orchard stories

When my aunts and uncles were out here visiting a couple weeks ago, it reminded me of some stories from when I worked in the orchards one of them ran. The orchard was in Pleasant View, UT, which is where my Dad is from and where many of my relatives still live. I created a map of the orchard here. Here are some of the stories I remembered:

Selling Smarts:

The orchard wasn’t particularly lucrative, though my aunt did say it made them money most years. But there is a funny story that goes with the orchard. I don’t know which ancestor originally planted the orchard, but I do know my great grandfather, Mormon Cragun, worked out there (and, sadly, died from an accident in the orchard). But my grandfather, Earl Budge Cragun, owned a lot of land around the orchard, including, apparently (according to my aunt), about 300 acres directly above (kind of north and east) of the orchard (it’s marked on the map). The land was littered with enormous rocks and was basically worthless to my grandfather, as he was primarily interested in farming. When someone approached him about the land above the orchard, he was ecstatic to get rid of it and sold it for a paltry $300 for the entire 300 acres. The person who bought the property saw something my grandfather didn’t: The looming market for massive rocks for lawn decoration. This market boomed in the 1980s and 1990s in Utah; people wanted large rocks to decorate their yards. One of my close friends up the street from where I lived had a yard bordered by rocks like this. The guy who bought the orchard extracted the rocks and sold them for, get this, literally millions and millions of dollars. He turned that $300 investment into a multi-million dollar business.

This was always a sore spot in Cragun family lore. The guy also negotiated for easement rights for the property, so he was able to access the quarry. Enormous trucks ran up and down the side of the orchard for years. When the family eventually sold the orchard, they sold it to the owners of the rock quarry, who tore down most of the trees and put in a road to make access to the quarry easier. So, grandpa, about my inheritance… 😐 (That’s a joke; I’m not expecting an inheritance!)

Sweet Cherry Tumble

Some background on cherries. There are really two basic kinds of cherries: sweet cherries and pie cherries. The ones you buy in the store with the stems on them are called sweet cherries. The ones you buy in cans for cherry pie are called pie cherries. I describe below how pie cherries are harvested, but sweet cherries, because they need the stems on them to stay fresh, are generally harvested by hand. We’d start work around 5 am and work until 1 pm, so they were harvested when they were moist. We got paid by the pound. And by “we” I mean, every young kid in Pleasant View, plus a lot of my relatives, and occasionally migrant laborers who, of course, only spoke Spanish. I have a lot of stories from the time we spent picking cherries, like the day my cousin Matt Winston spent picking cherries with us. Matt’s now a semi-famous actor, but he has an amazing sense of humor. He wasn’t particularly interested in making money or even picking cherries, but he did keep us all entertained the day he was there. My favorite memory of that day is him wondering how many cherries he could fit in his mouth at one time. I don’t remember the number (I think it was in the 30s), but it was a lot, and he looked hilarious.

Anyway, with all the young kids working out there (I was doing this at 6, too), it was amazing there were not more accidents. The youngest kids would pick the low hanging fruit, but older kids climbed ladders and used sky hooks to pull branches down. I remember one day watching a young girl who was new to picking cherries climb a ladder a couple of trees away from me. She hadn’t placed her ladder well and it tipped over, dumping her a good 10 or 15 feet to the ground. She fell hard and immediately started screaming. I was probably 10 or 11 at the time (I’m not sure), but I remember watching my cousin’s husband, who had just barely joined the family, McKell Young, leap from his ladder and run to her aid. He was there in a split second and immediately calmed her down and started to splint her terribly broken arm. McKell is now a dentist in Missouri with a handful of kids, but whenever I think of McKell, I think of this story.

Here’s a picture of McKell with one of his children a few years after that at an Easter family gathering in the orchard:

If I remember correctly, as a result of this incident they raised the minimum age for non-family workers to 12; the girl was younger than that. Also, according to my aunt, that was the only bone broken bone in the orchard (she even remembered the girl’s name, though I forget it now).

Tractor Tale #1: Oh Brother!

The orchard was very much a family business. My aunt and uncle’s children worked in the orchard most of their lives, and many of their cousins (me included) also worked out there. I started working in the orchard at 6, and was driving tractors by the time I was around 8. My first tractor driving job was to drive the tractor pulling the cherry tanker along side the harvester.

