Cherries are one of America’s most popular fruits. During the early half of the twentieth century, the fruit was also an important industry in Pierce County, and people in Tacoma found many ways to enjoy them.

Cherry Farming in Pierce County

Settlers in the region planted fruit trees as soon as possible, and cherry farming developed into one of Pierce County’s largest fruit industries. In a 1909 article about Western Washington’s “cherry lands,” boosters assured Tacoma Ledger readers that a few acres of cherry trees could earn a family a “snug income.”

The Puyallup Valley was a center of cherry farming in Pierce County. Canneries were built in the valley and Tacoma to process the fruit for sale. The Tacoma YMCA even ran a cherry harvest for boys at the William Hatch ranch for many years near Alderton. Billed as “character building,” the boys picked cherries for six to eight hours daily, paid by the pound. In 1938, the group harvested about 6,000 pounds of cherries per day.

Tacoma Peirce County Cherries
As seen here in this image from the August 27, 1933 issue of the Tacoma Ledger, the Tacoma YMCA sent teen boys to harvest cherries at the William Hatch ranch near Alderton for many years. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

Buying Cherries in Tacoma

Cherries were a staple in Tacoma. Area bakeries used cherries in many ways, especially for George Washington’s February birthday. In 1935, Roberts Brothers Food Store, Division at I Street, even sold hatchet-shaped cookies, “a holiday novelty,” topped with cherries. Their usual cherry options were angel food cake, layer cake, coffee rolls and, of course, pie. They used fresh frozen cherries, then an exciting new innovation, for their pies.

Local soda fountains, at the time enjoying the height of their popularity, also served cherries. Besides the proverbial maraschino “cherry on top” of sundaes, stores sold locally made cherry ice cream made with crushed fresh cherries as well as cherry sundaes. In 1918, Spencer, 917 Broadway Street, announced their new 20-cent seasonal treat in a Tacoma News Tribune ad. “Cherries are ripe, and today our special is fresh Cherry Sundae made from the finest ice cream and the fanciest of Bing Cherries pitted by our machine, which keeps them whole and delicious.”

Tacoma Peirce County Cherries
This ad from the June 15, 1944 issue of the Tacoma New Tribune shows the many ways that Crescent Flavors and Colors could be used with cherries. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

Tacoma Eats Cherries

Recipes for cherries were frequently published in Tacoma newspapers for everything from tapioca pudding to popcorn balls and fruit soup! With limited shipping available and freezing rare, canning and preserving still made cherries a year-round treat. “Cherries on the tree are a thing of the past,” remarked Ann Meredith in 1939, “but cherries in the jar must be occupying a shelf in your fruit closet.”

There seemed no end to what cooks could create with cherries. “The ambitious housewife,” Florence R. Wade was quoted on the Tacoma Ledger’s Pure Food Page in 1923, “can not only make delicious pies, puddings, ices, punches and salads of the fresh fruits but can carry over for the winter all sorts of delightful canned, preserved, candied and pickled cherries.” But by far, the most popular choice was cherry pie. “There’s no greater gastronomic joy,” commented the Tacoma Times in 1912, “than a slice from a cherry pie just like mother used to make.”

Ann Meredith’s “Mixing Bowl,” a regular Tacoma News Tribune recipe column during the 1930s and 1940s, offered various ideas for cooking with cherries. One of her more unusual ideas was a 1936 recipe for “cherry rice,” a version of “glorified rice.” She mixed rice with whipped cream and canned red cherries, topping it with cherry syrup and maraschinos. That’s a lot of cherry in one dish!

Throughout her columns, Meredith maintained a cheerful banter with her readers. For example, in 1933, when writing about making maraschino cherries, she cautioned readers against making the green mint variety without properly preparing the fruit first. “I tried them once without bleaching,” she wrote, “and produced something that looked as if the plague had marked it.” She added that the syrup produced with the maraschinos could top ice cream. In her opinion, it was the “best part” of the recipe!

Tacoma Peirce County Cherries
Aunt Jenny, Spry shortening’s mascot, promised “the tastiest filling and tenderest crust you ever ate!” with this red cherry pie recipe. Image from Tacoma News Tribune, February 18, 1938. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

Cherry Parties in Tacoma

Cherries were seen as cheerful fruits, and they were trendy at President Washington’s birthday-themed parties. The legend goes that as a child, George Washington chopped down a cherry tree. Caught by his father, the boy confessed, saying, “I cannot tell a lie.” Although this never happened, Washington and cherries have been inseparable ever since.

Washington’s Birthday parties were prevalent for children. According to a February 1910 Woman’s Home Companion article reprinted in the Tacoma News Tribune, children could play a version of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey with cherries. Setting up a dead sapling decorated with green tissue paper “leaves” in the corner of a room, children tried to pin cranberries, symbolizing cherries, to it while blindfolded.

Appropriately for these parties, cherries were also on the menu, usually as pie. However, a 1934 newspaper article by Lydia Le Baron Walker, author of “Homecraft Rugs,” suggested making cherry and chicken salad sandwiches, cutting bread in triangles and “dot each with half a red cherry put between two small leaves of watercress.”

Life is a Can of Cherries

In the early twentieth century, people found many ways to enjoy and celebrate cherries. “Cheer up, cherries are ripe” became a proverb. “Life may be more than just a can of cherries,” remarked the Ledger in 1939, playing off the 1931 hit song “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” but the delicious fruit “will make it seem pretty complete for the time being.”