henderson Luelling knew how to grow fruit, and he was intrigued by reports that the Pacific Northwest had some of the finest fertile land in the nation – but it was lacking the delicious fruit that Iowa farmers were already growing. This line of thought eventually convinced Luelling and his family to start packing.

It took Henderson about a year to gather the needed supplies, and to sell his Iowa property; but by April of 1847 Henderson and his wife, along with their eight children, were ready for the 2,000-mile journey across Midwestern America. His provisions for the trip on the Oregon Trail – a trek which could last four to six months – included such staples as 200 pounds of flour, two pounds of baking soda, thirty pounds of crackers or hardtack, fifteen pounds of ground corn, a half bushel of cornmeal, fifty pounds of rice, and a half barrel of salt.

But it didn’t stop there. Henderson Luelling had a list that no other wagon team had. His provisions also included two wooden boxes that fitted into a pair of wagons loaded with a composite mixture of charcoal and rich soil for 700 grafted tree seedlings. Banded together on each side of the wagon were plenty of water barrels to keep the little seedlings from getting thirsty. Altogether, they had four wagonloads of supplies – along with seedlings of apple and pear trees, quince and plum trees, cherry and black walnut trees, plus grapevines and gooseberry bushes.

The “traveling nursery”, as it was called by the folks who galloped by on horseback, finally hit the trail. Other wagon trains heading west ignored the meandering Luelling family wagon and its “traveling nursery”, because Henderson was stopping at least three times a day to water all the seedlings.

However they did not have many encounters with Native Americans; and, with relatively few mishaps – such as losing a wheel, having oxen wander off, or getting sick – the Luelling party arrived tired but not hungry at The Dalles, in the Columbia Gorge, by late November of 1847.

There they sold their wagons and oxen, and arranged to transport their “traveling nursery” down the Columbia River to Portland – after which, in February of 1848, Luelling purchased a land claim from a man named Wilson on the eastern banks of the Willamette River, just north of the village of Milwaukie.

Fellow Iowan William Meek, who’d followed the Luelling party just two weeks later, had also arrived in Portland with twenty of his own grafted tree seedlings. During a friendly two-day visit with the Luelling family, he was able to negotiate a partnership in in March of the same year, and the newly-named “Luelling Meek Orchards” was officially established. Meek purchased half of Henderson’s land claim to the east as part of the agreement.

Establishing a fruit orchard was not an easy task. Douglas firs had to be felled and burned, the land had to be cultivated, and water had to be hauled up from the banks of the Willamette by mule and cart. About 350 of the little trees survived their journey west, and once they were planted it would be another two years before they started to bear any fruit – or, until the trees were mature enough to be sold to other pioneers waiting to start their own fruit orchards.

In the meantime, to generate some early income, Luelling and Meek started a sawmill on Johnson Creek just north of the hamlet of Milwaukie. It was called the Milwaukie Milling Company, was built with financial help from Charles Hopkins and W.P. Doland, who had invested because the lumber could easily be shipped out by boat to gold miners in Northern California. Hundreds of prospectors were arriving in California and Southern Oregon each week seeking their fortune, and timber from the Northwest was in great demand. For their part, Luelling and Meek simply wanted to live on the proceeds of the sale of their lumber until their fruit could be sold to the public.

Realizing that wheat was also in demand, and that almost every town or community along the Willamette Valley was already building a grist mill to grind wheat to flour, Luelling and Meek partnered with Lot Whitcomb – the founder of the town of Milwaukie – in the opening of a gristmill.

When Mary Luelling, the daughter of Henderson and Elizabeth, turned fifteen, Meek – who was in his mid-thirties – asked his partner’s permission to marry her. On July 28, 1848 – less than four months after he arrived at the Luelling homestead – William Meek not only became part-owner of a nursery, but also part of the family.

“Gold was for the taking in the hills of California”, announced Oregon newspapers, and Henderson’s son Alfred Luelling and his partner William Meek got caught up in the gold fever that was rocking the state. Both men headed down south to California, confident of striking it rich. In fact, close to half of Portland’s entire population did the same thing around the same time.

Having left his young and beautiful wife Elizabeth alone in Oregon after only two months of wedded bliss, Meek decided to return to Milwaukie just eight months later – realizing that he’d actually had his own personal goldmine, in growing and selling produce, back home all the time. He found that it was easier to harvest fruit to sell to hungry miners than to get rich digging and panning all day long for whatever few grains of gold he could find.

With the fruit orchard not yet mature enough to produce anything to sell, Henderson Luelling decided to assign his family members to care for the trees in Oregon while he made a trip back to Iowa, to buy additional seeds and trees from the established nurseries there. Gravenstein, Blue Pearman, Baldwin, and Red Cheeked Pippin Apples that he’d ordered while on his trip arrived by boat; and with the new seeds and trees came additional help, in the form of his brothers, John and Seth Luelling.

