Pioneer fruit grower profiled in presentation
FARMINGTON — Almost everyone who has an interest in agriculture in San Juan County has heard of William Locke, the late 19th century pioneer who introduced fruit growing to the area.
But Locke isn’t nearly as well known for his analytical and creative mind.
“He was a tinkerer,” said Farmington Museum Director Bart Wilsey, who will deliver a presentation on Locke this weekend at the Riverside Nature Center in Animas Park. “He was always up to something. He was a renaissance man in that he got into everything. He just experimented with all kinds of things. He was very inquisitive and very scientific.”
Locke planted the first orchard in San Juan County in 1879, according to newmexicohistory.org, a move that quickly snowballed. By 1891, according to the website, 23,000 trees had been planted, and that number grew to 50,000 a year later. Small wonder, then, that Locke was roundly regarded as “Farmington’s Johnny Appleseed.”
Always looking to improve the output of his orchards, Wilsey said Locke experimented with grafting, the process of splicing different species of plants together in an effort to capitalize on their respective strengths.
“There would be trees he grafted with four or five different varieties of apples,” Wilsey said. “That’s pretty unique.”
Wilsey has been delivering his presentation on Locke for approximately four years and said most of his research came from the museum’s archives. He said it would be hard to overstate Locke’s impact on the fruit-growing business in San Juan County, which boomed in the decades after Locke introduced it.
“Once they brought in the railroad in 1905, they shipped three carloads of fruit out every day at the height of the season,” Wilsey said. “That’s a lot of fruit. … One season, there were 600,000 pounds of apples produced.”
The pinnacle of the county’s fruit production came in the 1920s and 1930s, Wilsey said.
“Orchards were all over what is now the downtown area,” he said, explaining that he recently had been examining some photographs of the city from the 1950s and was surprised to note there were still orchards on various streets right off Main Street.
Not all of the area’s fruit production came from those famous apple orchards. Wilsey said the county was as well known for the variety of fruit that was grown here as it was for the volume, producing peaches, pears, plums, grapes, strawberries, watermelons and cherries, among others.
But the mid-century point marked the beginning of a long decline for fruit production in San Juan County. Wilsey said the large-scale production of oil and gas in the San Juan Basin became the economic driver in the area, as it was viewed as a much safer bet than fruit production, which could be impacted by temperatures, moisture and insects.
There was also fierce competition from growers in the state of Washington, which is highly regarded for the quality and quantity of the apples it produces, he said.
“Last year was not a great year (for apple production here), but this year is great,” Wilsey said, describing how a grower’s fortunes here can change radically in a short amount of time depending on the weather. “When you don’t get good cooperation, it hurts.”
All those factors combined to greatly reduce fruit production in San Juan County. Wilsey said many of Farmington’s orchards were cut down and replaced with housing to shelter the oil and gas workers who were flooding into the area.
But, even now, reminders of the area’s past remain, he noted.
“We’ve got an apricot tree in my neighborhood right off downtown,” he said. “And it’s two and a half feet across, so it’s been here for a while.”
Locke’s contribution to the early years of Farmington was substantial, Wilsey said, and he deserves to be remembered — not just by those who still make their living from working the land.
“He brought the first trees here in the back of a buckboard from Santa Fe,” Wilsey said, illustrating the humble origins of fruit production in the county.
Wilsey said his presentation lasts approximately 45 minutes, and a question-and-answer session follows.
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: Farmington Museum Director Bart Wilsey’s presentation on San Juan County pioneer and fruit grower William Locke
When: 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8
Where: The Riverside Nature Center in Animas Park off Browning Parkway
For more information: Call 505-599-1422