WHO • WHAT • WHERE
In The Desert Cities of Coachella Valley
Photo by Crystle Photography
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Copyright 2006 Coachella Valley Historical Society
Source: The Periscope 2006 - Publication of the Coachella Valley Historical Society
As Paul Harvey used to say, "the rest of the story" is often more interesting than the bare facts of any account of a happening or person. That is so true of the origin and development of the date industry in Coachella Valley. It is a story of curious, creative and courageous men venturing into the Arab world a hundred years ago to find and bring back a new food crop for the United States. Among them were Walter Tennyson Swingle, Paul and Wilson Popenoe, Bernard Johnson, Henry Simon and S.C. Mason. Foremost among them was Walter Swingle, the acknowledged 'Father of the Date Industry' in the United States.
1920 photo at the USDA Garden in Indio, California includes Silas C. Mason, Frank Thackery and Dr. Walter Swingle
Photo from The Periscope 2006
Swingle was born January 8, 1871 on a farm in Pennsylvania, the son of John Fletcher Swingle and Mary Astley Swingle. When Walter was two years old, the family moved to a farm near Manhattan, Kansas. He helped his father with farm chores and fell in love with plants. If no one could tell him what they were, he made up names for them. It was fortunate that Manhattan was the seat of the Kansas Agricultural College and Experiment Station for one Professor, William Kellerman, took the seventeen year-old plant lover under his wing and broadened his natural interest in systematic botany. Kellerman was a pioneer in the study of plant diseases and Swingle entered this new field with the enthusiasm which characterized his 81 years of life. He was only sixteen when he read a paper on the rust of cereals before the College Scientific Society. He made life-long friends at the college, including David Fairchild who became his associate in the Department of Agriculture and Frank Thackery who joined him in the date work in Indio. Swingle received his B.S. degree in 1890 and left for his life-long career in the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1891. Since he was not yet 21 years old, he could not accept the job without parental permission!
Agriculture was the most important industry in the United States at this time. New areas were opening up to farming and new crops were being sought. Swingle's first thrill came when he accepted an assignment to look into what was ailing orange trees. The Kansas farm boy wrote back to friends saying "orange trees look something like oaks, but had orange-colored fruits hanging from the branches". Almost at once he undertook the cross-breeding of all kinds of citrus then known there. The Minneola tangelo, one of today's prized varieties, was one of his successes.
As an agricultural explorer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, beginning in 1898, Swingle made many trips to study the agriculture and botany of southern Europe, north Africa, the Near East, China, Japan and the Philippines. During his first year overseas he discovered the reason fig growers in the United States could not successfully produce figs of the Smyrna variety. A fig insect (Blastophaga) was required for pollination and Swingle sent some of the insects back in figs wrapped in tinfoil from Algiers. The insects multiplied and California's barren fig orchards became heavy producers of excellent quality fruit.
While in Algeria Swingle became interested in the date palms grown there on a large scale. This was the first time he had seen commercial date culture. He learned that a French company had large plantings at Ourlana, about 125 miles south of Biskra, in an irrigated oasis. He went to the Biskra sales office of the company to inquire about dates and their culture. The salesman in charge was not interested in explaining date culture - he was selling dates and as Swingle did not buy any, he closed the window "right in my face," as Swingle put it.
In the spring of 1899 Swingle made an experimental shipment of six Deglet Noor offshoots which were sent to Arizona, but through lack of proper handling they all died after being planted out. An exhaustive study of climatic and soil factors in the North African oasis convinced him that the required conditions could be duplicated in the southwest United States and in 1900 he went back to Algeria, determined to introduce date culture into the United States. This is his description of the trip:
"I reached France in the spring of 1900 and, still smarting from my embarrassment at the window being shut in my face in Algiers, when I had asked for information about dates, I put on my top hat and frock coat and called at the Paris office of the largest date-growing company in Algeria. The head of the company was Monsieur Foureau, the brother of the famous French explorer, F. Foureau, who at that time was making the first trans-Saharan military expedition, after more than twenty years exploration in North Aftrica.
Walter Tennyson Swingle
"I told Monsieur Foureau that I would like to have the help of his company in North Africa in obtaining offshoots for trial at the newly established date garden in Arizona. Fortunately I mentioned that from this garden we expected to supply California with a complete collection of the varieties we secured. At this point he interrupted me and said, 'Now that you mention California, I will tell you that I have a warm spot in my heart for California. When I was a young man my mother sent me around the world in the hope of building up my health, which at that time was bad and continued bad until I reached California. There I recovered rapidly the health which I have never lost since, and I am profoundly grateful to California for this priceless gift.' He thereupon wrote three letters, as President of the Company, to his three leading employees of the Algerian date plantings. He also wrote personal letters to all three, endorsing me most warmly and asking them to do everything they could to help me.
