Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Dorris Ranch-A Rural Haven in an Urban Setting

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Dorris Ranch-A Rural Haven in an Urban Setting

Article excerpt

The Dorris Ranch, the grand daddy of all hazelnut farms, is an urban park, a living history farm and a working commercial nut ranch. Located just outside Springfield, Oregon, the ranch is part of a thriving urban area. Eugene/Springfield is home to education and industry (University of Oregon, a large Sony plant, a Hyundai computer chip plant, and numerous lumber mills), as well as beautivul riverfront parks.

One of the most unusual parks in the area is the 250-acre Dorris Ranch, a happy reminder of the area's rich agricultural heritage. The ranch remained in the Dorris family for 80 years before the Willamalane Park and Recreation District took a giant leap of faith and purchased the property through a combination of grants and a generous donation of $53,000 from the Dorris family.

The ranch became Oregon's first living history farm in 1987. The following year, Dorris Ranch Program Manager Mary HOrvat Farrington successfully secired ot a ;ostomg pm the National Register of Historic Places. According to Farrington, the honor is rarely granted to a farm, but in this case the listing was made specifically for the historically significant landscaping rather than the buildings. And without a doubt it is the land that both children and adults love to visit.

Beginnings

When George and Lulu Dorris planted their first filbert trees not far from the Willamette River in 1903, they had no idea they were beginning the first commercial filbert farm in the country, nor that they were initiating an entire industry. In fact, they hardly knew what they were doing. George was a lawyer, not a farmer.

The law didn't hold his interest for more than a few years, and in 1892 he and his wife purchased part of a pioneer land claim. The 277-acre property, a beautiful tract of meadow and forest at the confluence of the Middle and Coast Forks of the Willamette River, was conveniently located half a mile south of downtown Springfield, right across the river from Eugene.

The Dorris House, still in use today as a caretaker's residence, was built in 1899. George started planting fruits, vegetables, hops and delicate white asparagus with considerable success, but nothing quite satisfied his desire for experimentation.

The Dorris' first filbert trees came from Felix Gillet's Barren Hill Nursery in Nevada City, California. Apparently Gillet, who succeeded with walnuts but not with filberts, convinced Dorris that his Barcelona filberts would thrive in Oregon, where the native hazelnut, a relative of the filbert, grew as easily as wild blackberries.

Why George would trust a grower who named his nursery "Barren Hill," and why he would believe that an obscure nut from Europe would bring him prosperity is anybody's guess. Fortunately his instincts were right. When George planted his first 50 trees, filberts-now commonly called hazelnuts-were popular in the Mediterranean but little known in the US. Today, Oregon hazelnuts-most of them derived from Dorris Ranch tree stock-reach a world market.

George became a hazelnut pioneer and missionary, spreading the word to potential nut growers, planting more and more trees in 11 orchards and eventually devising new methods of propagation that set the industry standard. The Dorrises may have thrown themselves completely into the development of the ranch to make up for the tragic loss of their five children, who died one after another in infancy. It was a blessing that George's nephew Benjamin Fultz Dorris joined him as a partner in the ranch in 1925, after recovering from wounds he received in World War I.

Together with George, Ben plunged himself into experimenting with a new method of propagating hazelnut trees. An untended hazelnut tree will produce numerous suckers at its base, thus growing into a multi-trunk tree that makes pruning arduous. The two Dorrises devised a system to eliminate suckers, allowing for the growth of single-trunk trees, called tipped trees. …

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