Most of us drive down the local roads and pay little attention to the cattle grazing in nearby pastures. But what would you do if instead you saw 10 or 20 people picking Oklahoma’s state fruit, the strawberry?
Even before statehood, area farmers realized that Blue County was particularly suited for growing fruits and nuts. In 1905, the area around Durant boasted nearly 600 acres of watermelons, peaches, strawberries and cantaloupes. Several issues of the local newspaper presented advice on growing and harvesting strawberries. A year later, there were over 1,000 acres of property in the Durant area planted in peaches, apples, pears, plums, cherries, mulberries, apricots, nut trees and berries. The 300 acres of berries included strawberries, raspberries, dewberries, gooseberries and currants.
One of the earliest specific accounts of the Durant berry growers can be found in a local newspaper in the spring of 1908. B.H. McAlester owned 80 acres of strawberries, W.S. Trimmel had 30, the McNally brothers had 85, Dr. Schuller has 15, and Mr. McLeary had 10. Of course, the berries had to be harvested and advertisements went out for pickers. Most were experienced, having been employed as pickers throughout Oklahoma and Arkansas. For many years, there was a quite a competitive attitude between Arkansas and the Territory.
In 1912, the rate of pay was 1¾ cents per quart. Roy Gray, from Matoy, headed to the fields in 1922. Mr. and Mrs. Clayton left Silo for two weeks in 1933 to pick in Arkansas. In the ’40s, there were so many people employed picking strawberries each year that the Oklahoma State Employment service encouraged workers to register so they could be evenly distributed where they were most in demand.
At the end of the 1908 harvest, Mr. McAlester reported a profit of $3,000 even after expenses of $1,500 for pickers and crates. Estimated profits for the county were $20,000. 1913 found most growers still doing a good business. The price was $3.25 a crate, most of which were quickly bought up by local stores.
Over the years, strawberry growers endured the usual farmers’ woes - weather, insects, changing markets and competition. Other crops now dominate the landscape, and today we may have to drive to Stilwell to see vast fields of strawberries. They’ve hosted an annual Strawberry Festival since 1948. However, Bryan County still has great soil for fruit, and all of us would make our ancestors proud by planting a few rows of sweet history in our home gardens each spring.
The strawberry was chosen as our state fruit by Pam Bell’s fifth grade students from Skiatook Elementary School after they discovered that Oklahoma did not have an official state fruit. They suggested the strawberry because it is still grown in at least eight Oklahoma counties and is also the top fruit crop of home gardeners. Gov. Brad Henry made it official on May 19, 2005.
Bryan County History is a weekly feature contributed by members of the Bryan County Genealogy Library and Archives in Calera. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group. Is there a historic event or topic you want to read about? Contact the library at P.O. Box 153, Calera, OK 74730.