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Cherries are one of America’s most popular fruits. During the early half of the twentieth century, they were also an important industry in Whatcom County and folks found many different ways to enjoy them.

Settlers in the region grew fruit trees as quickly as they could and cherry farming developed into one of the county’s largest fruit industries. Cherries, local boosters promised, would flourish in Whatcom County, even claiming that it was cheaper to grow cherries here than anywhere else in America. Chicken and cherries, farmer George H. Griffith, told the Bellingham Herald, were the best paying crops in the region. And this “poultry magnate of Wiser Lake” should know — he had a large orchard and 1,000 chickens in 1906.

C.E. Fitzgerald of Ferndale was a particularly prosperous cherry farmer. He won awards for his cherries at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland and the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle. “Fitzgerald’s prize cherries of Ferndale,” the Bellingham Public Market declared in a 1917 ad, “are the best for eating or canning.” The market sold them for 90 cents per box. Fitzgerald also shipped cherries to British Columbia, the Midwest, and the East Coast.

Picking cherries was hard work. In 1925 Lettie Warner, age 67, was celebrated as top picker at Cherry Hill Fruit Farm in Everson. She picked 2.5 tons in three weeks, including 463 pounds in one day to celebrate the birth of her first great-grandchild.

By 1931, there were 33,985 cherry trees in Whatcom County.

Cherry Canning

Whatcom County canneries handled cherries from Whatcom, Skagit, San Juan and Island Counties. Some were even shipped from east of the Cascades for processing. Everson and Ferndale were centers of cherry farming, with their own canneries. Other growers brought their fruit by train or ship to Bellingham.

Many cannery workers were women and girls. The pay was low. In 1905, a number of women at the Nooksack Valley Canning Company at Sehome Creek in Bellingham went on strike when their pay went down from a dollar to four and half a cents per crate of stemmed and canned cherries. Because a worker could only produce about 15 crates a day, that plummeted their wages to roughly 63 cents. That same year the company shipped a third of its seasonal output — 547 cases — to San Francisco. Each case held 24 quarts of canned cherries.

C.E. Fitzgerald’s cherry farm near Ferndale, seen here in an image from the July 31, 1910 issue of the Bellingham Herald, was one of Whatcom County’s most prosperous. Photo: Washington State Library

Buying Cherries

Cherries were popular ingredients at Bellingham bakeries. Fisher’s Bakery and Coffee Shop, 110 East Magnolia, made a two-layer cherry filled Valentine’s Day cake in 1937 for 39 cents. In 1937, Mannings at 1327 Cornwall Avenue offered cherry pie with “fresh frozen pie cherries and a golden brown crust, flaky and tender” for President George Washington’s birthday. The pie cost 33 cents. Frozen fruit was an exciting new commodity at the time.

And of course, the classic sundae was not complete without a maraschino cherry on top. In 1932, the Smalley Drug Company at 1401 Commercial Street offered the “Powder Puff Sundae” for 15 cents, “a delicious sundae of peanut brittle ice cream with marshmallow covering, topped with whipped cream and red cherry.” It came with a free “genuine Gainsborough” makeup powder puff. Local dairy companies also sold cherry ice cream.

This pineapple icebox cake from the September 5, 1940 issue of the Bellingham Herald included ladyfingers, eggs, pineapple and gelatin. It was chilled in the refrigerator and topped with maraschino cherries. Photo: Washington State Library

Eating Cherries

Recipes for cherries were popular in the Bellingham Herald newspaper. Cherries could be added to baked puddings, brown betty, cake, cobbler, cookies, fritters, rolls, roly-polys, souffles, tortes, and of course pies and tarts. They were also used to top roasts, cakes, and custards or to stuff “surprise muffin.” Maraschino cherries and lime wedges garnished punch like in a 1939 recipe for “Frost Bite” punch with raspberry, lemon and orange juice, sugar, cinnamon and cloves.

Cherry pie was by far the favorite use of the fruit. “Cherry season is juicy pie time,” the Herald wrote in 1938. “When the men in the family rave about the matchless cherry pies of their boyhood, change those fond memories into compliments for yourself by making a cherry pie with this simple, tested recipe,” which included cherry juice along with the fruit. Other recipes called for cherry gelatin.  

Cherries could be preserved as jam, jelly, sauce, or pickled. Industrial canning helped make cherries an all-year rather than primarily seasonal food. And as “mechanical” refrigerators replaced iceboxes in the 1920s and 1930s, chilled salads and desserts with cherries became more popular. Cherries were combined with other fruits and vegetables, cottage cheese, mayo, or gelatin and chilled to make salads. Cherry whips, icebox cakes, and ice cream desserts also became favorites.

During this time, sample menus were frequently printed in the Bellingham Herald. These showed how cherries were enjoyed alongside the rest of the meal. For example, experts in 1941 recommended steamed cherry pudding to go with a dinner of oyster fritters. Cherry sherbet could top off a meal of creamed shrimps with peas in pastry shells in 1941. A dinner of ham and eggs with cherry pie was “fit for a king” in 1939. Cherry butter, according to a 1937 recipe, was made by boiling red cherries, lemon, orange juice, and sugar until thick, and was enjoyed with hot rolls, biscuits, and bread. Cherry conserve and jam could also work.

Legacy

Cherries continue to be more than just a good thing to grow and eat. They are a symbol of carefree days and warm weather. The people of the past would agree. As June Burn wrote in the Bellingham Herald’s “Puget Soundings” column on October 15, 1929, about Mountain View Road outside Ferndale: “Cherries and apple orchards — oh, to come by here when the trees bloom!”

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