If you grew up here in the once Apricot Capital of California you might recognize these. I’m sure, you remember the sweet and juicy taste when popping them in your mouth. There was a time when this valley abounded with Apricot trees. The Royal Blenheim. A great name for a great tree.
The tree was first planted here in the late 17th century and early 18th by the Franciscan mission padres. In those days the row crops you see today were nonexistent. Vegetable growing was local, not national as it is today. Fresh fruits and vegetables couldn’t be shipped very far because the transportation system as we know it did not exist. In the late 1780’s, the apricot tree was first planted at the mission asistencia (sub-mission) in Santa Margarita. This assistant mission, Santa Margarita de Cortona, parts of which still exist, is on the Rancho Santa Margarita. The Santa Margarita was located about ten miles northeast of Mission San Luis Obispo and about 30 miles south of Mission San Miguel. Padres from these missions as well as from Mission San Antonio de Padua sometimes met at Santa Margarita to visit and to discuss religious matters.
From its beginning as a rancho, Santa Margarita was a success. It covered 17,000 acres with grain fields, orchards and pastures for cattle, sheep and horses. As an asistencia, it had a chapel, priests’ quarters, storage rooms, a mill, and tallow vats. It was a stopping place for travelers on El Camino Real.
ASISTANCIA SANTA MARGARITA de CORTONA TODAY
The California missions were established in a chain along the coast line, none of them far from the ocean. The only way to transport large quantities of goods and materials was by sea. The Franciscan padres realized that there were many Native Californians living inland, away from the coast, who were not being brought into the missions. They wanted to establish more missions inland, but the government officials did not agree with this. As a compromise, the padres were allowed to build sub-missions, or asistencias, in places where there was an Indian population that was not coming to the main mission. The asistencia served as a sub-mission or branch of the “mother” mission. The asistencia was much smaller than the main mission, though there were living quarters, workshops and crops in addition to a church. Many missions had large ranchos or estancias at some distance from the mission compound. More than 20 of these estancias had small chapels for the use of the people who worked and lived at the rancho. A padre would come occasionally to conduct services at the estancia chapel. These chapels were sometimes referred to as asistencias, but were not considered as sub-missions according to church records. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa had at least two estancias. The Corral de Piedra ( stone corral ) in Edna valley which was later granted to the ranchero Jose Villavicencia in 1840. In the Arroyo Grande, Los Corralitos ( little corrals ) was located in the eponymously named little valley in the upper arroyo. It was also part of the original Rancho Corral de Piedra which encompassed 30,911 acres or just over 48 square miles.
After the mission system was abolished and the rancheros were granted the old mission lands, the apricot trees remained and as the Arroyo Grande was slowly cleared of cienegas and tulares, the rich soils beneath were exposed and planted. As with all farming, crops were planted which were in demand by consumers and were only limited by the mechanisms by which they went to market. In the early days only crops which could be dried or eaten when fresh were grown. By the time Arroyo Grande became an established township in 1862 only a few small areas of ground were planted with crops as the primary economic concern of the Rancheros such as Don Francisco Branch, Capt William Dana and Don Juan Miguel Price, was cattle which had long been the only export from California. Vast herds of cattle were trailed north to the gold country in the 1850’s and 60’s. During the great drought which began in the late 1850’s and lasted off and on until about 1903 the cattle industry was destroyed and the old rancheros gradually sold off their land giving rise to the nascent vegetable industry.
Francis Branch died in 1874 and his property was willed to his children and the great Ranchos he owned were broken up and sold to speculators and farmers who completed the final clearing of the Arroyo Grande. In 1882 the little narrow gauge Pacific Coast Railroad connected the little towns of San Luis and Northern Santa Barbara counties and for the first time crops could be shipped long distances by sea. Between San Luis Obispo and the coast was a spur to Port Harford where large ships could be loaded. Any vegetable or fruit that could survive the trip to San Francisco, San Pedro and San Diego by sea could now be grown in quantity.
Apricots, apples and walnut orchards sprang up all over the valley. Apricots were dried and shipped by sea to customers all over the world. The particular tree grown here was the Blenheim. Small, freckled and juicy, it was ideal for drying.
THE PARRISH ORCHARD ON THE OLD SANTA MANUELA.
The apricot tree likely originated in eastern Armenia and was said to have been imported into Greece by Alexander the Great. The only problem with that story is, he never returned to Greece. He died in Babylon in what is now Iraq in 323 BC. It’s funny to think of old Alex being yelled at by his wife Roxana for dropping the bag of cots when riding his horse Bucephalus back to the palace after his trip to the store.
Whatever the story, the tree was introduced to Italy by the Romans and later to Spain. The Spanish conquistadors brought the cot to the new world where it made its way to Alta California, carried and planted at the missions by the Franciscan fathers who built and manned them. Trees may have been introduced to El Canon de Los Corralitos in the 1780’s by the mission fathers and Apricot trees still grow there.
The Blenheim variety was cultivated and perfected in the greenhouses of John Churchill the 1st Duke of Marlborough, a british peer and the head of the ennobled family which produced Sir Winston Churchill and Lady Diana Spencer. Known now as the Royal Blenheim it is the variety that was and is grown here in our valley.
BLENHEIM HOUSE, WOODSTOCK, OXFORDSHIRE, GREAT BRITIAN
My grandfather John Shannon lived on Printz road on 13 acres of orchards planted in Apricots. He grew Cots, Plums and chickens for eggs which he sold downtown as you can see in the advertisements printed in the back issues of the old Arroyo Grande Herald. When I was young, in the nineteen fifties, old man Parrish had one of the last of these orchards on the property next to our farm. He grew several varieties of apples, apricots, peaches and walnuts. By the time I was in high school it was all gone. Ripped up and burned and replaced by the row crops that are familiar today. The only surviving orchards were a few walnuts along Valley road and the apricot orchards of the Greibs, along lower Arroyo creek where the hospital is now and “Coot” Sevier’s orchard out on Branch Mill and Huasna roads. It was, for many kids a right of passage to work in the orchards in the 1950’s and 60’s. Boys picked and worked the dryers and teenage girls and their little sisters worked in the cutting shed where the apricots were sliced in half and pitted, set on trays and moved by little carts on rails into the sheds where sulfur was burned beneath them to complete the drying process. I worked one summer for “Coot”and did all these jobs, my favorite being the sheds where I could flirt with Carmen Baca’s sister Allegra and eat my fill of the most delicious fruit ever. All for a dollar an hour.
Today, we have two of these trees in our back yard. Our problem is that we eat them as soon as they are ripe so it’s rare to even get them in the house. We never consider the long road they have taken to get here next to our little house. The bowl of fruit pictured at the top has the last of this years crop. All gone. Too soon. Wait ’til next year.
DRIED BLENHEIM APRICOTS