COURTESY OF FINDAGRAVE.COM - This is a family portrait of Henderson Luelling who, with the help of his oldest son Alfred, brought two wagons filled with 700 grafted fruit tree seedlings west on the Oregon Trail in 1847. He established the Luelling and Meek Fruit Orchard just south of todays Sellwood. Brother Seth, who was planning on starting his own orchard, brought along a stock of peach, plum, and other fruit seeds – but instead he, as had Meek before him, became a partner with Henderson Luelling in 1850. With the new planting stock collected on the trip back east, with seeds bought from a Mr. Pugh who was passing by the nursery at the time, and with Seth Luelling’s horticultural skills, the Luelling nursery harvested its first fruit to be sold to the public in 1851.

And those seedling trees were selling, too. Apple seedlings sold for a dollar each – and plum, cherry, pear, and peach seedlings sold for $1.50 apiece. The gold fields of northern California were still crawling with fortune-seekers; and much of the crop of the “Luelling Meek Orchards” was shipped down to California’s desperate diggers who were hungry for fresh fruit and vegetables, and were willing to pay a fortune in gold dust for them.

It was profitable. In 1851, apples sold wholesale for a dollar per pound by the box, and cost $1.50 a pound at the retail rate in Portland grocery stores and markets. As for the orchard’s “overhead”, the average wage for a work-hand ranged from 10 to 15 dollars a month. For perspective, though, according to the Compendium of the Seventh Census (now available online), Oregon’s wages then were actually four to five times higher than the average wages across the United States!

Be it his longing for the warmer weather of sunny California, his restlessness, or the excitement of another adventure, Henderson Luelling, back from his trip to Iowa, now decided to leave his nursery, and he moved to California in 1854. He sold half his holdings to Meek and half to his brother Seth. Then he packed up the family and journeyed south by wagon.Henderson and the Luelling family moved to a nursery near Oakland, California. His eldest son Alfred reluctantly sold the land claim he’d owned north of Henderson’s property in Milwaukie, in order to accompany his father on his adventure. But, wisely, once there, Alfred and his wife Mary Campbell Luelling purchased their own 400 acres and started a new fruit orchard. A community grew up around that California orchard – a town that Alfred’s wife Mary named Fruitvale.

It was not long until William Meek – now distraught over the early death of his wife Mary Luelling, after only two years of marriage – followed in the footsteps of his father-in-law Henderson Luelling, and sold his remaining Milwaukie orchards to leave Oregon and seek happiness in the State of California. Half of his donation land claim was bought by Henry Miller and Joseph. H. Lambert – two stalwart and bright employees, who were first hired by Henderson Luelling in 1851. Meek’s remaining fruit trees and property were purchased by Seth, who added them to his enlarging orchard empire in the northwest part of Milwaukie.

Meek then moved to Hayward, California, where he established a new orchard of almond and cherry trees; and before long he was considered one of the most successful farmers in Alameda County, across the bay from San Francisco. Meek organized Hayward’s first Agricultural Society, and built the Meek mansion that still stands there today. Apricots became one of the specialty trees grown in his orchard, and this fruit later became a notable product grown in Alameda County, favored among nurserymen in the area.

While Henderson Luelling and William Meek have long been proclaimed by historians as having established the first Pacific Coast fruit orchard, it was Seth Luelling who was actually responsible for taking that enterprise to another level. An expert nurseryman, Seth began experimenting with, and propagating, new varieties of fruit. Among those he introduced were Lincoln and Willamette cherries, the Lewelling Grape, the Golden prune, and the Sweet Alice apple, among other favorites.

Since his fruit orchards extended along the Willamette River’s edge, Seth’s Luelling Fruit Orchards became a regular stop for ferries and steamboats making daily trips between Oregon City and Portland. Fresh fruit could be shipped to families living south of Milwaukie or loaded on tall ships at the Portland wharves bound for the East Coast and more-distant markets.

To accommodate the new fruits he was introducing to the agricultural market, Seth decided it was time to modify the spelling of his family name. The “Llewellyn” family had originated in Wales, where they had perfected growing delicious fruit and produce. When the family emigrated to the U.S., and to Randolph County in North Carolina, Meshach Llewellyn, the head of the household, changed their name to “Luelling” in order to simplify the pronunciation for other Americans. And, now that Seth was in charge of the family business in Oregon, he adopted “Lewelling” as the new spelling for the name of the business, and his family.

This has been confusing for historians. The different names Llewellyn, Luelling, and Lewelling have made it difficult to retrace the family history’s history and businesses. In this case, all three of those names were used, at various times, by members of the same family! (And the original family name is now proudly emblazoned on the Sellwood-Moreland neighborhood elementary school in Westmoreland.)

