During the so-called “Apple Boom” of the early 1900s, local investors bought land and began to plant thousands of trees even before an irrigation system in was in place. They then began to promote, in eastern states, the advantages of owning these tracts. Land which had been purchased for $2 to $15 an acre was sold to eastern buyers at $400 to $1000 an acre on the promise buyers could make a lot of money with very little effort. “Just sit back and cash your checks” was the motto of the marketing campaign. The “Big Ditch” irrigation system was developed in conjunction with the sale of orchard tracts. Without this, the valley would have remained what it had been for centuries – a sagebrush desert dotted with cottonwoods near streams. For a while, many buyers prospered by selling their apples, particularly the MacIntosh variety, nationwide. By 1920, there were over 700,000 fruit trees in the valley. However, as the boom began to fade, the vast majority lost their life savings; most of the orchard tracts were eventually abandoned. Only around 40,000 fruit trees were still producing by 1950.
As part of the grand orchard development, Frank Lloyd Wright laid out a design for a new village to be named “Bitter Root” to be located about six miles north of Stevensville. However, the only structure to actually get built was the Bitter Root Inn, which for a time, was used to wine and dine potential eastern buyers. As the apple boom began to fade, the inn fell into disrepair and eventually burned to ground in the mid 1920s.
Competition from Washington, the infestation of coddling moths and frosts of 1921 all combined to devastate fruit growers. In desperation, growers attempted to form cooperatives, only to have these eventually fail due to internal bickering. In one instance, members of the coop packing shed (now home of the Iron Horse Athletic Club) were offered a premium of 5 cents per box. They loaded five carloads to be shipped to St. Louis. Unfortunately, the coop was never paid. Not heeding the old saying “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”, they again fell for a similar scheme the very next year.
During the agricultural depression of the 1920s, most of the fruit trees were removed and replaced by dairy farms. In addition, sugar beet planting was becoming more important (the smokestack north of Hamilton was the only structure built of a proposed beet processing factory).
Agriculture in the valley has long had a tie to the food needs of the towns of Anaconda and Butte. Initially, fruits and vegetables were delivered to these locales by trail, later replaced by trucks using the rudimentary Skalkaho Road.
After the courthouse building boom in the early 1900s, former stonemasons became producers of fruits, berries and vegetables. At that time, they depended on Native Americans for the backbreaking work of planting, tending, and harvesting of various crops (so-called “stoop” labor). Later, Mexicans were brought in under the ‘bracero’ program to perform this kind of work.
As farmers aged and labor sources dried up, fruit and berry production faded. In addition, the closing of the mines in Butte resulted in the loss of thousands of customers. With a couple of exceptions, fruit and berry farming is now in the hands of a few hardy souls who ply their wares at local farmers markets.