"The oldest and most experienced employee was a Frenchman over eighty years old, who spoke and wrote Arabic, and Monsieur Foureau asked him to accompany me into the plantings at Ourlana, about 125 miles south of Biskra about the middle of May. The weather was already very hot and my companion was unable to travel in the daytime. We had to travel at night when the weather was still cool, and to sleep in the daytime in the thick-walled forts where the French travelers spent the night, protected against enemy raids. When we reached Ourlana, I bought several hundred date offshoots, had their leaves trimmed, put them in bags and had them ready for shipment by camel caravan to Biskra, where the railroad would carry them to Algiers. At this moment the French Military Government seized all of the camel caravans in this part of the Sahara, because of the threatened rebellion by some of the fighting natives who had not as yet accepted French rule!
"This was the height of misfortune for me, for I would have to go home, the government money all spent, with no offshoots, as they would all die soon in the heat of the desert. This was where the help; of the old man who knew the Arabs well proved invaluable. He began to write notes in Arabic and sent them by messengers on swift horses to the heads of all of the nearby villages, asking for camels not yet seized by the French Government. Within a few hours, he located some fifteen or twenty camels and the whole world looked better to me because, after I had engaged camels they would not be seized by the Government until they finished the trip to the railroad station at Biskra. They arrived there two and one-half days later, on the 21st of May, 1900. The offshoots were then packed in a specially chartered freight car and shipped through to Algiers. There they were given a final trimming prior to shipment to New York.
"Here I met with another disappointment almost as grave as the seizure of the camels. Heretofore the few offshoots shipped to America had been sent in tubs partly filled with earth. The Captain of the freight steamer told me this was dangerous for such a large shipment because, in case of a storm, tubs might break loose from their fastenings and roll all over the deck of the ship and do much damage. He would not carry them for less than 38 shillings, nearly $9.00 apiece. I could not possibly pay such a freight bill. Thus, necessity became the mother of invention; I devised a new system of packing. I telegraphed to Paris to my friends in the Vilmorin-Andrieux Company, who had operated the largest seed firm in France for over 100 years, asking them to send me at once a few small bales of sphagnum (moss). I put in a couple of handfuls of moist sphagnum at the base of each offshoot and tied it with rye straw bought in the market and banana petioles stripped from old banana trees in the Botanic Garden. Then I bought shipping crates which had been used to ship shoes to Algeria. We found that these crates would hold about twelve to fifteen offshoots, and the freight on each crate was only 38 shillings!"
This shipment of 447 offshoots reached New York on July 3 and was shipped free of charge by the Southern Pacific Railroad Company through the Morgan Line Steamship which they controlled, to New Orleans, and from New Orleans to Tempe, Arizona by rail. Three hundred ninety-one were fumigated and planted at Tempe, twenty-one at the older seedling date garden at Phoenix, and thirty-five were sent to California to addresses furnished the Tempe personnel by Swingle. Eighty-seven of those planted at Tempe were of the Deglet Noor variety. This was the first successful introduction into the New World of offshoots of standard commercial date varieties.
In the summer of 1901, 75% of the offshoots were growing, 11% were doubtful and 14% were dead. This was about the same percentage the Arabs had told Dr. Swingle they expected when they planted the offshoots immediately after cutting. After this, all offshoots imported into the United States were packed in crates instead of tubs. In addition to the importations which he personally supervised, Dr. Swingle's enthusiasm and vision were largely responsible for the other experimental importations by the U.S.D.A. Under his direction, in cooperation with the California Agricultural Experiment Station, Dr. Swingle set up a date experiment station near Mecca, California in 1904. Because of the rising Salton Sea, in 1906 another station was established west of Indio, and Dr. Swingle, himself, lived there for a number of years.
As head of the Office of Crop Physiology and Breeding Investigations, Dr. Swingle was in charge not only of work with dates but also on citrus and other subtropical fruits. He contributed to research in many fields. Fluent in many languages, including Arabic, Chinese, French and German, he was able to establish rapport and communicate with scientists all over the world. His interest in citrus had him delving into Chinese literature and he was responsible for securing for the Library of Congress priceless volumes for the Chinese Collection there. Many of the originals were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution in China, so the U.S. collection, the largest outside China and Japan, is even more valuable now. The Librarian of the Library of Congress expressed his appreciation in 1928 in these words, "From 1910 the collection has been developed systematically, chiefly through the efforts of Dr. Walter T. Swingle, to whose constant interest its present eminence is due. It now numbers over 100,000 volumes (Chinese)." His participation in building up the Chinese collections in the Library of Congress was one of his major accomplishments.
Dr. Walter T. Swingle died January 19, 1952 in Washington, D.C. at the age of 81. He was survived by his wife, Maude Kellerman Swingle, daughter of his mentor at Kansas State Agricultural College, and children John, Frank, Stella and Mary. Maude was his assistant in many of Swingle's studies and traveled with him all over the world. She came to Indio in 1982 to attend the closing of the U.S. Government Date and Citrus Station which her husband had founded in 1907. At age 92 she was honored by the Volunteer Bureau of San Francisco as she finished her seventh year as a California Historical Society volunteer reference librarian. At the award presentation she exclaimed, "I hope they don't think they can now put me out to pasture."
