NW Life

Santiam Apple Tree Holds Many Mysteries

OPB | Oct. 17, 2012 7 a.m.

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This apple tree at the top of Santiam Pass has many competing stories about its mysterious origin.

This apple tree at the top of Santiam Pass has many competing stories about its mysterious origin.

OPB

Lots of kids — including myself — grew up with a particularly Oregonian car game. When crossing over the Santiam Pass, who can be the first to spot the apple tree?

It’s probably the only apple tree you’ll see during the 100-plus miles between Salem and Bend, and just how it got there, no one quite knows for sure.

Despite the tree’s singular status, it’s not easy to find. The tree is smaller than those around it and practically indistinguishable in winter when it’s leafless. Spring and fall are better seasons to try and spot it — in late spring it will briefly blossom, and in fall the roundness of the greenish-yellow apples distinguish the tree from the rest of the greenery surrounding it.

One of the golden apples produced by the tree

One of the golden apples produced by the tree

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It used to be that the deciduous tree’s leaves made it easier to spot among the needled conifers that dominate the area, even at 60 miles per hour. But in recent years, other deciduous trees have sprouted up around it and made the task that much more difficult.

Nonetheless, the unlikely tree is still there, in the middle of the Willamette National Forest at an elevation of about 4,500 feet. Careful observers will find it near milepost 87 on the south side of Highway 20, just above Suttle Lake.

Like any good mystery, there are more than a few stories of how it came to be there. I’ve come across no fewer than four by poking around the Internet and making some calls. A pair of articles that appeared in the Bend Bulletin in 1987 recount three such stories.

One story is that a 24-year-old dump truck driver, Thirlo “Slim” Blakesly of Bend, planted the core of his “big yellow” lunchtime apple while working on the highway’s construction in 1931.

Another claim comes from Burns lawyer Wendell Gronso, who says the apple originated in his parents’ apple orchard in Albany. Gronso says his mother planted the tree in 1941 from a Golden Delicious she’d eaten while she watched her husband change a flat tire. In 1964, an article in the Eugene-based Obsidian mountaineering group’s newsletter also attributes the source of the story as Mrs. Gertrude Gronso of Lebanon.

Yet another origin story comes from volume four of Treasures of the Oregon Country, which credits Portland policeman William Blake with planting the tree. Blake was on fishing trip at Suttle Lake in the early 1930s and stopped for lunch above the lake. He too claims to have buried his lunchtime apple core — in this case, a “Grimes Golden.”

The sign placed by the Hildebrand family gives credit for planting the tree to their ancestor Adolph Hildebrand.

The sign placed by the Hildebrand family gives credit for planting the tree to their ancestor Adolph Hildebrand.

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While no story is conclusive, the Bulletin suggests that Oregon Highway Division records support Blakesly’s claim.

So, many have claimed the tree but Chad Hedberg’s family has done something about it — they’ve attached a plaque to the tree that declares Hedberg’s grandfather Adolph Hildebrand the tree’s “Johnny Appleseed.”

According to Hildebrand’s autobiography, he earned a bit of extra cash by selling Willamette Valley apples in Bend and apparently decided to combine the endeavor with a deer-hunting trip. The apple sales went poorly and the frosty hunting trip ran long, so by the time Hildebrand was headed back to the west side, many of the apples had spoiled. He dumped the rotten load beside the road and a few years later, saw the tree in the same spot.

The mystery of just how the tree got there may never be established, but there is another mystery that you might help us solve. This fall, as an Oregon Field Guide crew was driving over Santiam Pass, they noticed that all the apples were gone. Did the tree suddenly stop producing? Did someone pick all the apples for a giant pie? Or are other factors like weather or lack of pollinators to blame?

We’d love to hear your theories — Share your comments below.

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