Meantime, Seth Luelling converted his newly-acquired 100 acres from Meek into a new nursey venture, and he employed between 20 and 30 Chinese laborers to cultivate and look after its plants and trees. To keep these nurserymen in line and to communicate with them in their own language, Seth hired Ah Bing – a stocky Manchurian Chinese man who stood close to six feet tall – as his foreman.

And that foreman was later honored by Seth in a way that you will recognize, even today! Once a new variety of fruit is identified in an orchard, its owners can to be creative in naming it, making it easily identifiable among other similar fruit. Thus there was a Luelling cherry – and also a Lambert cherry, named for Joseph Lambert, a loyal worker in the Milwaukie nursery.

As later described by Mrs. Herman Ledding, a stepdaughter to Seth Lewelling, in an interview of the Federal Writers Project in 1939 – one of her stepfather’s most prized hybrids was found when Ah Bing and Seth were carefully inspecting the cherry trees, row by row. Seth came across a new hybrid cherry growing there. When it was suggested that the fruit be named “The Seth”, he said that another cherry had already been named after him. Ledding’s stepfather said, “So, I’ll name this for Bing. It’s a big cherry and Bing’s big, and anyway it’s in his row in the orchard. So that shall be its name.” Bing cherries are still one of the best-selling cherries to this very day, and it originated right here!

Naming the Bing cherry was certainly an honor and proud moment for Ah Bing, who had devoted thirty years of his life away from his family, attending to the fruit orchards of Seth Lewelling.

Continuing that 1939 interview, Mrs. Ledding told more about Ah Bing. He was married, and had a wife and six or seven adopted children back in China. He had been sending money overseas all along to support his family, but he wanted to go back and visit them one day. In 1889 or 1890, Ah Bing did indeed return to his homeland and then discovered that he was barred from coming back to Oregon. The U.S. Congress’ Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 halted any Chinese immigration to the United States for a period of ten years. Bing was not informed of the law by the Lewellings before he left – maybe they thought that since he was already an Oregon resident he would be allowed to return – but in the end, he was never able to return to his second family and his friends in Oregon, where he’d spent much of his adult life. But his name still represents him here, on Bing cherries.

Meantime, Seth Lewelling continued his success in agriculture, propagating new varieties of fruit, and becoming a first-class plant breeder. In an adjoining section of the orchards, Henry Miller and Joseph Lambert, who owned a half interest in the Lewelling nursery, were adding an additional 150 acres for a new variety of apple trees they were intent on developing.

The fruit industry initially was as profitable for them as it was for the Lewllings and the Meeks. But as more farmers were starting their own orchards along the Willamette Valley, around Hood River, and in other parts of the Northwest, the price of apples had dropped.Lambert struggled, as the trees previously planted by Henderson were no longer paying for themselves. He even wrote letters to Henderson asking for help; and at one time he begged Henderson to buy back their section of the orchards. But, with a little encouragement from Luelling, combined with his refusal to buy the property back, Lambert determined to learn the proper way to grow fruit.

He introduced new horticultural methods to restore the health of faltering trees, and soon became one of the leading horticulturists in the state, and the first to produce cultivated fruit in Oregon. He introduced the Lambert cherry to the Oregon Horticultural Society in 1896.

Lambert’s partner, Henry Miller, was more interested in flowers than he was in fruit. He began planting rows of flowers from Boston seeds, and seeds imported from other countries. He had become so infatuated with rare varieties of plants that eventually it led to the dissolution of the partnership.

Miller sold his half of the business, and was asked to remove all of the plants and shrubs from the orchards. So he opened a flower shop in downtown Portland, where he built a section of greenhouses, and sold plants imported from France while making a fortune in the sale of bulbs from Holland.

When Seth Lewelling passed away on March 3rd, 1896, the Lewelling nursery and orchards were sold – and eventually the rows of apple, peach, pear, plum, and cherry trees vanished to make way for a golf course at the Waverley Country Club. Beautiful manicured greens cover the grounds now, and the majestic Waverley Lodge stands grandly by the side of the Willamette where the Luelling homestead and orchards had been admired from steamboats on the Willamette River.

As for that patriarch in the “Llewellyn/Luelling/Lewelling” fruit businesses in Oregon, Henderson Luelling – now a Californian – he never returned to Milwaukie to see again the fields of fruit trees and plants that he and his brother Seth Lewelling had built their business upon, and which his son Alfred and brother-in-law Meek had once turned into one of the finest fruit orchards in the Pacific Northwest. Henderson did later make an unsuccessful agricultural foray much further south in Honduras, Central America; but the venture failed and he returned to Oakland, where he died in 1879. He was never again able to attain the wealth and prosperity he once enjoyed, in those pioneering orchards just south of Sellwood in Milwaukie.In conclusion, I would like to give special thanks to Sandy McGuire at the Clackamas County Historical Society for providing valuable information from the “History of Luelling and Meek” book; and to the Clackamas County Historical Library for giving me access to other valuable photos and documentation.

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