We are indebted to Walter Swingle for securing the date growers in the United States one other very important date variety. This is the story, in his words, as recorded in the Date Institute Bulletin of 1945:
"Early in May, 1927, by invitation of the French government I joined a Commission appointed to investigate the much-feared Baioudh disease of the date palm in Morocco. Our trip began at Erfoud, near the Algerian-Moroccan boundary and we proceeded to Colomb-Bechar where we saw the terrible ravages of the Parlatoria scale, introduced without its natural enemies on a few offshoots from Algerial. This oasis, about 12 miles long and 1 to 2 miles wide, had formerly been pest-free. Parlatoria scale spread with incredible speed throughout the oasis; the dates were only about half-size and were completely covered with the scale, entirely unfit for human consumption. Hogs would perhaps have eaten them, but the Arabs do not eat pork!"
"On our way into the heart of southern Morocco we were delayed for about a week at Bou Denib, about 100 miles east of Tafilalet, the greatest date oasis in Africa, noted for its choice Medjhool dates. We were waiting for the French army of occupation to arrange for our trip with adequate military protection, as the country was not yet fully pacified."
"Here I had the good fortune to become well-acquainted with the civil and religious head of the oasis of Bou Denib, where 9,000 palms were growing. He was a Cherif (lineal descendent of Mohamet) and a Hadj (having made a pilgrimage to Mecca) and his authority over the Arabs of the oasis was practically unlimited. All dealings with the Arabs of Bou Denib by the French military authorities posted there were through him. He invited out party to a dinner served in true Arab style - delicious food but no utensils except one's fingers. One advantage of this system is that the meat must be tender to come off the bones! We had a young sheep roasted whole, many bowls filled with Kous-Kous, and ver strong, very sweet tea. During the dinner, I talked with the Cherif about the Medjhool date, the only variety exported in large quantities from Morocco to Europe. I learned to my amazement that the Arabs only received about 2 cents a pound for these dates. I told him that I had bought these same dates from the original package in London for one shilling (then worth about 24 cents) a pound. I told him if the Arabs would grade their dates for size and condition (dry or moist) and protect them from flies, they should be able to get 5 or 6 cents a pound."
"This amount impressed him as extravagant but interested him very much. From then on he was very eager to show me any and everything regarding the Medjhool date. I asked him if it would be possible to buy a few Medjhool offshoots to send back to the United States as we did not have this famous variety in our country. He arranged to accompany me through the oasis with several of his men. We entered on date garden after another, only to find the Baioudh disease in or near every one of them. Finally we came to one that did not show any of the pale leaves in the middle of the leafy top, characteristic of the Baioudh disease. The gardens adjoining on three sides also showed no signs of it. On the fourth side was the irrigation canal with date palms planted along it. I followed the canal back to the point where the water issued from an underground conduit excavated in the soil for miles back to the mountains. I found no trace of the disease along the canal. Thereupon I asked the Cherif to ask the owner if he would sell me a few offshoots and at what price. Without bothering to ask the owner he said in no uncertain terms, 'He will sell you what you want at a reasonable price'."
"The owner's men thereupon began feverishly to cut offshoots from the base of a Medjhool palm surrounded by offshoots. In a few minutes six standard sized offshoots had been cut, but in their haste the workmen had knocked off five other small shoots. They told me I need not pay for these small offshoots but could use them to fill the spaces between the large offshoots when they were packed in a box. The offshoots were all packed that night at the Army post and shipped at once to the United States. They arrived in Washington about five weeks later."
"The Plant Quarantine authorities of the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided that no treatment that could be devised in Washington would be sufficient to convince them that these offshoots were from from Baioudh disease, and that they must be grown for several years under strict quarantine supervision in a state with no date palms in it! This at first seemed like an impossible condition, but an emergency survey showed that the southern point of Nevada was just the place - a good date climate, between two date states, California and Arizona, and no date palms were growing in Nevada."
"Thanks to the skillful work of Mr. Frank A. Thackery, an Indian farmer was found in this region, with a well on his place, and he agreed to grow the offshoots for us. Then, we discovered his property was not inside the Mojave Indian reservation and so he had no title to the land! Mr. Thackery thereupon succeeded in getting the boundaries of the reservation changed so as to include the Indian's farm. On the 4th of July, 1927, the eleven offshoots were planted. They all grew and prospered. Unfortunately two of the small ones were dug up by the Indian's dog one day while he was away, but the rest made amazing growth. By the third year many new offshoots had developed on the original offshoots and also a few bunches of fruit were produced. It was very unusual to get fruit so early from palms heavily laden with offshoots."
"The nine Medjool palms and their offshoots were moved to the U.S. Government Date Garden in Indio in 1935 where they made excellent growth and produced many more offshoots."
