Pie Festival celebrates Loveland’s cherry lore
by Anna Aughenbaugh
Fort Collins, Colo.
In 1888, Montmorency and Morella sour cherry orchards covered 10,000 acres, earning Loveland the reputation as the region’s best area for raising cherries in Colorado. Spring Glade Orchard was the largest cherry orchard west of the Mississippi River. In 1928, 1929 and 1930, the orchards produced more than $1 million worth of cherries.
In May of 1930, Loveland held its first Cherry Blossom festival to celebrate the industry and the beautiful white blossoms of the orchards. It was marked with a parade, contests and dances.
Around that time, Mrs. A. V. Benson invented cherry cider, adding a new dimension to the flourishing cherry industry. This entrepreneurial lady began her business by selling cider by the glassful at a stand near her farm.
Since travelers on their way up the Big Thompson Canyon to Estes Park stopped there to quench their thirst, her cider became known throughout the United States. At one time there were seven processing plants. During the height of the industry, three companies, Kuner-Empson, Cherry Products Corp. and Loveland Canning, dominated the business.
During the late 1940s, Loveland’s cherry orchards substantially contributed to the $50,000 a day the industry brought to Larimer County. Harvest and canning operations provided temporary work for three to four weeks during July and early August. Local teenagers worked 12-hour days alongside migrant workers harvesting the brilliant red orbs. The pickers filled buckets, then poured them into large wooden boxes that were loaded onto trucks for transport to the canneries. Processing plants were staffed by teachers, housewives and students.
The Loveland Museum has a very interesting 1957 video that shows the story of the cherry industry.
Beginning with row upon row of cherry trees in blossom, then the pruning process, crop dusting, hand spraying, and hand picking. At the canneries the cherries were spray washed, conveyor belts carried them past workers who sorted out bad ones, then to a pitting machine and the sterilized tins. The full tins were then weighed, sugared, covered with a lid, and lifted by two men into a freezer to be fast-frozen.
The finale of the video is a pie baking contest that clearly shows the judges having a hard time choosing the best lattice topped dessert. What a boon the orchards must have been to honey bees. But, because of several years of blight and drought, the industry declined and by 1960, it was no longer a viable crop.
The land that is now dominated by Cherry Hills Estates, Orchards Shopping Center and Hewlett-Packard was once covered with sour cherry orchards.
Wilma Wood, past president of the Friends of the Loveland Museum has volunteered at all but three of the Cherry Pie Festivals. She recalls, “My husband’s arm used to hurt for two days after dishing up ice cream to top the pies.” In 1988, she was in charge of the pie-baking contest. “There were 15 to 20 entries and the judges sure had a hard time!”
The first few years of the festival there was no canopy over the serving table. Servers nearly had heat stroke and the ice cream melted faster than it could be scooped. Mr. Wood used to help haul the pies from the Lovin’ Oven restaurant in his station wagon. He had to make several trips up the canyon to get them all.
“Lots of people wax nostalgic at the festival. One lady used to come from Iowa each year to pick cherries to take home. Another family brought jars from home and canned cherries they’d picked, in a motel kitchenette ” that says something about how delicious Loveland’s cherries were,” said Wilma.
During the cherry festivals, John and Grace Goss demonstrate the use of unusual antique cherry pitters. Children may participate by trying their skill at removing the pits from the juicy scarlet balls. The job of removing the pits makes for great appreciation of being able to open commercially processed canned or frozen cherries when they are needed.
Kay Walters, owner of the Lovin’ Oven restaurant, has baked the pies for the festival since its inception. This year she will bake 150 pies that contain two pounds of cherries in each. She starts making them two months ahead, freezing the unbaked pies in her restaurant’s walk-in freezer.
“The hardest part is baking and wrapping the pies. My oven only holds five pies at a time, so it takes quite a few hours to get them baked,” said Kay. When asked if she recalled any disasters, Kay replied, “One year my freezer went out. We found out right away, but there was a lot of fast hustling to get the pies into other freezers. I’ve learned to keep count on paper as the pies are baked. Before I did that, I could lose count and have to start all over.”
Kay loves to bake, and looks forward to making the pies for the festival with anticipation, but breathes a sigh of relief when it’s over.
“I used to be one of the judges for the pie contest, but after baking over 100 pies, I got so I didn’t want to taste another cherry pie,” Kay said.
Tom Katsimpalis, curator of interpretation at the Loveland Museum, works with the Historical Society on the details of the festival while Historical Society volunteers have taken over the job of serving the delicious pies.
This year the Cherry Pie Festival will take place on July 20 from 6-9 p.m., at Peter’s Park, next to the Loveland Museum at Fifth and Lincoln. The Blue Grass Patriots will entertain while visitors enjoy cherry pie and ice cream, and dance in the street.
For more information, please call the Loveland Museum, (970) 962-2410.
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From June through September, John Etchart spends most of the day driving a tractor through hayfields below the mountains near Meeker in northwestern Colorado.