Rohse: Prunes were once a treasure of local ag

News-Register file photo
News-Register file photo

When we have no gold fields to prospect, we look elsewhere for gold. For a time, Yamhill County farmers counted on prunes for that wealth.

It is true that the prune was well known for its laxative effect, but it acquired considerable fame for other reasons — although perhaps not for the value of gold.
One reason for this fame was that no one knew the fruit’s name. Was it a plum? Was it a prune? Was it both?

A suggested definition seeking to resolve that question was, “All prunes are plums but not all plums are prunes.”

And perhaps this is helpful: “A prune is a dried plum of any cultivar.”

Says another source: “The use of the term prune for fresh fruit is obsolete — except when applied to varieties grown for drying.” All of which still leaves one a bit uncertain as to what to call this fruit.

But the prune is one of few fruits to have the U.S. government intercede on its behalf.

Early in the history of the prune, the discovery was made as to its efficiency as a laxative. But the public after a time began to view the prune primarily as a remedy, and it became the butt of joking in that regard.

The prune industry, fearing that would affect sales, appealed to Congress for the right to call a prune a “dried plum.” Approval was given. The prune became a plum.

The prune added more to its fame in California in 1905 during a labor shortage. Some prune growers used monkeys to harvest dried plums.
Can any other fruit make that claim?

The prune also challenged the use of “cheese” as the expression understood by all with regard to photos. In early days of photography, when a person was having his picture taken, he had to remain motionless for l5 minutes. No sneezing, talking, adjusting. Smiling required too many muscles and expressions could not change during the process. Only the wealthy could in those days afford to have a picture taken, and they regarded smiling as symbolic of peasants and children.

A British photographer then made an interesting discovery. He noted that when his subjects said “prune” it required an advantageous “tightening of the lips.”
But before “cheese” could be displaced by “prune,” fast modern photography changed the picture and the use of “cheese” continued. Today, we still are told to say “cheese” — but look in the mirror to see which becomes you more. I shall henceforth say “prune.”

Although farmers did not strike gold with their prune orchards, the prune became important in Yamhill County agriculture.

“Cultural Resources Inventory, Yamhill County (1984)” noted: “Prunes continued as one of the most important crops — especially from 1910 to 1913, during which production for the Sheridan area exceeded the over-all production of the whole Willamette Valley (Sheridan Sun, 1984).”

Dayton Evaporating Company was a major buyer of prunes in the districts of Whiteson, Buell, McMinnville, Amity, Dundee. “Old Yamhill” notes, “Big wagons were loaded and the horses pulled the loads into the plant. Sometimes the loads of fruit would be lined up for a block waiting to unload at the plant ... .”

An Oregon Bureau of Labor report, 1908, advised: “Most of the Dundee business people are involved in either raising or packing fruit, mostly prunes.”
In Yamhill, Ed Snyder had a patent on a stack dryer for prunes, and one was built on Third Street.

Cyrus and Louis Hoskins were active in production of many varieties of plum trees. Their efforts resulted in several acres of the trees being planted along the side of Chehalem Mountain.

World War I brought much impetus to the sale of prunes. Dried fruit products were in demand for military overseas, prolonging prune production.

But the war’s end brought a considerable market decline, forcing many growers to sell to canneries that required a much greener product, making less fruit usable. In the late ‘20s many growers grubbed out trees, replacing them with walnut or filberts.

WWII again increased demand, but with accompanying problems: shortages of farm labor, equipment and supplies; urbanization; rationing.

However, the prune was a fighter. In 1932, it had produced prune juice. Then came tenderized prunes likened to candy — sweet treats with only 30 calories and high moisture, and bulk-packed cartons, wax paper-lined inserts, box fillers and lids. In the early 1960s, a more attractive pitted prune arrived on the market and became the popular choice.

And then came more acclaim for the prune. In 1985, the California Dried Plum Board launched advertising and promotions stressing the dried fruit’s high fiber content at a time when high-fiber cereals touted the ability to reduce the incidences of cancer.

Research discovered benefits galore surrounding this lowly fruit. Prunes contained 7 percent dietary fiber; 2 percent protein; less than 1 percent fat. They are a rich source of Vitamin B, and dietary minerals. They protect against cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses. They may ward off high cholesterol, help prevent Type 2 diabetes and obesity. Prunes help one feel full, so act to prevent overeating. A study in 2011 indicated that prunes and plums can even reverse signs of aging by helping reduce bone loss and improving circulation. The contention is that they can make you feel happier.

True, all these wonderful capabilities are not fully documented, but it appears that the humble fruit might become a hero in the health field.

And finally, there is this: The April 2011 issue of “Alimentary Pharmacology Therapeutics” reported that, as a result of research, prunes were found to be a more effective laxative than psyllium — and surely that is a claim to fame.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at rohse5257@comcast.net.