In 1944 a distribution of 24 Medjool offshoots was made to each of the following date growers in the Coachella Valley: Robert W. Collier, Lionel Steinberg, T.R. Brown, H.L. Cavanagh, Coachella Valley Fruit Co., (Don H. Mitchell), Coachella Valley Union High School, Cochran-Odlum Ranch, J.A. Codekas, W.W. Cook, Keith Farrar, George Gonzalez, John E. Graham, T.J. Gridley, Hall, Hass & Vessey, E.C. Jarvis, D.E. Jayne, W.G. Jenkins, Ben Laflin, G.H. Leach, Kenneth Lichty, Martha Reed Martin, J.F. McKenzie, Don H. Mitchell, Robbins Russel, Henry Schmid, Leonhardt Swingle and T.W. Wurts. It was almost a roll-call of Coachella Valley's date industry people.
In addition to the above list, offshoots were distributed to Imperial Valley growers R.S. Dillman and Heiny Bros. and in Arizona to Dr. J.M. Greer, Jay Hyde, Harry Palmer, University of Arizona Citrus Experiment Station, Yuma Mesa Farm and E.P. Vandershaf.
It should be noted that this fortunate importation of Medjool offshoots really saved the variety for the world. Baioudh is still rampant there and even though farmers know that their Medjool trees will die in about ten years, they still plant the variety because of the demand for fruit and its higher profitability. Disease-free Medjool offshoots from the United States have been sold to countries in Africa and the Middle East so that they, too, can produce this outstanding fruit.
Above are 6 of the original 24 plantings in Bard Valley,
Before moving on to the stories of the other men who went into the Arab world to find good date varieties for the United States, the man responsible for the successful culture of those nine Medjool offshoots should be mentioned, using his own account of their quarantine in Nevada.
Dr. Swingle's eleven offshoots had arrived in Washington, D.C. on June 23, 1927 and were given a severe vacuum fumigation after which they were shipped west. Thackery received word that he was to meet the shipment and select a place in southern Nevada where they could be planted and cared for safely away from any other date palms. The site suggested was about 22 miles north of Needles near the Colorado River. On July 3 he left Indio, having no idea what he might find in that remote part of Nevada. The temperature was 116 degrees in Needles when he picked up the offshoots from the railroad man. The story continues in Thackery's words...
Frank A. Thackery in 1920
"On the morning of July 4, 1927, I left Needles and followed a very dim wagon road 22 miles up the river into this southern point of Nevada. I was impressed with the isolation of the locality. Soon after crossing the state line from California into Nevada I was most fortunate in finding the hut of an old and badly crippled Indian named Johnson. His wife was also very old and nearly blind. There happened to be two younger Indian men there for a short visit. All of them belonged to the Chemehuevi tribe of desert Indians. One of the younger men, Mike Tobin could converse fairly well in English. Through Mike, as interpreter, I made known the purpose of my visit."
"Near Johnson's hut was an old dug well some 25 feet in depth - deep enough to tap the underground water from the nearby Colorado River. Over the well was an old broken-down windmill and pump. The well had caved in until it showed no water, but Mike assured me that a little digging would provide all the water required for the irrigation of the eleven offshoots. Through Mike, as interpreter, I was soon given the approval of Johnson to put the well, pump and windmill in order and to use them for an indefinite time to water the dates. Johnson agreed to care for and turn on the windmill as needed to keep the offshoots well-watered. He further permitted me to use about one-half acre of fairly level land situated slightly below the well, where the water would flow by gravity to the offshoots. Nearby was an old fence with enough posts and wire to fence in the dates and thus protect them from the Indian ponies. Things were certainly coming my way! Here was a small patch of good, level soil, a well, pump, windmill, posts and wire, plus an old Indian residing there permanently who was willing, even anxious, to care for the dates. Also there were two young Indians willing to help me with a very strenuous 4th of July 'celebration'. Perhaps the patriotic 4th of July start given these dry offshoots may have improved their chance of survival, or perhaps the earnest prayers of that old Indian medicine man, Johnson, may have entered into it. Anyway, it has always seemed to me a miracle that all of the eleven imported and thoroughly dried out offshoots not only survived, but actually grew vigorously right from the start."
"I was asked later just why I employed such a badly crippled old Indian to care for these important offshoots. There were several good reasons, the first being that no one else was easily available... Both he and his wife were seriously in need of the modest compensation I was able to arrange for them and they attended to this job faithfully for approximately seven years."
"I made my first visit back to this isolated planting approximately sixty days later. I was astonished to find definite signs of life and even slight growth on each of the eleven dried-out offshoots. I encouraged Johnson in his excellent care of the planting and it pleased him very much when I told him that he must be a real 'Medicine Man' as indicated by his ability to make sick plants grow. He told me that he had asked the Great Spirit to help him. A few months later, however, he became ill and could not get out even to turn the windmill on and off. His wife, who was almost blind, cared for the irrigation during Johnson's illness. Because of her very poor eyesight, she had not noticed that, during a few very hot days, their dogs had dug up two of the smaller shoots in trying to find a cool, moist bed. Some weeks later, when Johnson was able to resume his work, he discovered what the dogs had done. He thought these two shoots had been exposed to the hot sun until they were completely dried out and were dead so he burned them on his campfire. Thus the number of imported offshoots was reduced from eleven to nine."
