Preserving a legacy in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park
by Jennifer Nalewicki
Autumn sunlight slices between the branches of apple trees, creating a lightshow at my feet. It’s mid-October, one of the last warm days of the year before the cold sets in, and one of my last chances to pick apples before the harvest season officially comes to a close.
I’m standing in one of nearly two-dozen orchards dotting Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah. While many people come here to gaze at towering red rock cliffs and precariously balanced hoodoos, I’ve made the three-and-a-half-hour drive from my home in Salt Lake City specifically to experience the orchards. Capitol Reef is one of the only parks in the National Park Service that maintains historic orchards, a piece of foodways history that tells a story of changing land-use, ecology, horticultural practices, and cultural heritage.
Roaming through the orchards, which range in size from one- to six-acre parcels, I notice a group of deer behind me, rifling in the grass for fallen fruit. Nearby, two children and their parents gather handfuls of ruby-red Winesaps, the father reaching high into the branches to pick apples his kids can’t reach and dropping them into a basket.
My own paper sack bursts with apples already, and it becomes apparent how important protecting this sanctuary in the Utah desert really is. I could have easily driven a few miles to my local supermarket to buy commercial apples, but I wanted to experience this culturally significant haven for myself. The physical act of plucking apples straight from the tree serves as a connection to not only the land, but also the rich cultural practices that have shaped this area for centuries.
The land of plenty
It’s easy to see why Latter-Day Saint (LDS) pioneers—and the Native Americans before them—decided to settle in this river valley and plant orchards. Thanks to the confluence of the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek, water is plentiful here, and the towering cliffs surrounding the valley provide protection from frost and harsh wind gusts. Add consistently sunny days to the equation and you have a microclimate that allows for an ample growing season that stretches from spring to autumn.
Archeologists have unearthed evidence suggesting that Desert Archaic peoples survived off this very land 8,000 years ago, living a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle that relied on hunting mammals and gathering local flora like seeds and nuts, which they’d then ground into pastes and flour with stones. They would also use native plants to create medicines, woven baskets, and other necessities. Later, the Fremont or Hisatsinom people lived in what is now the park. By the 1600s, the Ute, Paiute, and Navajo, three indigenous tribes, occupied the area. Today 32 tribes are associated with Capitol Reef.
According to the National Park Service, the first LDS pioneers arrived in the region in the late 1860s, migrating westward to escape religious discrimination. But it wasn’t until 1880, when Swedish immigrant and LDS pioneer Nels Johnson staked his homestead in Junction, a settlement now known as the Fruita Rural Historic District or simply Fruita, that the land would flourish with thousands of fruit trees.
Johnson is believed to be one of the first pioneers to cultivate orchards there using seeds he brought along with him. Although there are no historical records specifying what specific varietals the original pioneers planted, historians do know what was planted using records kept beginning in the 1970s. Some of the fruit varieties harvested over the years include Jonathan, Rome Beauty, and Twenty Ounce Pippin apples; Moorpark apricots; Elberta peaches; Bartlett pears; and Fellenberg plums. The settlers also planted black walnut and almond trees, as well as non-fruit-bearing trees like cottonwoods, including what became known as the “Fruita Mail Tree,” where residents’ mail would hang on tree branches waiting for collection.
Sensing an opportunity, more pioneers soon followed, including Mary Jane Benhunin, the eldest of 13 children, who settled in Fruita with her parents and siblings. At age 17, she married Johnson, 30 years her senior. (Unfortunately, Johnson met an untimely death when he drowned in the nearby Fremont River during a flash flood.) After her husband’s passing, she continued to homestead, tending the family’s orchards until she remarried and moved to Torrey, 12 miles to the west.
By then, numerous families had settled in the sheltered valley and planted crops of their own, creating a canopy of fruit trees that shaded the community. Fruit was not only a cash crop for the pioneers, but also a bartering chip for trading with residents of surrounding towns where fruit trees weren’t plentiful. In 1896, Fruita grew big enough to warrant the construction of a one-room schoolhouse, which still stands today.
The orchards changed hands over the decades, passed down from one generation to the next. When the last permanent residents left in 1969, the NPS continued to maintain orchards. Capitol Reef officially became a national park in 1971, and Fruita was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Since then, remarkably few changes have been made to the management of the orchards.
An old-fashioned orchard meets today’s challenges
Unlike commercial orchard operations, which employ teams of farmhands to operate heavy harvest machinery and apply chemicals to encourage ripening, Capitol Reef’s agricultural methods are far simpler, harkening back to the management practices used by the LDS pioneers who planted the orchards some 140 years ago.
For starters, the bounty is available to visitors. The “U-Pick” harvest model lets visitors pick their own produce and pay via an honor system. The park also supplies complimentary ladders and long-armed fruit picking tools to get up high in the branches. These methods are part of the orchard’s charm. But growing fruit in a desert landscape wasn’t always easy.
Modern-day horticulturists use the original gravity-fed irrigation ditches painstakingly dug by the pioneers, and portions of the original system are still visible to this day. For pioneers, the watering of the orchards was a labor-intensive yet collaborative process that involved the cooperation of multiple homesteads to divert water from the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek and deliver it to each individual orchard via a network of ditches and flumes. Because flooding was commonplace, families often had to rebuild irrigation routes from one year to the next.
The NPS also utilizes historic techniques for pruning, pest management, mapping, and grafting the land, rarely deviating from the practices used by the pioneers. (Interestingly, the first tractor didn’t arrive in Fruita until 1940 and electricity followed soon thereafter in 1948.)
