Early apple industry pioneers in Sonoma County

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The apple has been a Sonoma County agricultural staple for over 200 years. The first Gravenstein apple trees were planted by the Russians at Fort Ross in 1812 and are said to have survived until the 1880s.

In the 1850s, Mitchell Gilliam and his son-in-law, Isaac Sullivan, arrived in Green Valley (modern day Graton) and planted a 150-tree orchard from stock they bought in Petaluma for $1.50 per tree. The pair sold fruit door to door in a horse-drawn wagon, helping to spread the area’s reputation for the succulent delicacy.

In the 1880s, Luther Burbank recommended that Nathaniel Griffith plant Gravenstein apples on his farm on Vine Hill Road in Sebastopol. The commercial crop did well in the fertile Gold Ridge soils, earning Griffith the nickname “Grandfather of the Gravenstein.”

Other early apple pioneers included Thomas Barlow, who brought disadvantaged children up to Sonoma County from San Francisco to cultivate his large blackberry and apple farm. When Barlow passed away unexpectedly in his 30s, he left his roughly 600-acre ranch to his wife and six sons, who started the area’s first applesauce canning facility in 1939.

In 1910, the Sebastopol Apple Grower’s Union held the first Gravenstein Apple Show at the beginning of the harvest season. Now called the Gravenstein Apple Fair, the tradition carries on to this day with two days of food, entertainment and apple-related fun. This year’s fair started Saturday and ends Sunday at Ragle Ranch Regional Park from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets cost $15 for adults, $12 for veterans and seniors (65+) and $10 for kids age 6 to 12. Children under 5 get in free and adults who cycle to the event earn a $3 discount.

Click through our gallery above to learn more about Sonoma County’s early apple industry pioneers

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