"These nine remaining shoots were kept in isolation for more than seven years. During that time they were inspected several times by State and Federal officials, including Dr. H.S. Fawcett, Dr. Walter T. Swingle, Mr. A.J. Shamblin and myself. No disease or insect pests were found on them at any time. Finally it was determined that it would be safe to transplant them in proximity to other date palms at the U.S. Date Garden. Mr. George H. Leach was assigned this important task. With the idea of increasing the chance of the originals to survive, he first removed 64 offshoots, many of them quite small. These 64 new offshoots, plus the nine imported shoots (by this time young palms) made a total of 73 to be transplanted. The fact that every one of them survived not only was evidence of expert work by George Leach, but was additional evidence of the unusual hardiness of this date variety. The young palms were moved to the U.S. Date Garden in the summer of 1935. It would appear that the Medjool variety of date has several outstanding qualities in its favor. It is proliferous in offshoot bearing. It is unusually hardy and is easy to transplant. It produces large, attractive berries and its offshoots begin the formation of roots when very young - even where the roots have no soil contact."
It is interesting to note that a front page article in the Indio Date Palm of October 18, 1912, describing Dr. Walter Swingle's work in bringing over 200 varieties of dates to the United States, says, "There is one spot in the desert to which Mr. Swingle could not obtain access. Before his return to the United States, the Agricultural Department of Washington gave out a statement that he had found at Alcazar, in Morocco, a remarkable seedling date, an offshoot of which would be worth $1,000 in the Coachella Valley. This date has not been secured for the American growers, however, and, probably will not be for some time. It is the especial product of the oasis of Tafilet, which is the home of the Sultan of Morocco. The sale of the famous date has become a great business there; but the royal family guards against the transplanting of any offshoots from the trees. The dates are shipped to Spain and England, where they command top prices." Fifteen years later, Dr. Swingle was successful in securing the eleven offshoots of that prized date from Bou Denib, in the Tafilet, and they became the basis of the U.S. Medjool industry.
In 1911, an advertisement for the West India Gardens, Altadena, California, owned by Fred Popenoe, proclaimed the virtues of the Fuerte avocado, which Fred had introduced into the United States. Popenoe was looking for new and exotic plants and trees. He turned his attention to date palms. There was a growing interest in planting this crop in the dry interior valleys of Southern California and Arizona, which he referred to as the 'American Sahara'.
Frederick Wilson Popenoe
Fred's son, Paul, described his own initial contact with date growing in these words, delivered at the 48th Annual Date Growers' Institute in 1971:
"In 1911 I received, in Naples, Italy, a mysterious cablegram. I had made a six months trip through Europ (on a budget of $2 a day), had arrived at the end and bought my ticket to return home by steamer, when the message came to me: 'Will meet you Hotel Victoria, Valencia, Spain, December 28.' It was signed with a name I had never heard, Walter T. Swingle. Who is he and what's he got on me? I asked myself."
"Before the day was over, a letter from home cleared up the mystery. A woman who owned some land in Coachella Valley told my father she would buy 1,000 Deglet Noor offshoots if she knew how to get them. He informed her that he had a son in the Mediterranean at the time, who could easily go to Algeria, and the Bureau of Plant Industry asked Dr. Swingle, just then in that part of the world, to get in touch with me."
"I spent a couple of weeks in Spain with Dr. Swingle, who was studying the horticulture there in company with Dr. Louis Trabut, famous Algerian botanist, and M. Brunel, the Director of Agriculture. We visited Elche, famous for its cultivation of date palms, then I headed for Algeria, taking with me a little phrase book of the Arabic language from Dr. Swingle. I studied both that language and the cultivation of dates diligently, then returned to California with the offshoots. Meanwhile, my father had found an eager and widespread interest in date growing in California, and like many others, thought it had an unlimited future. Even then we were getting the same scare stories that we are getting today - the world would starve to death because it could not produce enough food to support the rapidly growing population. The palm not only produced a large amount of fruit of high food value, but would produce on land not suited to many other forms of cultivation. He got contracts from a number of persons to buy offshoots and also bought some land on his own account for that purpose - a fine tract near Thermal. His nursery in Altadena was named the West India Gardens, and he organized a corporation for the new venture, to which he gave the name of the West India Plantations. Three months after my return he was prepared to send me and my younger brother Wilson, an avid horticulturist, out for more offshoots."
Paul Popenoe in 1930
Photo from The Periscope 2006
The story is continued, in separate accounts by Paul and Wilson Popenoe. Paul's story follows:
"It was hard to get any large quantity of Deglet Noor offshoots in Algeria. Beyond this, the Arab world, to which the palm belonged, did not even consider North Africa to be a part of it - nobody ever heard of their dates! The best dates were thought to be grown in Arabia itself, but the great commercial production which supplied the rest of the world was in the countries at the head of the Persian Gulf, then part of Turkey, now Iraq."
