About this time of year my mouth waters with thoughts of a plump red cherry. I grew up eating red cherries. I grew up in a cherry orchard -- first sitting in a box with my toys, then outlining "rooms" with rocks to play in, and finally picking and sorting the fruit. My siblings and I like talking about those days in the orchard -- who worked the hardest, which pickers we liked, who ate the most cherries (and paid for it later).
Our orchards were planted in the late teens of the 20th century by my grandfather William A. Montgomery on rocky ground sheltered from the frost of the valley just below the mountain road in North Ogden. Our dad bossed the cherry pickers -- a core group of family and young people glad to have a summer job, as well as Italian and German prisoners of war, and, one year, men sent from the Salvation Army in Ogden.
Looking back, individual pickers come to mind. First, an amazing boy with only part of one arm, the other whole, who came from the city and got around in the trees quite well and was a good worker. He came with boys who my dad picked up at Ogden's 7th Street. My cousin, Betty, shared picking trees with me. Aided in our work by ladders and sky hooks we fought our fears and thought of the money we'd earn. The sky hook was a heavy metal bar with one end shaped like a shepherd's staff with which we grabbed high limbs and pulled them down to us. My brothers Robert, and later Mike, picked the top of the tree's fruit and exhibited no fear for the heights. In fact, they seemed to enjoy it. Robert said he didn't fear falling. "I'd just grab a limb and save myself."
The crew hated it when we had to pick leaving the stems on the cherries. (It was much easier and faster to pull the fruit from the branch without stems.) These cherries were picked to be shipped for eating, not processing and the stems kept them fresh longer. After sorting, they were put in smaller boxes we hammered together (my favorite job).
My sister Rosemary and I waited for the day when we could be sorters. It seemed a step up from picking but was just as hard. We stood at a wooden table with a burlap top that held the cherries. We scooped our hands into them and checked for any disfigured, rotten, or otherwise not up to par fruit. The good were thrown into table level boxes, while we tossed the culls into lugs (large fruit boxes) on the ground.
Dad supervised and made sure whoever manned the scales made accurate readings of pounds of cherries picked and saw the numbers correctly recorded. Years later many former pickers recalled his honesty and how well he treated them. One man said sometimes he would come to pick as a youth and there would be no work and Dad seemed to truly feel bad when he had to turn him away. In contrast, one cherry boss in another orchard was known as Skimmer. He worked his pickers hard and made them go back and pick cherries they had missed. In our orchard we valued the work done by our crew and only a few lazy individuals stayed long. Dad paid wages promptly. At the end of the season we treated the crew to watermelon or pop.
So all this leads up to Cherry Day, celebrated yesterday in North Ogden, a celebration which began in 1932 to bring awareness to folks around the state and area of the availability of this wonderful fruit. Through the years the day was marked by parades, boxing matches, baseball games, horse pulling, kids races, and plenty of food to eat, including bagged cherries.
Fruit growers competed for prizes and displayed their best cherries, young girls vied for celebration royalty. One year Lou Gladwell, a Standard-Examiner reporter, wrote: "The Cherry was king of Weber county agriculture today. It was proclaimed such by hundreds of loyal subjects gathered ... for [a] day long celebration."
Growers who submitted cherries for judging packed them to look appealing. The first layer were carefully lined up in a symmetrical pattern on top of two crisp red papers situated to meet in the middle of the box. Then loose cherries filled the rest of the cavity. When full, the bottom of the box was carefully nailed on, the box turned over and the top of the box removed revealing the shiny cherries in even lines shaded by the bright paper.
My cousin Betty remembers her mother sewed a red, white and blue dress for her to wear to the celebration. One year I inherited a print dress, white with red cherries, that I wore proudly to the event. Robert participated in baseball and my younger brother Mike may have, too. I joined my little sisters Sylvia and Laurie in the grandstand to watch the proceedings and eat our cherries and lots of goodies.
Probably the most prolific fruit¬ grower in North Ogden was Henry Hall.¬ Whereas we had 15-20 pickers at a time, he had 100.¬ A son, George, recalled they paid their pickers 1/2 cent a pound.¬ During Cherry Day they would bring a hundred boxes to be displayed and judged.¬ Not until about three years ago did they cease shipping their fruit.¬ At that time¬ Henry and his brother George¬ divided some of their land into lots for building hoping to live on the interest.¬ I agreed with him¬ that we miss the time when agriculture¬ dominated the culture of North Ogden
As orchards aged, farmers removed them and planted field crops or sold the ground for houses. By this time fruit from the Northwest, which matured earlier, also flooded the Utah market. Orchard owners' children turned to professions and an era ended.
But Cherry Day lives on. My current North Ogden relatives love the parade, a grandson and daughter-in-law compete in the races. They enjoy the entertainment, the fireworks and the food. It's a great celebration for them as it was for me even though the cherry is no longer king.