Jude Schuenemeyer is a historian. Rather than with pen and paper, though, Schuenemeyer tells the stories of Montezuma County with branches and leaves, apples and peaches. The history Schuenemeyer discovers is a history of the countys people told through the remnants of mighty orchards which once featured prominently into the agricultural landscape of Southwest Colorado.
Schuenemeyer and his wife, Addie, are co-founders of the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project and owners of Let It Grow Nursery and Garden Market. The Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project is an effort to propagate the rare fruit and vegetable genetics found in Montezuma County and to develop an economy for the fruit that will result from a revived orchard culture in the 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.
Like any good historian, Schuenemeyer has spent time with many people, discovering the depth of Montezuma Countys orchard past. One questions leads to another and another, and sometimes, if he is lucky, the answers lead to a tree with roots that reach deep into the Four Corners soil, and the past.
What separates the Schuenemeyers from other historians is their work is not simply academic. While others would be content to write out the history of the trees that once stood tall in this corner of the world, the couple completes their research with pruning and grafting tools, carefully choosing the right branch from an ancient tree to graft to fruit trees in their own orchard.
The Schuenemeyers own a nearly 300-tree orchard located where one of the countys historic orchards once stood in McElmo Canyon. The orchard provides a living 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.
So much of the work is matching the oral and living history with the tree, Schuenemeyer said. Once the people are gone, it is hard to go back to the descriptions and find the tree that matches the description. If we can find these heirloom trees, we can really work to preserve that history.
One prime example is the existence of a raspberry apple tree in the county, which might be the only tree of its kind left in the world, Schuenemeyer said.
It is extremely rare, thats for sure, he said.
Apples are a major focus of the work. From the mid-1800s up through the early 1900s, there were more than 17,000 apple varieties in the United States. Today there are roughly 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 hope is that the project will lead to a redevelopment of a viable fruit production industry in Montezuma County.
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.
A number of challenges lie ahead for the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project. One is simply finding accurate information and trees that are healthy enough for grafting. Another is finding a way to develop an economy for the fruit produced in the county.
Schuenemeyer said if even 10 percent of the likely fruit crop made it to local farmers markets, the price would bottom out.
That isnt good for the farmers markets or the farmers, he said. We have to find a larger economy.
A number of area growers have discussed the possibility of a cidery in the area, as well as a warehouse that would serve as a one-stop location for those interested in fruit purchases. A community orchard is also part of the discussion, as a way to give residents in Cortez a buy-in to the industry.
Schuenemeyer hopes local restaurants can be enticed to participate by incorporating more and more regional produce on their menus.
Its not enough to have just one or two cool little places doing it, Schuenemeyer said. We need the Dennys of the world willing to commit to local food for their menus.
In the meantime, the Schuenemeyers will continue to be the memory keepers for the areas orchards, telling the stories of the trees and saving history one graft at a time.
Reach Kimberly Benedict at email@example.com.