"The variety best known commercially in the United States at that time was not from the upper region, however, but from a small valley in the Kingdom of Oman, on the eastern coast of the Persian Gulf. This was the Fard, a smallish black date of rather mediocre quality, but able to keep its shape when shipped, and therefore more popular than the Halawis, which were beginning to appear from the Basrah under the name of Golden Date, but which were pressed into a mass of stickiness. Since the Fard was the only date which most Americans had ever tasted or even seen, it seemed at the time a good idea to get a few of the offshoots, and the American consul in Masqat arranged with the sultan to give us his own camels and bodyguard for the 60-mile ride into the interior. The cultivation of the palm in that remote area is at a higher level of efficiency than in any other area outside of the U.S. of which I have ever heard, but the offshoots we brought to Coachella were, one might say, never again heard of."
"To the north of Oman was a desert area called Hasa, which in Arab opinion produced the world's finest dates, first place being given to one called Khalaseh, or 'quintessence'. Obviously we ought to get some of those, but the Turkish government wisely refused to give us a permit to enter, frankly stating that it could not guarantee our safety (we had been under fire twice, in Oman, from rebellious tribesmen). I did succeed, via an American missionary in the island of Bahrein, to get a man sent in to Hofhuf, capital of Hasa, and he brought out 400 offshoots, on a few camel loads being stolen on the way to the coast."
"At Basrah, the port from which Sinbad the Sailor always set sail on his hair-raising adventures, we entered the world's greatest date-growing country. The two varieties which competed as best, in popularity polls, were the Barhi and Awaydi, both very scarce. We got enough offshoots of the former to give it a good start in Coachella Valley and it is now on the market as the world's finest - a matter of taste! But the standard variety there was Khadhrawi, the one that the best families would invariably serve to their guests, and we therefore got a quantity of these, together with Halawis."
"After making arrangements there, we went up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to Baghdad, which had the reputation in the Muslim world of producing better dates than Basrah, although not so many. Here the money-maker was Zahidi, because of its heavy production, and unmatched shipping characteristics. It was sent all over the Orient. We got a good quantity of all these offshoots, as well as Maktum, a very highly esteemed Baghdad variety which had already given a good account of itself in the U.S. Returning to Basrah, we packed our purchases there, loaded them on a little freight steamer bound for London, 9,000 offshoots altogether, but dropped off in Algeria to get 6,000 more Deglet Noor offshoots, the most that the government would allow us, since the French colonists were increasing their protests against American competition."
Photo from The Periscope 2006
The personal cost to the Popenoe brothers in securing these 'Babylonian' dates is described vividly by Wilson Popenoe in his account of the trip which took them to India, via San Francisco, Hawaii and Japan. He said, "Northern India gave me an opportunity to familiarize myself with mangos in the world's greatest mango-growing area but it gave us some hard jolts also, for it was here that Paul contracted the typhoid fever which nearly cost him his life a few weeks later at Basra, in the Persian Gulf; and it was here that I contracted the malaria and dysentery which laid me up for several weeks in the little British hospital in Maskat on the Arabian coast."
"While I was getting my forty grains of quinine daily, via the hypodermic needle, Paul, accompanied by Homer Brett, American consul at Maskat, made a journey inland to Wadi Samail, home of the Fard date, one of the world's great commercial varieties. The party returned hastily, after having reached its objective; twice they had been fired on by Arabs. Since they had been under escort - the Sultan of Oman having sent camel-troopers with the American consul - the matter was not to be treated lightly. A detachment was prompty dispatched by the sultan to punish the offenders, and a petty war was started which lasted intermittently for more than a year."
"At Basra our real work began. After Paul's recovery from typhoid (he probably would not have recovered at all, had he not been taken in by the Cantines, American missionaries of the Dutch Reformed Church), we bought several thousand young date palms along the banks of the Shatt-el-Arab, and began preparing them for shipment. While the work continued, we went up to Baghdad on a river steamer and bought several thousand palms in that region."
"We suffered from the cold. Though burning hot in the summer months, the Persian Gulf country is bleak and disagreeable in the winter. After having been shot at once more, we experienced something akin to a sense of relief when our nine thousand palms were safely stowed on board the Mokta, a tramp steamer from Swansea, and headed down the Persian Gulf. In the Red Sea we lost quite a few of them; they were on deck and were washed overboard in a storm. There was a long dry spell and the ship was short of drinking water. (Wilson was obliged to make a trade: he had to give the captain his typewriter - the only thing of value he owned - so the captain would make water available for the remaining date palms, which otherwise might have died.) After forty-nine days of the poorest eating I have ever experienced, we landed at Oran, Algeria, and went down to Biskra in the Sahara, where Paul made arrangements for the purchase of several thousand more offshoots and left me to carry on shipment of our Arabian palms, which finally landed at Galveston and went overland in seventeen freight cars to California."
