You do not have to know much about the history of agriculture in Montezuma County to know that a peach from McElmo Canyon won a gold medal at the St. Louis World’s Fair. As with all legends, time passes, facts expire, memories change. In the end what is left becomes more myth than story; a prevalent mist lying low, allowing clear vision of all at hand but softening fixed horizons of place and time.
I remember taking friends over to the Gold Medal Orchard on such a day. Low clouds after months of clear blue sky, light through gray ceiling defining sandstone walls, pinon and juniper, ground broken by and tied to the few trees remaining. All of it seemed closer, somehow more at hand. This was the place, the Gold Medal Orchard.
1903 was to mark the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase, the quintessential event of America’s ascendancy into a continental republic. A great celebration was planned, a world’s fair.
The Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exposition opened in 1904, a year late so as to accommodate the extraordinary participation that was planned. The St. Louis World’s Fair, as it became known, occupied 1,200 acres. Forty-three of the 45 states participated, as did 62 nations.
It was known as the “world’s university.” Not since Adam and Eve and the fig-leaf loincloth had such a great percentage of the world’s inventors and inventions been assembled in one place. There were 1,500 distinct buildings for the crowds to fill.
And the people came – 20 million of them, give or take.
They walked down the “Pike” eating popcorn, waffle cones, cotton candy. They explored the Palaces of Mines and Metallurgy, Electricity, Education, Liberal Arts, and Machinery. They came to see and they came to learn. They came to experience and they came to understand. The industrial revolution was a child fully grown, the promise of its might realized. But we were still a people tied to the land in our not-so-distant past. The agricultural exhibit alone occupied 23 acres.
In the hundred years between Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt there were Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, displacement and division; the societal relocation from substance farmer to factory wage earner. By about 1900 the vast expanse of the West, and all of the free land that it contained, was used up. No longer could you travel out further and find a piece of land to farm, there for the taking, that you could call your own. It all belonged to somebody else.
Montezuma County was one of the last places to be settled. In the late 1800s James Giles took out a patent on 160 acres of land on the north side of Trail Canyon. Mr. Giles, later to be a county commissioner, brought in Jim Galloway to plant orchards on the property. Jim and his brother John also bought land and began planting their own orchards in the same part of McElmo Canyon. By 1903 Mr. Giles had sold his orchards, “the value of which it will require five figures to express,” to the Rev. H.R. Antes. Mr. Antes initially renamed the place the “Kadesh Orchards,” until the World’s Fair prompted a new renaming.
Winning a gold medal at the expo was a big deal. Think about Pillsbury Gold Medal Flour, or Jack Daniels Gold Medal Whiskey. It had the ability to make a place or product famous — world famous.
Records from the Louisiana Centennial Exposition appear scattered and fragmented, shards of facts more than vessels of truth. Documents state that Colorado won four gold medals for fruit, one of them going to Rocky Ford, the other three listed as H.R. Antes, exhibit of fruit; Galloway Bros., exhibit of fruit, and Montezuma County, apples and peaches.
There are stories of Mr. Antes submitting a Wolf River apple weighing 31 1/2 ounces, considered the largest ever grown, a wax replica of which was put on display in Washington, D.C. Many other silver and bronze medals were awarded to Montezuma County growers.
Mysteries still remain: What varieties of fruit were submitted? Where in Montezuma County did the exhibit of peaches and apples originate? What has become of the medals that were awarded? As they were not made out of actual precious metals, their market value is not high.
As with most of the early history of fruit cultivation in this county, memories and trees still live. Converting them into knowledge and award-winning crops is our great task remaining.
Jude Schuenemeyer is co-owner of Let It Grow Garden Café and Nursery in Cortez, Colo.