FARMINGTON — Thomas Francis Kerby, who 67 years ago started on rocky earth an orchard that would become famous in northwestern New Mexico, died Tuesday.
He was 97, perhaps the oldest link to the region's vanishing agricultural industry.
Kerby started what is now Kerby Orchard, an oasis on the Bloomfield Highway for those seeking apples, apple cider, pears, plums, nectarines, prunes, apricots, cherries and peaches.
“Tom was willing to put out the extra mile of work to make the sandy land produce good, and he was successful,” said Al Dustin, a farmer.
Dustin's father, Bernie, had told Kerby the land could not be farmed.
Today, Kerby Orchard is one of the last connections to Farmington's identity as an orchard town, which it was before the natural gas industry took off in the San Juan Basin. The orchard at 5471 U.S. Highway 64 now is operated by Kerby's son, Leslie.
Tom Kerby was born on Nov. 6, 1915, in Morenci, Ariz. Drawn by descriptions of a town with three rivers, he moved to Farmington in 1945 with his wife, Evelyn, who he married in 1940, and their growing family.
Kerby was looking for fresh opportunity after being laid off from an Arizona copper smelter.
He purchased a rocky plot near the Animas River that had stagnated in the hands of previous farmers.
“This is the last commercial orchard in the whole area,” said Matthew Durkovich, a son-in-law to Kerby.
Tom Kerby continued to grade pears for sale well into his 90s, even after Leslie took over most day-to-day operations.
“I can't hardly sit in the house and do nothing,” Tom Kerby said in a 2010 interview. “I'm basically a working man.”
Among Kerby's innovations was a heating system that kept his fruit trees from freezing. Whenever possible, he fixed broken equipment himself.
“He was a hard worker,” said Leslie Kerby. “He believed in having a good time, but it was after the work was done.”
Family and friends said work was part of Kerby's identity.
“He was the hardest-working guy I've ever seen and there wasn't anything he couldn't do if he set his mind to it,” Durkovich said.
Tom and Evelyn, who died in 2006, had 10 children. He is survived by sons Leslie and Walter of Farmington; Steven of Albuquerque; and Tom of South Jordan, Utah; and daughters Janet Sherman of Farmington; Mary Woodard of Edgewood; and Carolyn Alder and Joanne Durkovich, both of Columbia, Mo.
Two sons, Glenn and Loren Ray, died before him.
Tom Kerby was an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“He was very devout in his church,” said Matthew Durkovich.
A viewing for Kerby will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at Brewer Lee & Larkin Funeral Home, 103 E. Ute St. A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the LDS church at 400 W. Apache St.
“He had a big heart and did the best that he knew how,” Dustin said.