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Holiday Gifts From Oregon That Come in Pears

This is the crazy season at Harry and David’s packinghouse in Medford, Ore. Plump pears--both red and golden--roll along past conveyor belts into a frenzy of baskets. Or rise in beribboned towers of holiday treats.

Dried fruits, almonds and hard candies are tucked into gift boxes and deftly stacked.

Women nod to the music in their earphones as they whip up fanciful baskets--some from reeds, some from recycled paper. Others tie large satin bows of looping perfection.

Beginning in October, the shedlike facility becomes a clicking, moving, swirling Santa’s workshop. Baskets hang from the ceiling; ribbons bob in the air. Team competitions are keen.

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Recently, a Medford friend told me, a husband and wife took honors by tying up 1,700 “towers of treats” (five stacked boxes lashed together with red ribbon) in a 7 1/2-hour shift. The merry madhouse plays to an audience of four public tours a day.

But I was there in early June, a whispering slow time in the packing plant. Pears were in the cooling house. We peeked at them through glass. Conveyor belts were stilled. Our voices echoed.

Even on that warm spring day, Yevonne Glazier was tying bows.

“I can make 500 to 1,000 a day,” she said with a flick of her wrist and a tug at the ribbon. “We really pick up speed in October.”

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Yevonne is an eight-year veteran, one of 1,200 year-round employees. The work force triples for the winter holiday push.

The hugely successful fruit-by-mail business was built on pears, starting early this century with a rare, temperamental variety called Royal Riviera, a French import that turned out to be well-suited for the soil and climate of Oregon’s Rogue River Valley.

In 1914, two brothers--Harry and David Holmes--took over the operation of their family’s Bear Creek Orchards, on the outskirts of Medford. Through the 1920s, most of the crop of sweet, hefty, golden pears were sold to the grand hotels and resorts of Europe. The Czar of Russia was a customer, according to company history, along with other rich and royal.

But with the Great Depression, the European market dried. This forced the brothers to look at other options. In November of 1934, they went in two directions, lugging sample boxes of Royal Riviera pears to New York and San Francisco to test those markets for mail orders.

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“Times were tough,” our tour guide emphasized. “But to be able to buy a gorgeous fresh pear in New York City in the winter was an incredible treat. Bankers and industrialists immediately placed orders for business gifts. And Harry and David came home to get 400 boxes on the train for Christmas.”

Two years later, the brothers took their home-spun copy to Fortune magazine, where they bought a full-page advertisement. It began:

“Out here on the ranch we don’t pretend to know much about advertising, and maybe we’re foolish spending the price of a tractor for this space; but my brother and I got an idea the other night, and we believe you folks who read Fortune are the kind of folks, who’d like to know about it. . . .”

The price of pears in 1936: 10 pounds for $1.85.

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Now, 55 years later, the fruit company--which was sold in 1989 to a Japanese pharmaceutical giant--has millions of names on its mailing list.

“One-tenth of the American population is in our computer,” the guide insisted.

On my first afternoon in Medford, I hiked by rows of gnarled old pear trees behind the Harry and David plant. They turned out to be part of the family’s original orchard, the edge of what is now 2,000 acres.

“Those are our oldest trees--maybe 80 or 90 years,” the guide said.

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Nearby is Harry and David’s Country Store, which started out as a shop for rejects--a place to sell the fruit that was deemed too small or visually imperfect to be shipped. Now it is crammed with bins of Medjool dates, dried papaya chunks, pistachio nuts, apples from New Zealand, pound cakes and plum preserves. Locals come early in the morning to shop, hoping to slip in before the tour buses arrive. Holiday wreaths, ornaments and potpourri are added to the shelves this time of year.

And what about Yevonne Glazier? What is she up to on these chilly nights after working her shift at the plant?

“I go home and wrap my own Christmas presents,” she assured me, rubbing her fingers together. “I wouldn’t trust anyone else to make my bows.”


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