An avocado grove in McElmo Canyon?
By Jude Schuenemeyer
Taken from the headlines of one hundred years ago, from time to time people bring me copies of old articles about farming and such in Montezuma County. Sometimes I can understand the who and where of the story while I am reading it. Many times I lack the knowledge to comprehend what I am reading and only through time do the missing pieces come together, giving me a picture complete. Then there is the third category to which this story belongs.
Often I am given copies or clippings, photos or maps and I just do not have the time to process them. So to a pile they go, protected by the safety of my absentmindedness until such time exists that I might find and read, contemplate and absorb that central kernel of knowledge that falls unpopped.
This story concerns a man by the name of Artemus Ward. Mr. Ward worked the mines of the Alta district, above Ophir, from 1874 until the snow melted away sometime about June of the following year. Mr. Ward came to our country as a veteran miner from ’49er, a participant in that great gold rush. Prior to that he was a farmer born along the banks of the Little Chinoweega Creek, near Mulfuresburg, Tenn.
I imagine that though he saw his fortune in mining his heart was always on a farm.
After leaving Alta he settled into lower McElmo Canyon, planted an orchard, had cattle, and resumed farming. Among the crops that he grew were avocados. Yes, avocados.
Apparently his seed stock came from the high foothills surrounding the gold country near Truckee. Through some set of trial and error he found seed in his stock that would grow higher, just barely higher, than the Sierra Mountains that had thus far sustained them.
For the first few years he took no chances. After going dormant the trees were gently laid down and pinned to the ground with one to two feet of loose mulch applied as insulation against the winters of 5,478 feet.
Each spring found many trees dead but as always a few survived until about five or six avocado trees remained from the original 632 seedlings.
A review of weather data from those years does reveal unusually warm winters consistent with powerful La Nina events except for occasional, nonspecific, briefly neutral climate occurrences.
One spring when the jaw-dropping, breakneck spectacle of thousands of peach, plum, pear, quince, apricot, apple, and persimmon trees in blossom stunned all residents of McElmo Canyon alike, the avocado trees set fruit.
Artemus Ward took the seeds from those 123 fruits and planted them again. Within two years these trees were three feet tall, and after four more years a grove of 26 avocado trees was in full production.
Tragically, and friends, this is a tragedy, Mr. Ward was killed by the poison of the rare but always fatal avocado pit weevil.
The avocado grove in McElmo Canyon, according to this report by a Mr. Orpheus Kerr, persisted until the winter of 1932, when temperatures of 36 degrees below zero proved insurmountable for the avocado trees forgotten.
This story was submitted respectfully by the observant Mr. Kerr on the first day of April, 1953.
Jude Schuenemeyer is co-owner of Let It Grow Garden Café and Nursery in Cortez, Colo.