Times Past

‘Finest fruit I ever tasted’: Are ancient peach trees of SLO’s See Canyon still alive today?

“The peaches were the finest fruit I ever tasted. I haven’t had fruit like that in more than 90 years.”

Howard “Toby” Louis was speaking to some Cal Poly students about peaches grown by his father in See Canyon in the early 1900s. Howard was the youngest child of San Luis Obispo pioneer merchant and labor contractor Ah Louis, whose 135-year redbrick store still stands at the corner of Palm and Chorro streets in San Luis Obispo.

Liz and I were close to both Howard and Young Louis, the eldest of Ah Louis’ sons. Both spoke glowingly of the deep-flavored peaches. I think of our friends each summer as our own fruit ripens.

I loved the Chinese American brothers’ affinity for peaches. Although the proper botanical name for a peach is “Prunus persica,” inferring Persian origins, it first grew in China more than 8,000 years ago. The peach entered Europe by way of the ancient Silk Road through Persia.

How Ah Louis came to grow peaches may never be known. During the 1870s and ‘80s, he was chiefly occupied building county roads, wharves and the narrow gage Pacific Coast Railroad. After that he expanded his store and began growing seeds on farms in the Edna Valley.

Because he spent so much time working for Capt. John Harford in Avila and what is now Port San Luis, he developed some orchards and other agriculture endeavors in nearby See and Davis canyons. The varieties of dried mushrooms and other fungi that he kept in small wooden drawers in his store were cultivated in the many caves along those canyons.

Because of the anti-Chinese/anti-Asian legislation from the 1880s through the 1920s, Ah Louis was never able to buy any of the land he worked on other than the store itself that was purchased prior to those laws.

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An ancient peach tree still bears fruit to this day at Jay Fickes’ See Canyon Orchard. Courtesy photo

When Liz and I drove Young and his wife, Stella, out to See Canyon in the 1980s, Young recalled his father working on orchards there. By that time, there was such a profusion of apple orchards that neither Young nor Howard could remember exactly where Ah Louis ranched. Neither expected to taste that “finest” peach again.

This past week, Liz, Izzy and I dined on what were almost certainly an offshoot of those peaches, thanks to our friend, Jay Fickes. Jay is the son of Mary and Jim Fickes who grew up in the Amish country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Jim spent two and a half years in China and India at the end of World War II. He developed a severe, atopic dermatitis that was aggravated by the severe Pennsylvania winters. Doctors said he needed a warm climate with lots of sunshine. The couple moved to Arcadia, California, which though beautiful, was far from rural. Jim’s allergy disappeared, but Jim and Mary longed for their rural roots.

By this time, Jim had an institutional architecture practice, designing public libraries, hospitals, churches and office buildings.

The couple came to visit their son, Scott, a freshman at Cal Poly in 1967. Scott raved about Avila Beach. He said it was a beautiful beach town where a dog could sleep in the street. Jim took a wrong turn and ended in See Canyon. He recalled, “It was apple season and it smelled great!”

They saw a sign that said “80 acres for sale.” Their first apple stand was a wagon pulled by an old Ford tractor at the entrance. A sign was made announcing “See Ranch” and “Organic Farm Produce.” Shortly afterward, they planted 19 varieties of apples plus peach, plum and pear trees.

Jay now has See Canyon Ranch. He discovered three ancient, gnarled peach trees still bearing fruit. Jay and I theorized that these may well be the Ah Louis peaches.

The fuzzy outside looked like peaches my grandmother grew nearly 80 years ago. You must remove the fuzz-covered skin. The flavor was truly amazing, even after we included it in a stir-fry of red snapper and seasonal vegetables.

I only wish Young and Howard were here to enjoy it with us!

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