Fruit Row: A city’s busy center

April 22, 2010

Fruit Row in the 1920s with the Pacific Fruit warehouse on the right.

When Del Bice was a teenager, he would accompany his father to First Avenue to watch the loading take place. Huge blocks of ice, weighing about 1,500 pounds each, would be packed in the ends of railroad cars.

The ice kept apples, one of the bounties of the Yakima Valley’s rich agricultural soil, cool on the long cross-country trip to market.

A work crew at a packing house on Yakima's Fruit Row poses for a photo about 1915.

Bice, now 85, recalls how exciting it was to watch the activity as 100 rail cars each day pulled out of Yakima in the early 1940s.

“A big thing was to come down around 5 p.m. and watch them ice the cars,” says Bice, who is the apple-box label curator at the Yakima Valley Museum.

By then, this bustling locale — a two-block-wide area stretching from Yakima Avenue north to I Street — had been the heart of the Valley’s fruit industry for three decades. Fruit packers and shippers located there to be near the railroad. Herb Frank wanted to be there, too. Born in Chicago, Frank became a civil engineer.

It was a career that required him to move around a lot. Wanting to settle in one place in the West, Frank came to the Yakima Valley and bought an orchard in Naches Heights around 1947 with financial help from his father-in-law. Then he purchased a warehouse at First Avenue and B Street from another pioneer, Elon Gilbert, and named the business Yakima Fruit and Cold Storage.

“It was a bit more prestigious” to be located on Fruit Row, says Frank, now 94 and retired from the fruit business. “It was easy for the growers to bring fruit in bulk and have it packed” near the railroad, he says.

Another pioneer on Fruit Row made his fortune with ice. J.M. Perry, whose name graces the J.M. Perry Technical Institute on West Washington Avenue, sold ice to the railroads to keep fruit cool. Perry started the plant in 1907, just before cold storage warehouses went up along Fruit Row.

Wagons are lined up at the loading dock of a fruit packing operation on Yakima's Fruit Row about 1910.

He sold up to 15,000 tons of ice a month and held the contract for about 40 years, until refrigerated rail cars became more widely available after World War II. “One of the reasons Perry survived the Great Depression was he had cash flow from the Northern Pacific Railroad,” Bice says.

Artificial Ice and Cold Storage was another of the ice-supplying firms, providing ice to the Union Pacific Railroad. While technology has transformed the Valley’s billion-dollar fruit industry with sophisticated packing lines, controlled-atmosphere storage and long-haul trucks for shipment, the downtown area remains a key part of the business and home to a number of fruit-packing and shipping firms.

Workers stand with boxes of fruit for shipping on a loading dock.

Fred Plath, the 87-year-old patriarch of Washington Fruit and Produce Co. of Yakima, still goes every morning to the office where it all began for the company almost a century ago. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, he worked for his father, Fred B. Plath, during the summers making the wooden boxes in which apples were packed and shipped. Boxes were loaded on their sides because the tops tended to bulge.

Then, workers would apply the wonderfully illustrated box labels that showed which company packed the fruit. It took 756 boxes to fill the rail car, Plath recalls. Although Washington Fruit has expanded with storage, packing and orchards outside of Yakima, it still occupies the same space on Fruit Row where Plath’s father joined the fruit business in 1915. The sales office for the firm is there.

The early beginnings of Fruit Row and the Washington fruit industry is intertwined with the history of the railroads.

Fruit packers and marketers had to be along the rail line for ease of shipping fruit. And when the railroads began selling the land granted them by Congress as a way to encourage rail development, farmers saw opportunities in the fertile soil of the Yakima Valley.

“The railroads created this by selling the land,” Bice says of the Valley’s multimillion-dollar fruit industry. “It was like the Florida land boom. Members of the Yakima Commercial Club were land speculators. They put ads in the papers in the East that ‘10 acres of land will make you rich.’ ”

And for many men, it did.

By David Lester

Women pack peaches at the Thompson Fruit Company in a photo taken about 1912.

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