Once upon a time, Clark County’s economy depended heavily on agriculture. The luscious plums dried into prunes bloomed into a major regional industry among early fruits planted in the Pacific Northwest. Clark County was flush with the thick-skinned fruits growing merrily on many an orchard, the first established by Arthur Hidden at 26th (now Fourth Plain) and Main Street, which did so well, others joined in. By 1888, Clark County was producing about 200,000 pounds of prunes. And big prune yields meant big profits.
Until it didn’t.
World War I and Prohibition
In 1919, three successful businessmen and leading citizens of Vancouver gathered a group of more than 50 farmers, educators, bankers and doctors to form the Prunarians to promote prune culture and consumption. The group’s mission included fostering cooperation between local growers and merchants.
“The Prunarians formed to try and find customers to replace all of those we had lost during Prohibition and World War I,” says Pat Jollota, Clark County historian, author and former city council member. “They also provided boosterism for the region to promote the growth and well-being of our community, which is well beyond the city limits of Vancouver.”
Jollota reminds us that it is essential to look at historical events through the lens of what influences are occurring. For example, in 1919, we had prohibition, and World War I, which had just ended, destroyed most of Clark County’s prune customers in its wake. Jollota explains prune destinations for brandy making, and Germany, one of Clark County’s prime customers and biggest consumers of prunes, were wiped out because of the war and prohibition.
“We voted dry long before the rest of the county voted dry,” shares Jollota. “So, the brewery, which was our main industry along with prunes, our other main product, were both out of business.”
Still another significant impact on Clark County’s prune industry was the 1918 Spanish Flu, which finally ended in 1920. “We have no idea how many people died in Clark County,” says Jollota, “because the counters died.”
The Golden State’s Sunshine Prunes
The Prohibition years following World War I brought more than just sobriety to the Northwest. According to a historical essay written by Jollota, Vancouver had depended on its brewery for jobs, and fruit growers relied on brandy distillers for income. Adding to their troubles, prune growers suffered significant losses from poor weather and competition from California orchards. “California came up with the idea of sundried prunes,” says Jollota. “There is sunshine in every prune sounded to the consuming public more attractive than our dried-in-a-smokey-old-barn prune.”
The Prunarians, when forming their group, dubbed Clark County the “Prune Capital of the World” and the “Italy of North America” because of the region’s ideal climate for fruit orchards, which were akin to Italy. “One of Italy’s leading crops was prunes,” shares Jollota, “including all of the prunus varieties like peaches and apricots.”
Among the noble efforts the Prunarians made to boost the prune industry, they organized and put on annual prune festivals, complete with a queen of prunes. According to one of Jollota’s historical essays, their motto was, “We’re full of prunes.” The civic-minded Prunarians would go to great lengths to ensure a worthy festival. They planned to have a parade, music, drinks, dancing, games, pies, prune eating contests and more.
“The way the prune queen was selected,” says Jollota, “was by selling tickets to the festival. The woman who sold the most tickets would be prune queen.”
At the end of the Prunarians’ run, they gave their royal regalia and items used in parades to several Portland businessmen (Clark County worked more closely with Multnomah County in those days) who formed the Royal Rosarians. “If you look at the Rosarians today, you will see the resemblance to the Prunarians.”
Losing the Good Fight
Despite the Prunarians’ best efforts, the market for Washington’s prunes steadily decreased and eventually dried up. The Prunarians disbanded on their own. According to the Clark County Historical Museum, the fledgling prune industry was served a death blow by the global economic depression of the 1930’s and the changing pattern of American exports. But while Clark County orchardists continued to grow prunes into the 1960’s, the industry was unable to recover.
“They could not impact what was going on in the nation, and they could not impact what was going on internationally,” explains Jollota. “They had as much impact as the Chamber of Commerce does today. The Prunarians – like the Chamber – fostered growth and the community’s well-being.