"Algeria, for comfort, was a marked contrast to Arabia, and it was picturesque enough - though one did not have the feeling of being far from European civilization, as one did in Baghdad. My stay was enjoyable though short. Our funds also where short, by this time, and when Paul telegraphed from London, asking me to meet him in Algiers, I had to dispatch Muhammad ben Ali across the desert some thirty miles to borrow twenty francs from his brother Abderraham (our agent) so that I could buy a railway ticket."
Wilson Popenoe did go to work for the USDA, turning down a four year scholarship to Cornell University. The fascination of plant hunting was stronger than ever and his job took him to remote and interesting corners of tropical America. His father, Fred, had put in a very large planting of Fuerte avocado nursery plants in a heavily leveraged deal. An unusually heavy frost in 1913 killed all of his plants and he was thrown into a precarious financial situation - He was forced to sell a controlling interest in his Coachella Valley date property at that time to three Minnesota investors. Ultimately they sold to Andrew Russel, whose son Robbins came to the Coachella Valley to jointly manage the renamed Troical Date Company with Paul Popenoe. When the Russel family decided they wanted complete control, Paul Popenoe left that operation and farmed 80 acres of his own, planting offshoots from the Tropical date garden, cotton and other crops. His interest in plant genetics led him to a partnership in a company studying human genetics and ultimately to found the American Institute of Family Relations in 1930, to promote successful marriage and family life. His monthly column, which ran in the Ladies Home Journal, entitled 'Can This Marriage Be Saved?' was so popular that it continues to this day.
Today many of the oldest date palms, now relocated to golf course and condominium developments came from the Popenoe importations, and we are indebted to them for securing many of the best dates from the Persian Gulf area.
"I left Paul to complete the job, and sailed for New York. I was anxious to get back to the States for two reasons, first, we had been gone nearly a year, which is a long time for a youngster just getting his first taste of foreign travel, (and what a baptism of fire it had been!) and second, I had been in correspondence with David Fairchild of the United States Department of Agriculture, who had offered to appoint me as an agricultural explorer the moment I reached Washington."
In an unsigned article, sent to the Coachella Valley Historical Society by Janet Swingle English, the following account is told of the work of Bernard Johnson, often called the father of the date industry, because he made the first private importation of offshoots in 1903.
The article states, "A few comments about Bernard Johnson are in order for he was a most unusual and original character. He was a large, red-haired man, native of the east Baltic, either Prussia or Russia, and was working as a laborer at Mecca, known then as Walters. He decided to make an importation of dates and left Mecca with less than $100. He rode the rails to New York and signed on as a seaman to work his way to Algiers, and arrived in Algiers with considerably more money than he had when he left Mecca. He went to the date country and lived in the cheapest and poorest quarters. He spoke Arabic, but whether he learned it there or knew it before is not known. He naturally paid very little for his offshoots and had them transported to the seacoast and then to New York. Everything went according to his plans until he arrived in New York. He planned to ship the offshoots by rail to Mecca, freight, and reach Mecca himself before the shoots arrived and sell enough to pay the freight, but the railroad said the freight must be paid in advance. He then wired Holtby Meyers, who was developing the townsite of Mecca and Myers advanced the money for the freight. The offshoots arrived and Bernard planted them at Mecca, which was the first commercial date garden in the Coachella Valley."
"Bernard also imported offshoots in 1908 and again in 1912. In 1912 he tried to sell offshoots for $6.50 apiece to Coachella Valleyans, but they thought the price was too high and so Bernard took the whole shipment to Yuma and bought land and planted the shoots there. When these offshoots became young trees he worked out a method of removing the young palm and leaving the lower offshoots in the ground to grow and in a few years the operation could be repeated. Mr. C.E. Cook sold many of these Yuma palms, first for Bernard, then later bought the garden. Many of the date gardens in the Coachella Valley had their start from these palms."
"In 1913, W.L. Paul, who had become active in the date business, conceived the idea of forming an association and hiring Bernard to go to Algiers to bring offshoots to the valley. This proved to be successful and offshoots were imported in this manner in 1913, 1914 and 1915. As Americans became familiar with the varieties, these later importations were true to name and it is worthy to note that Bernard Johnson did an excellent job of purchasing offshoots true to name. After 1914, the French government prohibited the export of offshoots and except for a few importations which will be noted later, this completed the importation of date palms to the Coachella Valley."
