Alice Faist picking first Oregon strawberries in 1956 (Oregon Historical Society)

This column was originally published in the Willamette Valley Genealogical Society's Beaver Briefs, May 2022, in a slightly different form and is shared here with permission.

The Salem bumble, honey and Mason bees had a late start on pollinating Oregon’s strawberry plants. Your local shakes and strawberry short cake specials have had to use “California” strawberries to fill the vacuum. 

Normally, at the end of May each year, young Oregonians would begin checking their local daily newspaper for advertisements wanting strawberry pickers. I remember my older brother Donnie eager to earn money to spend for things on his want list.  Many neighborhood children would raise enough money by “pickin’” to purchase bicycles, clothes for school or to assist the family during hard times. The best farmers would pay well and offer a special berry bus for early morning delivery to the fields.

Oregon’s climate was ideal for the best, juicy and largest berries. The Oregon Strawberry Commission was established in 1967. Lebanon, Oregon has a yearly Strawberry Festival, celebrating the end of the harvest, attended by thousands of people. This year the festival was held early anyway from June 2-3.

The Marshall strawberry was “discovered” by Marshall F. Ewell of Massachusetts in 1890.

This strawberry was grown commercially in the Pacific Northwest until the 1960s, which most “boomer” berry pickers will remember picking. According to the Oregon Strawberry Commission, it was so full of sugar that its shelf life was measured in hours rather than days. An American agricultural encyclopedia notes that the Marshall strawberry was "the standard of excellence for the entire northern strawberry industry."

The Marshall berry became infected with a plant virus and was soon replaced by modern varieties developed at Oregon State University in the 1960s and 1970s, the most popular being the Hood variety.

A story that my mother told us was that when my brother, Donnie, went to the barber after a day in the berry field, and, as the barber was cutting his hair, he found a clump of dried up strawberries in his hair.  One way to relieve stress in the fields from bending over or crawling in the muddy fields was to throw berries at fellow pickers! It was often hot or cold and wet work. 

Early Oregon strawberry history

“For millennia, Native Americans gathered wild strawberries on the coast and in open woods on both sides of the Cascades. Then in 1846, Quaker nurseryman, Henderson Luelling, made the long trek from Iowa to present-day Milwaukie on the Oregon Trail, bringing two soil-filled wagons he’d planted with fruit trees and shrubs,” reads a history section on the Oregon Strawberry Commission website. “Among this nursery stock, which he used to find the state’s first fruit orchards, were strawberry plants; the Wilson variety, to be specific. Though bred in New York, these hardy berries were better suited to the milder Oregon climate, and within only a few short decades, the Portland area became the fruit-packing nexus of the West.”  

Strawberry vines are mentioned by Mrs. Marcus Whitman in her 1836 journal. So, we might assume that wild strawberries grew throughout Oregon and Washington at this time and caught the eye of early explorers and settlers. Farnham mentions strawberries in his 1843 Northwest promotional work “Travel in the Great Western Prairies.” The famous historian Bancroft mentions Daniel Lee picking a strawberry blossom on Christmas day, 1840.

A strawberry ranch in Clackamas County in the early 1900s (Oregon Historical Society)

The Hood River Fruit Grower Association was incorporated in 1893 and the success in promoting strawberries paved the way for apple growers in the Hood River area. In 1890, a cannery was set up in Hood River and was a boon for strawberry growers.

In his 1906 publication “A Brief History of Early Horticulture in Oregon,” J.R. Cardwell of Portland mentions numerous fruits that were found indigenous in Oregon, including the apple, the plum, the grape, two types of elderberries, blackberries, four types of raspberry, wild curernts(sic), 3 types of gooseberries, cranberries, currants, barberry, juneberry, filbert, crestnut(sic) and the strawberry.

The Japanese were among the first farmers in Oregon to grow strawberries commercially.  Laws restricted Japanese immigration to Oregon and Washington. The Japanese settled in the Portland and Hood River Valley and developed small plots of land into strawberry and apple crops.