Despite the park staff’s best intentions to continue nurturing these culturally significant orchards for future generations to enjoy, ongoing droughts have taken their toll on the orchards. Of the tens of thousands of fruit and nut trees that once shaded Fruita, only about 1,900 trees remain today across 100 acres. Since 2015, the park has lost over 130 trees each year.
But is drought the only reason for the losses? Fritz Maslan, the head horticulturist at Capitol Reef National Park, says several factors are at play. One is simply old age.
“Not only have droughts become more prevalent in recent years, but … a lot of the trees are reaching the ends of their lives. What people often don’t realize is that many fruit trees don’t live all that long,” Maslan says. “For example, peach trees reach the end of their lives at about 30 years old.”
According to the park, 86 percent of the existing trees were planted sometime before 1990, and 40 percent were planted prior to 1950. Maslan estimates that the oldest trees in the orchards today are cottonwoods planted by the pioneers.
Other issues affecting the orchards, Maslan says, is the impact of more than a century of cultivation on the landscape and a lack of funds to pay for new trees.
Regenerating the soil is a priority for keeping the orchards alive, given the toll that 140 years of cultivation has taken. Part of that regeneration involves boosting soil nutrients and organic matter.
“We no longer have the periodic flooding that would happen 100 years ago in Fruita that brought nutrient-rich silt to the orchards, and we don’t have livestock roaming the orchards anymore either, so those two nutrient inputs are eliminated. A big focus for us is to rebuild our soils and rejuvenate them so that we can grow effectively,” he says.
Rehabilitating the orchards in community
Earlier this year, after gathering enough funding, park staff announced a pilot orchard rehabilitation project and has recruited a team of local experts and community members to ensure its success. So far, contractors have regraded orchard soils with machinery, adding in composted manure, and removing trees that have reached the end of their lives. Workers are also at work re-establishing and updating irrigation ditches and furrows.
The park has also prioritized community involvement, much like the early Mormons did.
Next spring, volunteers will plant 200 sapling peaches in the four-acre-plus Guy Smith and Cook orchards and will continue sowing up to 100 new saplings every spring through 2025. All of these will be heirloom species since they have proven to be more resilient than commercial species to drought and disease.
“We’ve done a lot of outreach to bring people from the community to the orchards and to talk to them to better understand their wants and needs for [the orchards],” Maslan says. “Generally, the comments we get back are that people really want to see the orchards replanted and are happy that’s a priority for us.”
Some of the local support comes from people directly tied to the orchards’ history.
Brent Black, a professor and extension fruit specialist at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, who studies plants, soils, and climate, has been assisting the rehabilitation plan for the past 15 years. But his association with the land goes back even further. His parents grew up in the vicinity and his grandfather had a farm nearby.
“I’ve been visiting the park and the orchards for 50 years and I remember going down there every summer to visit my grandfather’s farm,” says Black, who grew up in eastern Idaho. “These orchards are really important and are a resource for the local community. At one time people would come from all over to pick fruit, but in the past 15 or 20 years, there haven’t been that many new saplings planted.”
Black has been advising Maslan and his team on drought-resistant rootstocks and optimal pruning strategies. As part of the pilot project, USU’s team of soil scientists has been testing the ground to determine which species of fruit trees are most adaptable.
“The orchards are an oasis in what is a vast stretch of land that’s not suitable ground for growing fruit; it’s a complete desert,” Black says. “You can’t grow peaches and cherries successfully in neighboring counties. However, this area has been a place for gardening for years, from the Native Americans who discovered it, to the [LDS] settlers who found that they could plant fruit and supply their community with food. There’s a history there. I remember talking to relatives of mine who grew up there in the 1940s who would can their fruit for the winter.”
Preserving the past and safeguarding the future
The cultural significance of canning the harvest for a rainy day that was so integral to the pioneers’ heritage and survival continues in Capitol Reef today. During harvest, the park manages an onsite shop inside a former building called the Gifford Homestead, one of the pioneer families’ homes, that sells jams, jellies, pies, pastries, and other baked goods using the fruit, giving visitors the opportunity to enjoy the bounty in the same ways that the pioneers once did.
All the baked goods are made in-house at The Broken Spur Inn and Steakhouse, a restaurant and bakery located ten miles west in Torrey.
“The recipes would be like the old-fashioned recipes used here back in the day [by Mrs. Gifford, for whom the Gifford Homestead is named],” says Monica Brian, who manages the shop and also works for the Capitol Reef Natural History Association. “She was famous for her pies.”
Her pies—or pies like hers—are still famous. Brian estimates that nearly 58,000 pies were sold during the 2021 season. The shop also sells canned and bottled goods provided by local companies from throughout northern Utah, another nod to the foodways that have defined Fruita for so long.
“Bottling food is becoming a lost art,” Brian says. “Reminding people of past food preservation techniques is a tie to our past that we need to hold onto.”
Before heading home, I treat myself to a caramel apple pie for the drive, savoring the delicate crust and sweet filling. I’m grateful to those who were here before me, who planted the early orchards and began a tradition of sharing its bounty. And as the park continues to reinvigorate the orchards and plant new trees, it’s possible that generous and resourceful spirit will stay in this the valley for years to come.
Jennifer Nalewicki is a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer. Her work has been featured in Smithsonian Magazine, Scientific American, and more. Her favorite apple varieties include Honeycrisp, Braeburn, and Empire.
Cover photo: J . Brew
If you liked this story, you might also like:
Taking the Park to the People: The Changing Culture of the National Park Service, June 2018.
Artifact: El Molino, Jan. 2018