Montezuma County has a secret: mighty fruit orchards that once dominated the Southwest Colorado landscape.
Now a McElmo Canyon grower is trying to revive heirloom fruits once abundant in the county and bring back what he says is a forgotten part of the areas past.
Jude Schuenemeyer and his wife, Addie, are co-founders of the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project. The couple owns Let It Grow Nursery and Garden Market, and Jude Schuenemeyer says he wants to propagate rare fruit and vegetable genetics found in Montezuma County.
The more we study the fruit that used to come out of this county, the more we become aware of how massive the fruit industry was and how skilled these people were, Schuenemeyer said. These were really professional orchard people.
The Schuenemeyers own a nearly 300-tree grove located where one of the countys historic orchards once stood. The Schuenemeyers stand provides a laboratory for grafting pieces of historic trees and creating whips to give back to the original trees owners, bringing a piece of living history back to the place where the parent tree has stood for more than 100 years.
For example, Scheuenemeyer has found a raspberry apple tree in the county, which he says might be the only tree of its kind left in the world.
It is extremely rare, thats for sure, he said.
Apples are a major focus of the work. From the mid-1800s and into the early 1900s, there were more than 17,000 apple varieties in the United States. Today, there are about 6,000 in the world.
A lot of that work to develop many of those varieties has just simply disappeared, especially in this county, a place that was once known for its fruit, Schuenemeyer said.
Montezuma County, and McElmo Canyon in particular, was the premier spot for orchard development in the early 1900s. In 1914, Colorado was awarded three gold medals in fruit production from the World Fair, and two of those went to orchards in McElmo.
Schuenemeyer hopes that by gathering the oral histories of the orchard industry in the county, finding historic trees and using grafts to bring those varieties back to life, the county can begin to reclaim part of its history.
The ultimate goal is to restore orchard culture here, Schuenemeyer said. We want to go out and do the preservation work and find these rare genetics and save them, and then get as many orchards in as we can and in good condition and find a way to make the orchards in the area commercially viable.