By the 1880s, Japanese berry growers had established farms across Mt. Tabor in Portland, and strawberry production expanded from there. In 1920, it was reported by the governor’s office that a whopping 90% of the strawberries in Gresham (long a top berry-growing city in Oregon) were produced by Japanese farmers. By this time, strawberry production had spread to the Willamette Valley, an area which since 1911 had been home to the USDA strawberry breeding program established at OSU in Corvallis. The first commercial berry was released in 1922, according to the commission. 

Strawberries in the 20th century

Lebanon’s Oregon Strawberry Festival was founded in 1909. By 1907, Lebanon was a leading strawberry-growing area in the Willamette Valley.  As an annual festival it has been offering the world’s largest strawberry shortcake since 1931, although only one local strawberry field remained after 2019 according to the Oregon Encyclopedia.

In May 1910, Ben Maxwell, journalist, shared that a crowd estimated at 10,000 people attended the strawberry “show.” A variety of berries received awards:  Marshall, Magoon, Gold Dollar, Brandywine, Clark’s seedling, Oregon Improved, Excelsior and Jumbo.

A girl kneels in a strawberry field in the Willamette Valley, Oregon in this 1966 photo by Rick Simon, assistant editor of the Valley Migrant League's Opportunity News (Oregon Historical Society)

“Post-war, the strawberry crinkle virus swept Oregon’s fields, devastating berry farmers around the state,” the strawberry commission’s history reads. “The Marshall variety, once the gold standard as a large, firm, and flavorful berry ideally suited for freezing and preserving, was highly susceptible and quickly succumbed. Fortunately, decades earlier, horticulturist Albert Etter (whose Ettersburg 121 strawberry was grown throughout the Willamette Valley) had made strides in berry breeding using native species as source material. Oregon’s native coast strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) was identified as germplasm for its superior flavor and deep color, but more importantly, its resistance to diseases and overall vigor. Breeders enthusiastically embraced the species for hybridization.”

Oregon record crops were produced during the 1950s. A local Gaston grower produced a crop yield of 9 tons per acre, the Oregonian reported in 1955.

Thousands of pickers were needed throughout Oregon to harvest the crop - 40,000 in 1960, the Oregonian reported.

Attempts were made to save the Marshall strawberry as a commercial berry.  OSU tested mechanical cultivators during the 1960s on. By the mid 1960s, a variety of new types of berries were available for crops.

In 1964, Oregon ranked only behind California in strawberry protection.  The Hood strawberry was ready to enter the commercial market.

In 1968 Oregon led the nation in production of strawberries, but imports from Mexico and California challenged Oregon’s lead. As we Oregonians know, the imports were actually an inferior berry (dry and wooden to the taste, in my opinion), yet the Oregon berry market declined. By 1975 Oregon crops fell to a 30 year low in production, the Oregon Statesman reported.

A man smoking a pipe kneels in strawberry field in the Willamette Valley, Oregon in this 1966 photo by Rick Simon, assistant editor of the Valley Migrant League's Opportunity News (Oregon Historical Society)

In the late 1970s, child labor laws restricted grower access to pre-teen pickers, according to the Oregon Farm Bureau. Court enforcement of the law resulted in a severe  decline in pickers and in crop planning for Oregon farmers, the Statesman-Journal reported in 1983.

The majority of Oregon strawberries—mostly Hoods, Tillamooks, and Totems—are grown for processing into jam, ice cream, and yogurt, according to the strawberry commission.

Regional brands like Tillamook and Burgerville have long embraced Oregon strawberries for their products, and even global brands like Smuckers use Oregon-grown strawberries in their jams.

Editor's note: This column is part of an effort from Salem Reporter to highlight local history in collaboration with area historians and historical organizations. If you have any feedback or would like to participate in Salem Reporter's local history series, please contact managing editor Rachel Alexander at [email protected]

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