On January 29, 2005, Larry McGraw passed away at the age of 82, at Keizer, Oregon, after several years of battling cancer. Born in Huntington, Oregon, Larry was the eldest of 14 children. After graduating from Wallowa High School, he joined the Air Force and served as a B-24 belly gunner in World War II and later in the Korean War. After his military service, Larry joined the Portland Fire Department and retired after 26 years. Larry and his wife Juanita, who passed away in 1999, reared four sons and two daughters.
Pomology was Larry’s passion for more than 50 years. Early on, Larry became concerned about the dwindling diversity of apples and other tree fruits and the disappearance of many once-prized varieties. He began his quest to seek out residual pockets of remaining trees to collect scion wood. In the early 1960s he founded and was president of Northwest Fruit Explorers, an organization that gathered and disseminated information about new fruit varieties and historical Northwest fruit growers. In the early 1970s, Larry designed the pioneer orchard of the Sauvie Island Bybee-Howell Territorial Park, retaining some remnant trees and planting about another hundred antique apple and pear varieties there. That orchard is maintained now by the Oregon Historical Society and the Multnomah County Parks Department.
After retiring from Portland Fire Department, Larry worked in the early 1970s as a horticulturist for Oregon Historical Society. While doing research for that organization, he discovered an envelope containing hundred-year-old apple seeds and a letter referring to missionary Marcus Whitman’s orchard, the first in Washington and planted in the mid-1830s, and a favorite tree. The National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington D.C. gave Larry a grant to search the site of the Whitman Mission, near Walla Walla, Washington, for that “Whitman Apple” tree, as it was designated. Unfortunately, he was unable to locate it, and his attempt to germinate the seeds was likewise unsuccessful.
Larry was fascinated with Kazakhstan’s wild apple forests, where some researchers believe apples originated; and he worked with the governments of Russia and the United States for five years to obtain virus-free trees from Russia for his Portland property, named McGraw Experimental Gardens, which became recognized as a living museum. Sunset Magazine frequently featured articles about andby Larry, including a 1973 story highlighting the 300 varieties of apples in his gardens.
In May 1975 at his gardens, Larry convened a group of home orchardists to launch The Home Orchard Society (HOS). The first HOS Scion Exchange was held in 1976 in Estacada at Five Oaks Farm, with members sitting on bales of hay. This nonprofit, educational organization was then and still remains–nearly 30 years and hundreds of members later–dedicated to studying and disseminating information on fruit culture, origins, and histories.
In 1976 Larry moved his family–as well as plants and all the fruit trees from his gardens in Portland–to the Sheep Rock area of Grant County, in central Oregon 5 miles north of Dayville, naming his new location Sheep Rock Nursery. In 1979 Larry learned that the Burlington-Northern Railroad and the Washington State Highway Department had suggested making way for tracks and roads by moving the 130-year-old Fort Vancouver Apple tree–the last remaining vestige of the fort’s original orchard. Its seeds, along with the original settlers, had been carried there by sailing ship. Convinced that such disturbance would kill the ancient tree, Larry traveled to Portland to recruit the HOS board to oppose that proposal. The state’s decision-making process took some three years, during which time Board Secretary Marian Dunlap wrote letters to Washington’s Governor Evans and Senator Jackson, who proved a loyal supporter; and at every Fort Vancouver Park Bureau hearing, Marian argued for the tree’s preservation, ultimately converting others to that opinion. The eventual result was that all transportation was diverted around a small park–complete with memorial plaque and enclosing fence–protecting one of the oldest living apple trees in America! Twenty-five years later it is still there.
In 1986 Larry’s inspiration to establish an HOS Arboretum was realized when HOS developed it on the grounds of Clackamas Community College. There it functions as a repository for pioneer, and some newer, fruit varieties and as a laboratory for HOS orchard experiments and hands-on instruction in pruning, grafting, and orchard maintenance. Over the years Larry himself offered many free pruning and grafting classes on his properties at Portland and Sheep Rock, at schools, and at public gatherings. In his 50-plus years of fruit research, Larry estimated he had encountered about 2000 apple varieties world-wide. He covered the entire western part of the United States tracking down pioneer apples as well as the wild plum, which particularly interested him. An avid reader and writer, Larry corresponded regularly with scientists and pomologists all over the world and had almost completed the writing of his book, Larry McGraw’s Renaissance of the Apple, which Larry’s family hopes to someday publish.
At Sheep Rock Nursery, Larry originated a number of unique fruit varieties, such as Sweetheart, Blue Swan, and Golden Swan plums and Velma, Grampa’s Favorite, and Nellie Mae apples. He was a gifted wood carver of tables and wall art, composed music for his guitar, and was an excellent photographer, his photos winning ribbons at county fairs. Larry liked living in Grant County, where he organized the first Mount Vernon [Oregon] Grange Harvest Festival, joined the local book club, and served on city committees. Larry held a yearly fall apple squeeze at his nursery; and this past October, even though he was quite frail and staying with his daughter in Keizer, she drove him back to Sheep Rock for that event, which was attended by more than 100 friends and neighbors.
We mourn the passing of our dear old HOS friend, the founder of our productive and generous Home Orchard Society. Larry was a brilliant, adventurous, passionate man whose visionary leadership and devotion to fruit husbandry sparked an organization that over 3 decades has helped thousands of people enrich their homes and their lives. We who have known and worked with Larry McGraw consider it an honor to have been included in the realization of some of his dreams.
NOTE: The foregoing article contains excerpts from Larry McGraw’s memorial biography written by his family as well as a few of Marian Dunlap’s memories.