For that to make sense you probably need a bit of an explanation of how pie cherry harvesting is done To harvest pie cherries, at least 3 tractors (more like 4 or 5) are required. One tractor pulls a large trailer called the harvester. Here’s my rudimentary drawing of a harvester:


The harvester has one side that faces the cherry tree being harvested (depicted above). Two people would ride on this side (the faces). When they pull up to a tree, they pull out a large tarp attached to a winch on the harvester (in blue) until it covers the ground under the harvester. The yellow in the picture is my attempt to depict the fabric above the trailer that catches any cherries that fall that way. Once the cherries are shaken from the tree (see diagram below), the winch pulls the tarp back in, dropping the cherries through a hole in the harvester and down to the other side, depicted here:

Two or three people work on this side. The green boxes represent bins. The cherries fall through the hole in the harvester and into these bins, where the workers remove as many leaves, twigs, dead birds, etc. as possible. Once the bins fill up, they are carried down a row of trees where the cherry tanker, pulled by another tractor, is waiting. Here’s my depiction of a tanker:

The cherry tanker is a large trailer that is filled with hundreds of gallons of water. The cherries, as they are harvested, are dumped into the cherry tanker. The water keeps them from getting smashed and keeps them fresh. It also helps all the leaves and sticks float to the top, where they are later skimmed away (my first job at 6 was to skim the crap out the tankers).

And now the shaker. An attachment is connected to another tractor that has a two-pronged extension on it. That attachment wraps around the tree like shown below:

The gray prongs are what is called the shaker (I tried my best). They wrap around the tree then shake it like crazy. The two tarps attached to the harvester (in the background) catch the cherries then send them into the harvester. That’s basically how it’s done. Oh, and this starts at 10 pm and continues until 10 am – harvesting at night keeps the moisture in the cherries so they stay fresh longer.

Anyway, back to the story. My second job in the orchard was to drive the cherry tanker. This is a pretty easy job since all I had to do was keep the tanker level with the harvester – every time it moved, I moved. That made it easy for those dumping bins of cherries to get them into the tanker. Mind you I started doing this when I was about 8: someone believed I was responsible enough to drive an enormous tractor attached to a multi-ton tanker when I was 8 years old.

There were two hard parts to the job. First, it went on, non-stop, all night for about 4 weeks. At 8 (and now), I liked sleeping at night. So, I had a hard time staying awake. Sometimes I’d fall asleep and the other workers would yell at me. The other hard part was making sure that no one was around the tanker when I pulled forward. Remember, this is an all steel tanker filled with hundreds of gallons of water and hundreds of pounds of cherries. It weighed several tons by the time it was full.

Well, one night I checked behind me to make sure no one was dumping cherries into the tanker then pulled forward. As I did I heard a scream. It was my brother Danny. If you look back at the diagram of the cherry tanker you’ll see that the tires are actually on the outside. He had stepped up to dump a bin of cherries just after I checked and stepped between the tires. His leg was there when I pulled forward. The tanker rode up the back of his leg and threw him face first into the ground. Luckily others heard the scream and came running. And, luckily, the ground was soft. I ran over his leg, but it was mostly just pushed into the dirt, so there was little damage done – mostly bruising. I felt terrible, but no one really blamed me for it as accidents were pretty common out there (though rarely serious, which is amazing). Danny got the night off (with pay), but was back the next day.

Here’s a picture of me a bit older pulling the tarps out on the harvester (the shaker is in the background). This is the only picture I have of my working in the orchard:

Tractor Tale #2: Hang On!

My oldest brother, Troy, was an orchard regular and old hand out there. He had been working out there for years, and by the time this happened he must have been close to 18. He had graduated from most of the crappy jobs to a periphery job: he managed the cherry tankers. Basically he used a fourth tractor to pick up the full tankers, take them down to have them skimmed, then filled the empty tankers with water and delivered them, as needed, to where the rest of us were working. His job was pretty nice because he could basically lay on the tanker as it filled and, if he angled it just right, when it got to the right level, the water would leak out, getting him a little wet, and waking him up. Sometimes he’d sleep, other times he’d read. He had the dream job out there.

