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Despite promotion, walnut production failed during the 20th century in Oregon. That history is being told through a grove in Wilsonville

PMG PHOTO: COREY BUCHANAN - These walnut trees in Wilsonville were recently named state heritage trees by the Oregon Travel Information Council.

When longtime Wilsonville resident and City Councilor Charlotte Lehan walks into a local grocery store, spots a selection of walnuts and examines labels, she finds a predictable origin: California.

At one time, about 100 years ago, Oregon farmers tried to make Oregon the walnut mecca of the United States. As the labels indicate, the gambit failed spectacularly.

Nevertheless, Lehan considers this history notable. So recently, the Oregon Travel Information Council and Lehan (a member of the council) decided to preserve this history by selecting a tree grove near the Stein-Boozer Barn in Murase Park as an official Oregon State Heritage Tree.

The grove of trees will be commemorated during an event on Arbor Day (April 10) next year.

The grove received the third state heritage tree designation in Wilsonville just a few months after a group of trees in Memorial Park representing the lumber industry's practice of tree-cabling were honored.

"I think it's (walnut industry) an important story that needs to be told and that was true for the cable tree story also," Lehan said. "They are similar because it's not like Wilsonville has the only cable trees or the only walnut orchards. We are representative of that class of tree, which is important in Oregon history."

Lehan says she is still trying to figure out why walnut production began to be promoted heavily, but has found promotional material paid for by railroad companies. Regardless, the idea that walnuts could be an agricultural gold mine proliferated in Oregon.

"They were heavily promoted as a way to secure your financial future. If you just planted acres of walnuts you would be set for life. You were going to make so much money," Lehan said. "It didn't turn out that way."

Oregon farmers who invested heavily in walnut harvests could not compete with California farmers, who had the advantage of an earlier harvest due to warmer weather.

"It didn't work because we are a little bit north of the comfortable range for English walnuts and California could always beat us to the holiday market," Lehan said. "They harvest in September; we harvest in late October or early November."

Lehan says her grandfather was one of the people who fell victim to the walnut craze and that his stories were part of her inspiration for applying for the historic tree designation.

"He didn't exactly lose the farm over it, but it was a financial blow, of course," Lehan said.

According to Lehan's research, walnut production peaked in Oregon around 1930 before hazelnuts usurped them as farmers found them to be the more profitable nut.

"The irony of the walnut story is that because of that long run up to commercial productivity (about 15 years) they would plant other things in between the walnut groves: plum trees, filbert trees," Lehan said. "In the end the filberts took over because the filberts are perfectly suited to Oregon climate. Now you have filbert orchards all over the place and walnut orchards are very hard to find."

Lehan also noted that the 1962 Columbus Day storm wiped out about half of the remaining walnut trees in the Willamette Valley.

As for the Murase Park orchard, Lehan said it was maintained by the Stein and Boozier families at different points before it became City of Wilsonville property.

Now, the orchard has shrunk to two rows, but the trees are in good condition, Lehan says, in part because of irrigation and regular arbor care. The trees also reside next to a nut dryer.

"If we're looking for a remnant orchard to tell the story of walnuts in Oregon, where better than Murase Park? It's extremely accessible, has covered picnic areas, restrooms, the trees get good care. It's extremely convenient," Lehan said

The historic tree designation is one aspect of Lehan and other Wilsonville residents' push to bring local history to light.

"There are stories like the failure of walnuts that are right here in our midst," Lehan said. "Maybe we should write this down because it will slip from the collective memory if you don't put it down."

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