The Mesa Orchards Company began as a cooperative in 1911. Investors, often from the East, purchased ten-acre plots for $500 an acre. The early money went into an essential project. Before you can become one of the largest apple suppliers in the world, you need to have a lot of apple trees, which require a lot of water, which, in the case of Mesa Orchards, required the building of six miles of flume from a new reservoir constructed for the operation.
Maintenance of the flume, care of the trees, and the harvest of fruit—including some peaches and pears—took a lot of people. Some 50 families lived in the little community of Mesa. It had its own post office, a company store, and a two-room school.
At its peak the Mesa Orchards Company boasted some 1500 acres of orchards, planted 80 trees to the acre. The operation was so big they built a 3 ½ mile aerial tramway to transport boxes of apples to the Mesa railroad siding. It was a tourist attraction. One 1922 story in the Idaho Statesman started with the comment that “like most travelers along the highway, we halted at Mesa, where a model community has been erected for the benefit of workers.” The year before, more than 120 train cars full of apples and peaches had been shipped to different parts of the country “commanding fancy prices in New York State.”
The Mesa Orchards Company had some million-dollar years, but the downs were more frequent than the ups. One year jackrabbits killed a lot of fruit trees when winter conditions had the critters chewing the bark from around their base. In 1920 a packinghouse fire burned through 50,000 boxes of apples.
There were early freezes, and poor markets. Managers came and went. Finally, in 1954, the property was sold to a ranching family from Montana. By the time Brian and Emma Ball purchased the property the operation was down to about 700 acres of fruit trees. They were planning to make a go of it in the fruit business. A late frost put the kibosh on that, ruining 40,000 boxes of freshly picked apples that were sitting under the trees, along with some 100,000 boxes still to be picked.
What remained of the trees were uprooted in 1967. The tramway that had become a tourist attraction was purchased by a mining company. They took down the towers and moved the whole contraption out of state.
A few abandoned sections of the flume are today about the only signs that one of the world’s biggest apple operations once thrived at Mesa.
To learn more about Mesa Orchards, I recommend Cort Conley’s book, Idaho for the Curious, which is where I found much of the information for this column.