Today Orcas Island is known for scenic hiking, quaint artist studios, and farm-to-table dining, but the island wasn’t always best known for these features. While produce is still grown on the island, fruit farms used to dominate the landscape of Orcas and drove much of the early activity here. E.V. Von Gohren arrived at the island in 1879 and planted the first nursery on the island which eventually grew to over 20,000 fruit trees of different varieties. Gohren is largely responsible for the rapid development of the fruit farming industry on Orcas Island. It’s said that by the late 1890s, the town of Eastsound looked more like an orchard than a community of people, with settlers planting trees wherever they could find space to put them. Prunes and other plum varieties, apples, pears, apricots, cherries, peaches, and several types of berries like blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries were all popular choices for crops.
In 1895 more than 160,000 boxes of apples were shipped from Eastsound docks, and thousands of barrels of Italian prunes were shipped as far east as Omaha, NE. Fruit production grew so much that three steamship trips a day left from Eastsound carrying shipments of prunes, apples, and other fruits. Experimentation determined that the Italian prune was the commercial fruit best suited for the soil and climate of Orcas Island. By 1898 the prune trees were bearing so much fruit that prune dryers, barn-like structures made to dry the fruit before shipment, had to be built. Apple barns became commonplace too, and the development of these buildings created a lot of jobs for islanders.
While the popularity of fruit farms on Orcas skyrocketed in the late 1800s, their abundance was short lived. The fruit farm business of Orcas Island was in a steady decline by 1915, due to the improved methods of irrigation and closer proximity to the rail of the orchards on the mainland of Washington. As the orchards slowly fell out of use, the tourism industry began to ramp up as residents and visitors alike began to realize the incredible beauty of the island. Farms and orchards still dot the landscape of Orcas, providing islanders and restaurants with the freshest produce possible. Some tourists visit just to enjoy the unique farm-to-table dining experiences Orcas has to offer.