Sandhills fruit of yesteryear
As homesteaders started to claim the Sandhills of Nebraska in the early 1900s they found that fruit was at a premium and scarce for even those who could afford it. Even those homesteaders who brought fruit plantings with them found that even though these plants flourished in the area from which they originated, they often didn’t adapt well to the sandy soil and the harsh Nebraska climate. Even those few fruit trees and bushes that did adapt took several years to mature and produce fruit. The chokecherry, and to a limited extent, the current bushes were the only native Sandhill fruit plants.
So, in the interim period, Sandhillers had to satisfy their craving for fruit by resorting mostly to dried and canned fruit. More Sandhillers ate dried fruit for it was reasonably priced while the canned fruit was more expensive. Several varieties of dried fruit were available. Most common was the dried plum or prune and the dried grape or raisin. They dominated the market but dried apricots, pears, apples, dates and figs were also available. These dried fruits could be eaten as purchased but were more commonly stewed. They could also be cut up and added to cookie or cake batter or even bread dough to give them added flavor. It was said that if dried fruit was stewed and placed out to eat several times without success, it could be encircled by a pie crust, and then it would be eaten!
As we progressed into the 1920s and 1930s, more fruit trees and bushes became adapted to the Sandhill environment. Jules Sandoz, with his vast knowledge of horticulture, introduced many new varieties of fruit into the area and his orchards produced hundreds of bushels of fruit for the people of the region. I remember going with my parents and neighbors to his orchard where we would spend the day picking fruit, mostly crab apples, for our use. We ate these apples raw, cooked them for sauce and pies and even pickled some for winter use. Cuttings from his orchard help to produce many fine fruit gardens for the Sandhillers.
My step-grandfather, John Redig, was an avid gardener and planted many fruit trees and bushes at our ranch north of Bingham, Neb. We had plums, chokecherries, both black and red raspberries, currents, strawberries and a rather tart blue grape that was used primarily for his wine making. One unique fruit that we had was a compass cherry which was a hybrid of a plum and a cherry. With this wide variety of fruit, my parents made many jars of jams, jellies and preserves. Occasionally, when a batch did not jell properly, we made it into a fruit syrup. This we saved for our pancakes or waffles and it was quite tasty.
My other grandfather, John Wesley Cameron, was born and raised in Iowa so was familiar with the fine apples that grew there. Being somewhat of an entrepreneur, he would order a freight car load of apples from Iowa to be placed on the siding at Bingham where people from the surrounding area who saw his advertisements would come and buy the apples right out of the car. Along with the apples, came a barrel of apple cider which Grandpa doled out in a tin cup to his customers. The same tin cup for everyone of course.
In the early 1930s, with the development of the refrigerator car, fresh fruit was being shipped into the Sandhills by rail. I recall that my mother would wait for the Western Slope (Colorado) peaches to come in because they were the tastiest and best to can. By this time other fruits such as apples, pears and apricots were being shipped in to satisfy our hunger for fresh fruit. Even bananas came to the stores often hanging from the original stocks. Fresh fruit was still rather expensive and, of course, seasonal.
And no article about Sandhill fruit could be complete without mentioning the native sand cherry. They grew somewhat sparsely in the sandy areas. We always kept a watchful eye for them as we rode the range. And it seemed that those berries that ripened and were covered by blow sand were always the sweetest. I hope that they still grow in the Sandhills for they were a special treat when found!
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