By Ron Marlow
Imagine a fruit enterprise so large that it had its own post office, general store, school and a repair shop. This business covered approximately 1400 acres and was managed by J.P. Gray. It started as a land promotion scheme in 1908 by the Weiser Land and Water Company and was headed by a three-man team. It was called "Mesa Orchards." Small tracts of hillside land were sold for apple growing. The 10 acre lots sold for $500 an acre. Getting water to the land was the problem, as the nearest water supply was the Weiser River - miles away. Engineers constructed a small dam on the Middle Fork of the Weiser River for the Mesa Company water needs. Each buyer had 10 shares of stock in the Orchards Water Company.
Downstream, the farmers demanded protection for their water needs. A reservoir was constructed, miles away, in Lost Valley, west of Tamarack. Whenever water was drawn from the Weiser River, an offsetting amount was released from the Lost Valley Reservoir so an adequate water supply was guaranteed for the farmers. The problem was getting water to the hillside lots. Six miles of flume was constructed, four feet deep and six feet wide with two inverted siphons. Some 36 inch pipes were used. The venture was costly and kept a maintenance crew constantly cleaning trash and debris from the water system.
The Company agreed to care for the trees for ten years. Gray managed the orchards for seven years.
Investors became anxious for a return on their investment in the orchards, so when asked for more operating funds they sent a team to investigate. New managers were hired and bought out Gray's interests.
They began improving the operation with some new buildings, domestic water supply and enlargement of the packing sheds. An aerial tramway, 3 1/2 miles in length, was constructed to transport boxes of apples to the railroad siding at Mesa. In winter weather, boxes of apples from the winter storage sleds, were covered with canvas for protection against frost on their route down the tramway to storage warehouses on the railroad siding. This unique system was a tourist attraction.
One winter hungry jackrabbits destroyed fruit trees by eating the bark exposed above the snow line. In December 1920, a packinghouse fire destroyed 50,000 boxes of apples. It had only been in operation for a year.
To utilize small unmarketable apples, an evaporator was constructed and the furnace fired by imported coke. Underground storage facilities were built to hold fruit longer for improved prices. There were shipments to European countries, small apples for Christmas tree decoration.
Fruit growing began to decline caused by early freezes and market demand. In the 1930s depression, financial problems, caused in part by the severe hailstorm which wiped out much of the crop of Mesa Orchards, forced the business operations to be assumed by the Western Idaho Production Credit Association.
F. H. Hogue operated the orchards for two years. He had numerous orchards in the Emmett area.
In 1937, J. R. Field, Jr. managed the business for several years as part owner along with A.H. Burroughs and Wm. Langroise of Boise.
Harry Spence was hired as manager in the mid-1940s. The orchard produced a record crop one year and had an income of over $1 million. The crop was good, as was the demand.
In 1954, Brian and Emma Ball, Montana cattle ranchers, became owners of the remaining 700 acres of Mesa Orchards. A late frost froze 40,000 boxes of freshly picked apples, still under the trees. This was the last year of production. Ball was killed in an accident, so Mrs. Ball decided to keep enough trees for the family and turn the rest of the land into a cattle ranch.
Gone are the orchards and the residence. The buildings have fallen down or burned. No more can you smell the fragrant fruit tree blossoms. Mother Nature took back the hillsides. An era has ended.