Flathead cherries are a summertime tradition. For many Montana natives and visitors those crisp, dark, juicy globes bring waves of nostalgia. My wife grew up in Polson and tells stories of working in the orchards as a teenage. She spent hours tasting and sorting cherries until she wearied of that jewel colored fruit. They are part of our NW Montana heritage, but why cherries and why the Flathead?
The story starts in 1893 when Mrs Margret Estey, sister in law to John wood i.e. Woods bay, planted an orchard which included cherry trees. Although these trees flourished it wasn’t until 1929 that cherries were considered for commercial use when the Robbins brothers of Kalispell planted several hundred trees near Yellow Bay. The well drained soil, warm days, cool nights and long growing season quickly proved ideal for the sweet juicy cherries we enjoy in the Flathead today. Six years later the Flathead Lake Growers Association was formed. That year, 1935, a cherry warehouse was built and the very first train car of Flathead cherries was shipped out. To celebrate the growers and local residents held the first cherry festival and dance. To this day that cherry festival is held annually in Polson, Mt.
Cherries, orchards, and the people who love and buy them still form a part of our local culture, history and economy. Try them from mid to late July, buy in local grocers, from road side stands or even upick. Here is a spotlight on a couple of our favorite orchards
“In 1910, Roger (Weight) Hockaday and his wife Marguerite came out to Montana for a visit. Weight was an advance man with the railroad company and it was his job to promote travel on the railway systems. They had come to Montana to see Glacier Park and had an idea they wanted to purchase a piece of property somewhere in the Flathead Valley. The real estate agent they were working with convinced them to take a steam boat ride on Flathead Lake. There was some property for sale on Angel Point and they could stop off at the tip of Angel Point and have a look.” – quote from Orchard Website
That stop on angel point convinced them that this was to be their future home. These two adventurers packed up their home and moved into a small cabin naming their soon to be orchard “Peaceful valley Ranch” To this day Hockadays live and caretake this beautiful lakeside property. Give them a visit they are located at Angel point about 5 miles south of Lakeside. This orchard is upick only so bring a lunch, comfortable clothes and be ready to fill your bucks full of sweet cherries for $1.25/lb
The Bowmans have been growing cherries on the Flathead’s east shore since 1920. In that year the two brothers , Adam and Eby Bowman took their choice piece of land teamed up the horses, cleared the lumber, dynamited the boulders and tilled the soil to prepare for a family orchard that would last generations. They eventually expanded their orchards and their business.
Bowmans still run the warehouse south of Bigfork on highway 93. Today at the Bowman warehouse you can find cherries from Kennewick and Moses Lake, Washington as well as their family orchard in Bigfork. This extends the cherry season from mid June to August. Looking for other cherry products find canned cherries, jams, dried cherries, cherry chocolate fudge, cherry cider, and a variety of wine in addition to the fresh cherries at their warehouse.
Ray and Carol Johnson found their piece of Flathead Lake heaven when they bought their orchard in 1976. This 400 tree orchard produced over 30,000 pounds of cherries. Unfortunately in 1989 temperatures dropped from 50 degrees to below freezing in a matter of hours killing many trees around the valley including a large portion of the Johnson’s orchard. Slowly the Johnson’s began to replant their orchard with the help of their children. Now they are proud to say that the orchard has been fully replanted and gone organic! Find their organic cherry and other fruit products in farmers markets and natural food stores all over Montana, or order online. Is it that time of year for fresh cherries? The orchard at Flathead Lake will deliver to your door in certain areas of Montana or you can have them shipped. How convenient.
Check out this great video by the Flathead Cherry Growers Association