Ripe for Discovery
Fruita Rural Historic District, Capitol Reef National Park
In the sheltered canyon bottoms of south-central Utah, neatly-arranged fruit orchards continue to provide evidence of Euro-American settlement and subsistence practices in the area. Current visitors to the orchards can get a taste of the historic landscape by picking fruit in season.
A single piece of fruit might have been formed by one season of growth, but it has over a century of development under its skin.
The Fruita Rural Historic District
The Fruita Rural Historic District is defined by two canyons, intersecting at the confluence of Fremont River and Sulphur Creek. The steep canyon walls restricted views and development in the historic community, which encompasses about 200 acres of what is now Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park.
The period of significance for the Euro-American landscape begins in 1895, marked by the construction of the Leo R. Holt House and the earliest documented irrigation ditches in the valley. Leo Holt was one of four Mormon settlers that filed and received title to homesteads in the area, claiming nearly all the arable land in this region of the arid state. Before long, productive orchards dotted the developing homesteads.
The features of the landscape still illustrate the site’s role in the development of the local fruit industry and its ties to Mormon cultural traditions. The district provides an example of how cooperative agricultural practices allowed Mormon settlers to make a successful living, despite the challenging environment.
Today, the Fruita Rural Historic District contains a cluster of late 19th century and early 20th century Mormon farmhouses and associated features, as well as a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)-era rustic style Ranger Station. The landscape’s period of significance continues until 1947, after the park was established but prior to the Mission 66 park development era. The district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
The small town of Fruita is the location for the majority of visitor services, as well as park headquarters and operations. The Holt House has provided housing for park staff, and is currently used as a curatorial storage and work area.
An Agricultural Oasis
Mormon settlers were not the first to discover the agricultural potential of these canyon valleys. The earliest documented occupants of the Fruita region were members of the Desert Archaic Culture, dating to about 8,500 to 2,000 years ago. More recently, Fremont peoples (1,500-700 years ago) and then subsequent Paiute groups cultivated the area, growing corn and other crops with the help of irrigation systems. Evidence of storage structures suggests semi-permanent habitation.
The current landscape’s vegetation is dominated by the recent agricultural history of the canyon bottom. The historic district contains approximately 2,500 orchard trees on 40 acres, as well as 25 acres of open fields and pasture lands.
Additionally, vegetation along the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek reflects years of disturbance by flooding, grazing, irrigation works, and other impacts associated with farming practices dating from the 1880s.
Fruita has long been home to the families that lived and cultivated the valley. It also provided a vital oasis to travelers through the arid region with its green fields, orchards, and shady corners offering a splash of lush color against the dramatic canyon backdrop. The area invited visitors from plateau towns to the west and canyonlands in the east, and it was (and still is) a popular gathering place for celebrations and fruit harvests.
Continuing Harvest: Maintaining and Using Historic Orchards
Although many structures built during the period of significance have since been removed, the overall organization and pattern of the agricultural community remains. The location of orchards and many of the trees in them are historic, dating to the 1940s. Trees in poor condition have been replaced, and in some cases entire orchards of old, failing trees have been replanted to reflect the appearance of the historic landscape.
The NPS has gathered historical documentation of the Fruita District in a Cultural Landscape Report (1997), including acreage, information on historic and current trees, and changes in property ownership. Historic orchards are maintained using current horticultural practices, and fruit is harvested using a “pick-your-own” system and sold to the public.
- Information about the Orchards is provided at the Captiol Reef National Park website, including history, harvest information, approximate dates for flowering and harvesting, and a list of all the fruit and nut varieties.
- The park announces regular orchard updates at its Facebook and Twitter pages. Find out when you can get your own taste of Fruita!