I rode up with him one night to watch as he filled the tankers. Rather than wait for it to finish filling this time, he decided he’d rather take the tractor for a spin. So, he told me to hop on (they are all one seat tractors) and hang on. The orchard is laid out in rows and the rows are easy to drive along. But Troy was more interested in having a wild ride, so he angled the tractor down the hill and started driving from row to row, plowing through trees, irrigation ditches, and anything else in our way as we went. I don’t think we took out any trees, but by the time he was done, I felt like the trees had taken me out. I was covered in scratches and had leaves and branches all over me. He was hollering and screaming the whole time. I’m not sure how often he did that, but he seemed to be an old pro at it.

Tractor Tale #3: I’m going to die!

I saved my favorite story for last. I worked in the orchard during the summers until I was 16 or 17, when my aunt and uncle started negotiating to sell it. I learned a lot out there and saw some amazing things, but this is one story I’ll never forget. You can’t see it in the Google Maps link above, but the orchard is actually on a hillside. And by hillside, I mean a fairly steep incline, probably a 7 to 10 degree incline. That’s not much of a problem if you take it an angle, like the side roads in the orchard did. It’s also not a problem if you’re driving down one of the rows as they are terraced so you hardly notice the incline. But if you ever take the middle road in the orchard, you face that entire incline. Now, driving a tractor alone up or down the main road isn’t a problem – those things have so much horsepower that it’s not an issue at all. But, if you’re pulling a cherry tanker, that can be a serious problem. Cherry tankers weigh several tons when full.

I faced this scenario for the first time one day when I was about 12 years-old. Someone asked me to drive a full tanker of cherries down to the skimming station at the bottom of the orchard. If I was near one of the sides of the orchard, I would have taken one of those, which isn’t much of a problem. But I was near the middle road (you can see it in the map), and since I figured I’d need to learn how to do this some time, I decided to just go ahead and drive the tanker down the middle road. There were two problems with my thinking here. First, I had never done this and no one had ever shown me how. Second, just above the skimming station, the middle road in the orchard takes a sharp left turn. If you miss the turn, there’s about a 30 foot drop off. Remember, the orchard was on a hillside. Whoever designed the orchard hadn’t made the best decision building the road that way, but I don’t recall it ever really being a serious problem (though I’m sure someone has missed that turn before).

So, I hopped on the tractor and headed down the center of the orchard. As I inched my way down the steep road, I started to notice that I was going a little too fast. I was in first gear, but it was still too fast for my novice abilities, so I pushed in the clutch on the tractor and hit the brakes. The multi-ton tanker behind me laughed at my rookie mistake – those brakes on the loose dirt weren’t going to stop it. It kept coming, picking up speed. The tractor started sliding, and then started to jackknife as the tanker was pushing it out of the way. I was still probably a couple hundred feet or so from the drop off when I started skidding. But I knew it was coming, and I was still picking up speed. If the trailer and tractor didn’t flip, killing me in the process, then I’d probably slide over the edge and certainly die. My heart raced and my life flashed before my eyes – the only time this has ever happened to me. I was going to die!

Then, it hit me: My brother Troy had told me a short time before this what to do, “Whenever you’re driving a tanker down one of the roads headed down hill, don’t EVER take it out of gear! If you do, the tractor’s brakes won’t be able to stop it and you’ll wreck.” That was the answer – put it back in gear. I slammed the gear shift into first and popped the clutch. And, like the magic I thought it was at the time, the tractor slowed to a near standstill, the tanker straightened out, and everything returned to normal. The tractor’s brakes couldn’t slow the tanker, but the tractor’s engine could. I inched my way toward the turn as slowly as possible and made it safely. With only a couple of close contenders, this is probably the closest I’ve ever come to dying (the close contenders are fun stories too!).

Here’s a final picture of another Easter party out at the “Good Earth” which is what we called it. We used to have a great time hiding easter candy on the rocks and having races to find it all. McKell is in the picture with his son (male in sunglasses on the left). I’m standing, next to me is my younger brother, Josh, then my two cousins, Brian and Nate Belnap. This rock was about 15 feet tall and was a blast to climb:

So, those are my orchard stories. I hope you enjoyed them.

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