When a pear orchard grew in Tehachapi city limits
Land of Four Seasons
February 18, 2023
I'd like to tell you about the beautiful pear orchard that once grew within Tehachapi city limits, not far from the downtown area. It was orderly and well-maintained, and when that forest of trees were cloaked in snowy blossoms each spring, it was like an inland sea of white flowers. But first, let's talk about pear trees in general. . .
Pear trees are amazingly long lived. Governor Peter Stuyvesant brought a young rooted pear tree with him from Holland in 1647 when he arrived to become the director-general of what was then called New Amsterdam. He planted it on the corner of 13th Street and 3rd Avenue in the city that became New York when the British assumed control in 1664.
That same pear tree bore fruit for more than 200 years, until it was felled in 1867 when two large horse-drawn wagons collided and one of them was thrown against the old tree and snapped it off. An impressive lifespan, eh?
Well, another early colonial leader, John Endicott, a Puritan who was the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, planted a pear tree in Danvers, Massachusetts in 1630 as his children looked on. That tree survives to this day, 393 years later, and still bears fruit. It is believed to be the oldest continuously cultivated fruit tree in North America.
Closer to home here in the West, some of the first pears grown in California were planted by David Osburn on Sutter Island in the Sacramento River Delta in 1860. He imported Bartlett pear trees from France, and they were brought around Cape Horn on a sailing ship. Some of those same pear trees are still alive and bearing fruit at Stillwater Orchards near Courtland, on a farm owned by Osburn's descendents, the David Elliot family.
Benjamin Franklin even gave a nod to the longevity of pears in his Poor Richard's Almanac, when he wrote that "If you set [meaning plant] an apple tree, you'll live to see its end; but if you set a pear tree, you set it for a friend." Suggesting, of course, that if you plant a pear tree, it may well outlive you.
One of the most famous orchards in the history of the Tehachapi Mountains was the one I referred to at the start of this column: a Bartlett pear orchard planted by Burt Denison in 1910. Mr. Denison had been the owner of the Oak Creek Lumber Company, a saw mill and box factory that he established in the 1890s, and he later owned a general store and a hay and grain yard.
In 1909 Denison bought 40 acres and planted pears, and they were such a success that he eventually had a total of 120 acres of pears. Pear trees grow slowly and don't start to produce much fruit until their fourth or fifth year. Denison planted other crops between his little pear trees, including berries and currants.
A friend of mine, the late Edwin "Brick" Jones, was one of the Tehachapi kids who were paid to pick those berries and currants, and he told me that most of the berries were sold to riders on the passengers trains that used to come through Tehachapi four times a day.
Denison's orchard was later owned by the Bisbee family and was known as the Bisbee Orchard for many years, and then was finally owned by John Nunes. The trees were still bearing fruit when Nunes had them removed in 1982 to make way for development that largely still hasn't happened – the big vacant field east of Curry Street, between Valley Boulevard and C Street, was once part of the orchard. The housing tract just south of Phil Marx Central Park, which includes Pepper Drive, Apple Way and Holly Drive, was built on land that was home to the Denison Orchard for 72 years.
The pear orchard loomed large in the life of Tehachapi residents who lived here during its lifespan – countless Tehachapi people worked in the orchard over the years, lighting smudge pots in the spring to protect the blossoms against late frosts, and then later thinning the green fruit so that the remainder would size up, and finally picking the fruit and sorting it in local packing sheds.
I worked there during the years of the last harvests, when Tehachapi grower John Pulford – who owns and operates Pulford's Appletree Orchard on Highline Road – managed the orchard for John Nunes. In April, when a killing frost of 28 degrees Fahrenheit or lower could destroy the year's crop, kids would sleep overnight in the bunkhouse to be ready.
If the frost alarm over at Tehachapi Airport indicated that the temperature had dropped to 30 degrees, you would be awakened to get up and light the #2 diesel fuel contained within the smudge pots. A pall of dark smoke hung over the town on mornings that followed a night of smudging. If it didn't get cold enough and you were able to sleep through the night, you got paid $5, and if you had to get up and light smudge pots, you got $10. And you were allowed to come into high school two hours late.
Tehachapi kids walking to junior high or high school when those schools were located on Snyder Street and Anita Drive would have green pear fights in the late spring, and then later helped themselves to some of the fruit when it ripened in late summer. Many Tehachapi kids had their first kiss in the old pear orchard, and at times it was a place of refuge for teens.
Those who experienced the pear orchard growing near the center of town still remember it with great fondness. I even dream about it sometimes, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. It was a working, productive agriculture enterprise, but it could also be a magical place for the townspeople, and was a source of pride.
Keep enjoying the beauty of life in the Tehachapi Mountains.
Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at email@example.com.