Henry Simon with an Arab grove owner and a load of offshoots
Photo from The Periscope 2006
As date palms were being introduced into the United States, interest in the countries and cultures from which they were coming increased. Henry Simon, who went to Algeria to secure offshoots, kept a very descriptive diary of his experiences. His daughter, Hilda, published and account of his travels in her book, 'The Date Palm - Bread of the Desert'. There had been more than one instance of inferior and seedling offshoots being sent to the United States instead of the promised Deglet Noor variety. Simon described his method of getting what he paid for in these words:
"After everything (the offshoots) had been properly packed and prepared, Simon ordered cahwa for all, and drank it in the company of his laborers and the caravan leaders - a gesture which, as he noted in his diary, 'greatly pleased everyone'. He continued to describe what else had to be done before the caravan could go on its way. The two leaders of the caravan and I appeared before the bashamar, the official transportation agent, who drew up a contract in which all conditions were set forth, and whereby the camel drivers were bound to deliver within six days, at Biskra, a letter addressed to Henry Simon,Amerikany, and also 1,100 djebbar (offshoots) in good condition, and each with my name signed in full on a leafstalk; and that nothing but an act of Allah was to excuse them from doing so; and that, if they failed to deliver the goods or if any were missing, I would have the right to take their camels in exchange - a cheerful idea, my sitting around at Biskra with forty blasted camels on my hands."
"The caravan duly departed, it was the first of many that were to follow in subsequent weeks and months from different parts of the country. Simon left for Biskra the very next day to locate and rent a suitable storage house for the offshoots before the caravan arrived, and was lucky to find one large enough to accommodate several thughsand offshoots, each of which averaged a length of six fee, and a weight of between fifteen and twenty-five pounds."
"The caravan arrived punctually on the sixth day, and was directed to the storage house where the camels lay down and were relieved of their burdens. After all the offshoots had been counted and found in order, the American paid the aravan leaders, and then added another five francs for cahwa. The effect of that gesture, he noted was near-magical. 'They had just finished telling me a sad and woeful tale of the hardships suffered during that transport, of how they had cut their hands on the offshoots while loading them, of how the camels had turned sideways in the high winds in the desert and had refused to budge, and ending by declaring that they would not go through with another such transport even if I paid them three times the price. But receiving the five francs for cahwa touched them so that, in parting, they earnestly inquired of me when I would be ready for the next load, and assured me that it was indeed an honor to work for so rich and generous an Amerikany, whom Allah surely would give long life and happiness.'
"And so the laborious and time-consuming task of selecting, inspecting and preparing the offshoots for overseas transportation had begun. In the following weeks and months, Henry Simon traveled to many other oases and sent several additional caravans back to Biskra."
Silas C. Mason, the person responsible for most of the importations of Egyptian varieties of dates, was a Horticulturist with the Office of Crop Physiology and Breeding Investigations, Bureau of Plant Industry, United States Department of Agriculture. In 1915 he published Bulletin No. 271 entitled 'Dates of Egypt and the Sudan' in which he cataloged their main varieties and established the fact that most of the 7,000,000 date palms growing there were seedling varieties. However, two of their best varieties were Saidy and Hayany, and in 1920 he was able to get 2,000 Saidy offshoots for Coachella Valley growers. The beautiful heavy-trunked palms still growing in 2005 on the north side of Miles Avenue in the Sungold Subdivision of Indio came from this importation.
It is interesting to note that by 1920, date growers in Africa realized that answers to some of the problems they faced in growing and marketing dates had been investigated at the USDS Date and Citrus Station in Indio. Silas Mason sent an urgent message to the station, requesting information about artificial maturation of dates. An Egyptian official refused to release Mason's purchased offshoots until he received it.
Silas Mason worked for years at the station in Indio and his typed notebook describing named foreign varieties and their performance in Coachella Valley was considered an excellent research document for local growers as well as foreign visitors to the USDA Date and Citrus Station.
The first Date Growers Institute, held in 1924, included a presentation by Mason entitled 'The Date Industry in Egypt - Past and Present'. It included 100 lantern slides from original photographs taken by him in the Nile Valley and in the oases of the Libyan Desert. Publicaton of the proceedings of the institute includes this description of his portion of the program.
Silas C. Mason
"Views of the temples at Karnak and Thebes and of the giant statues found on the site of ancient Memphis, all overgrown with modern date palms, served to call attention to the fact that date culture in Egypt was highly developed in the time of Queen Hatsu, 1450 B.C. The plantations of the three great commercial varieties of Egypt at the present time were illustrated - the Hayany and Amhat, consumed in great quantities in the 'rutab' or hand-ripe stage, and the Saidy, Egypt's great packing date for more than two hundred years."
"The tree climbers at work pollinating or gathering fruit from trees sixty to eighty feet high served to remind California date growers that their palms were rapidly passing the ladder stage of operating and that the tree-climbers art will be one of the athletic accomplishments of our date industry in the near future."
"Lastly, the utilization of all date tree by-products, crates of great variety from the great mid-ribs of the leaves, baskets braided from the pinnae and rope from the fruit stalks and sheath fiber or 'leef' suggested how our waste products of today may become profitable commodities in the future."
Silas Mason carried a 'Special Passport' issued by the United States of America Department of State for travel in the 'British Isles, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Egypt, Sudan, Palestine, Syria and North Africa on official business'. He was traveling for the Department of Agriculture and his passport is an indication of the commitment of the government to securing the best possible date varieties. We are indebted to Laura Drummond Pratt, daughter of Bruce Drummond, first Superintendent of the USDA Date station for the passport in our (Coachella Valley Historical Society) archives.