The Life of a Nursery Town

By Trillium Dollar

Editor’s note: The nursery industry has a long history in Oregon, with its roots dating back more than 150 years when fruit trees traveled west on the Oregon Trail. I thought you might enjoy the story behind the Orenco name, which many of you may recognize as part of the Hillsboro, Ore. area.

“Company town” brings to mind bustling sawmills and mining operations, but in Oregon one grew up around a nursery. And Orenco was its name.

Traces of Orenco linger on in the names of a MAX station, the townhouse/condo neighborhood west of Portland and a golf course. Part of Hillsboro is known as Old Orenco. But of the bustling town that numbered 500 souls two years after its founding in 1908, not much remains. And of the company that built the town—the Oregon Nursery Company—well, it’s become part of the lore of Oregon’s agricultural past.

Back in the day, though, the company was reckoned an innovative, fast-growing concern. It shipped one of the nation’s largest orders for nursery stock—350,000 trees—to Montana in 1907. Its ambitious owners had moved the company from Salem to the Hillsboro area in the early 1900s and also persuaded a railway to move a proposed route so it directly served the nursery site.

The nursery’s innovations included a profit-sharing plan for employees and a landscape architect to help customers choose plants. Its crops included fruit and nut trees, shade trees, roses and various ornamentals.

The town boasted a school by 1909, a church in 1911, a new city hall including jail and fire station in 1912, and it incorporated in 1913. That year a children’s fair association was formed and promoted the growing of vegetables on an acre of garden. There were grocery stores, a dry goods store, barbershop, boarding house, blacksmith, a hardware store, hotel and printing plant. And of course there was that rail line, run by the Oregon Electric Railway that put Portland a mere 45 minutes away.

Sadly, the company’s fortunes faltered. Overexpansion probably played a part: In 1916 it planted acres of apple trees for export to Europe. Then the European market imploded with the spread of World War I. Increased competition from other nurseries, plus the plant overstock, probably played into its decline. In 1925, both the company’s and the town’s finances were drawing scrutiny. By the early 1930s, the company dissolved. Businesses moved away, though the town hung on until 1938, when it disincorporated.

The vision that powered a nursery and a town faded, but one bite of history remains: the Orenco apple, locally famous as a rival for the McIntosh and Spitzenberg varieties. Nurseries that specialize in heirloom varieties still offer it.