Apples and Ice
The spectacular, Victorian, Blue Grass Palace, built in 1889 by the Blue Grass League, was a monument to the success of Blue Grass in Union County and its neighbors and, with it, the success of raising grazing animals. But grass was not the only thing that grew well in Union County. Orchards, vineyards, and small fruit plantations thrived in the territory. In 1876, says historian George Ide, Iowa won the apple contest at the Centennial Exposition, having the “largest exhibit of apples.” By the early 1880s Union County was shipping carloads of apples east to places that had once been Union County residents’ source for apples. Cherries too. Iowans’ taking a chance on fruit were assisted by Iowa’s 12th General Assembly that exempted from taxation every acre of fruit trees planted and maintained. Planting of forest trees properly cultivated and maintained also received state support for ten years.
But fruit trees could be especially susceptible to extreme weather. A June 1878 tornado in the western part of the county ruined the orchards and other fruit that the farmer had worked so hard to nurture.
The most famous devastation of Iowa’s apple crop resulted from the 1940 Armistice Day winter storm that came on so suddenly. Speaking in 2013, Kurt Michael Friese, local foods advocate, sets the stage by quoting the details on Iowa’s apple production from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. “By 1909 Iowa’s apple crop had grown to 6.7 million bushels, sixth in US apple production. Iowa apple production reached an historical peak at 9.5 million bushels in 1911. Iowa remained a top apple-producing state in the early 1920s, but production dropped off steadily from the mid 1920s through the 1930s. The decrease was due to increased Iowa row crop production and greater apple production from competing states such as Washington, Michigan, and New York.”
But the event that “dealt a devastating blow” to Iowa’s apple production was the sudden and severe freeze that arrived unexpectedly on November 11, 1940. That storm killed or injured so many of Iowa’s apple trees that in 1941 apple production was 15% of the 1940 crop. Iowa’s apple industry never recovered. Many farmers decided it was too expensive to replant their orchards, and the impending war prompted many to convert their land to corn and soybean fields.
Sources: SHSI: George A. Ide, History of Union County, Iowa, Chicago, 1908; on-line: “The Storm that Changed Iowa, iowafoodandfitness.org; Todd Dorman, “The Great November Blizzard that Knocked Out Iowa’s Apples,” The Gazette, November 12, 2013; U.P. Focus-Feb. 5, 2019, Michigan Department of Natural Resources.