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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Bing cherry has roots on Oregon Trail

World's most popular cherry was bred by pioneer nurseryman who brought its progenitors in a wagon across the Oregon Trail, with Native Americans' help.

The Willamette Meteorite in 1911, a few years after it was found.
This portrait was published in 1911 by Joseph Gaston.

Among cherry aficionados, the deep-red Bing cherry is the gold standard. Rich and sweet, almost like chocolate in its intensity of flavor, this cherry utterly dominates the supermarket and is most people’s favorite variety.

But few people realize that this variety of cherry would not exist today if a Quaker nurseryman named Henderson Luelling had not brought its progenitors all the way to Oregon, from Iowa, along the old Oregon Trail in 1847.

Other later events hinged on this as well. Fellow Quaker John Minthorn’s Oregon Land Company, 40 years later, made a specialty of developing orchards to sell -- a business plan obviously dependent on the tradition Luelling imported. Without the Oregon Land Company, Minthorn’s teenage nephew, Herbert Hoover, would likely not have gotten the early training in sound business practices that was to be so important in his early career as an engineer.

Luelling left the city of Salem, Iowa, in 1847, with a specially constructed wagon full of grafted fruit trees – 700 of them in all, ranging from tiny slips to four-foot-tall trees. The family – Henderson, his wife, Elizabeth, and eight children – traveled with two other Quaker families, the Hockettes and the Fishers. In all, they made up a train of seven wagons, counting the trees.

Along the way, they tried to travel with other emigrants, but friction developed because of the trees. The tree wagon was extraordinarily heavy, and hence slow. It also attracted noticeable attention from Native Americans, which made everyone very nervous. So the other emigrants forged ahead.

This was likely a mistake on their part. Luelling was later told that many Native Americans saw trees as sacred, and considered that a wagon train carrying trees over the mountains was under the protection of the Great Spirit. Whether for this or other reasons, not only did the Luellings have no “Indian trouble,” but when the pregnant Elizabeth went into labor during the Columbia River part of the journey, they happily loaded her into a canoe and paddled her to The Dalles for medical attention. She gave birth to the family’s ninth child – a girl named Oregon Columbia Luelling – on the way there.

Then the powerful and dangerous Columbia Cascades had to be shot – trees and all. Again, Native Americans happily helped, retrieving a runaway flatboat that had missed the take-out point and was headed into more danger.

By the time Henderson and Elizabeth got to their destination in Milwaukie, they had lost only half their trees. But they’d gained a child and a large cohort of Native friends along the way. They also gained the opportunity to start what would become one of Oregon’s most important industries. Besides the Bing cherry, the Luelling family went on to develop the Black Republican, Lincoln and Willamette cherries, the golden prune, the Sweet Alice apple, and several fruits bearing the Lewelling name.

By the way, the story of the Luellings’ journey is the basis for Deborah Hopkinson’s children’s book, “Apples to Oregon,” one of the Oregon Reads book selections for last year’s sesquicentennial celebration. The book springboards off the story to generate a “tall tale” about the journey.

One other story springs from the Luelling family, and although it's not one of which Henderson Luelling's relatives were (or are) particularly proud, it needs to at least be mentioned here. In 1859, Luelling, having established his nursery business and moved it to Oakland, Calif., joined a wild-eyed spiritual group called the Harmonial Brotherhood Free Love Society and slipped off in the middle of the night to help them found a commune in Honduras, leaving his wife destitute and the rest of his family outraged. His brother, Seth, changed the spelling of his last name to "Lewelling" after this, probably to avoid being associated with Henderson. The commune project did not end well, and Luelling returned to the West Coast with his tail between his legs, living in the San Francisco Bay area under a pseudonym for some time.

(Sources: Beebe, Ralph. A Garden of the Lord: A History of the Oregon Yearly Meeting of Friends Church. Newburg: Barclay, 1968; Wagner, Tricia M. It Happened on the Oregon Trail. Helena: Globe Pequot, 2005)