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Oak Grove: an orchard community that's more than just a fond memory

The United States is littered with the skeletons of vanished towns -- the rotting boards and empty wells of areas that suffered economic collapse or were abandoned for more promising opportunities.

Sometimes, though, communities can fade in a subtler fashion.

Oak Grove is a living example. They may not have an operating school or even a general store to call their own, but longtime Oak Grove residents can remember a time when the area was a self-sufficient community.

Six such old-timers shared their stories, while gathered at Bruno and Raye Hukari's Oak Grove home.

Suma Kobayashi was born in the hills of Oak Grove in 1914. She married and moved to Gresham, but returned to the valley when her enterprising husband wanted to try his hand at orcharding.

"He thought it was going to be easy," said Kobayashi, "but found out that it was different than what he had expected."

"People think that apples just grow and then you pick them," chuckled Raye Hukari.

Raye grew up in South Dakota until her move to Oak Grove in 1948. Within a year, she had married fellow South Dakota native Bruno Hukari. Bruno was born in 1911 and traveled to Oak Grove with his family in 1920, where he attended the Oak Grove School and graduated from Hood River High School in 1928, the same year his wife was born.

The age difference didn't faze him much when the love bug struck.

"I talked to an attorney friend of mine and he said 'Go ahead and marry her!'" said Bruno. "So I did."

During high school, Bruno had been given 10 acres of the family farm. After graduating with the first class out of Hood River High, he left for San Diego to learn about aviation. Those plans were curtailed when his father had a stroke, and Bruno came back to help on the farm.

It was the beginning of a career. He finally sold the land in 1976 (it had since grown to 74 acres), retaining a small corner plot where he built his retirement house.

Hukari wasn't without help as he labored for so many years.

"Women started working when they saw me hauling fruit to cold storage," said Raye. "The guys saw that, and they went home to their wives and asked 'Why aren't you doing that?'"

At that time, the tracts of land which individuals tended were smaller than those of today.

"There's been some consolidation of orchards," said Frank Wimmers. "It used to be that you could make a living on 15 acres or so. Now you need 40 to 50 or more."

Wimmers was born in 1917 and came to the valley in 1935, settling in Oak Grove in 1941. He worked for Bill Hukari until the war, spaying, thinning, picking, and performing other farm chores. He began running his own place after the war and later expanded, buying more plots in the 1950s so he could afford to use speed sprayers.

While parcels of land were growing, families were shrinking.

"I can remember when Oak Grove School was plumb full -- they had to hire one extra teacher going into the 1930s and 1940s," said Wimmers. "Then it started going the other way as families became smaller."

The school, which served grades 1-8, was built in 1910, around 26 years after pioneer W.S. Crapper first settled in the area, which was then known as the Crapper District.

Even when he was away from school, Pierson couldn't let his guard down.

"I had to be careful, because two of the schoolteachers lived in our house!" said Dan Pierson. "I have nothing but good memories about it, though."

Pierson's father Dan moved the family to Oak Grove from Cincinnati in 1921 when Dan Jr. was a teenager, to the house where he lives to this day. Dan Jr. took over the family orchard in the 1960s, including the apple processing plant which prepared fruit for pies.

Eventually the Oak Grove school served six grades, then grades 1-3, with students moving to the Barrett School and Mid Valley Junior High. In the 1950s it closed altogether, and has since been converted into a home.

When they weren't in school, young Oak Grove residents were hard at work among the rows of trees that blanketed the area.

"Bill (Hukari) would come out for an hour, work like the devil, then leave, showing us how it was done," said Wimmers.

"You worked 60 hours a week for $15, and you made that work for you," he continued. "I'd work an hour before daylight and and hour after dark to make ends meet. That was during the 1930s and mid-1940s. Wages went up in around 1945 or 1946."

Much of his hard-earned money was spent at the Oak Grove Store, now out of business. Luckily, that cash went a long way -- the $10 per month that Hukari received from a boarder bought groceries for the entire family.

"The store is one of the old landmarks," said George Akiyama. "It was reliable, and they all depended on it back in the horse and buggy days."

Akiyama was born in Oak Grove in 1919, and took over the family orchard in 1947, which he ran until his retirement in 1993.

"Ila Fenwick started running the store in the 1940s -- she was extremely sharp," said Akiyama.

It took skill to run a household, too. Raye recalled that she didn't escape the kitchen until mid-afternoon.

"I made food for Bruno at 6 a.m., then some for the kids. At 10 a.m., Bruno and a crowd would come in for coffee. There would be a big lunch at noon, then another coffee break at three."

"Seven or eight of us would stop by," Wimmers recalled.

There wasn't much time for recreation after the helter-skelter of farm work, but fond memories abounded of cold winter days when no work could be done.

"We used to look forward to those winters because you couldn't get out due to the snow," said Raye.

As horses with U-plows cleared a path to the school, others would take bobsleds up to Chestnut Hill and glide back down.

"We just about made it all the way to the school on the sled," said Akiyama.

The cold weather wasn't all recreation, though -- it spelled a threat to crops.

"Bruno had a very young orchard, and mice built up under the winter snow and ruined it," remembered Wimmers.

The rodents may not pose much of a threat anymore, but there are other concerns facing the orcharding community, despite improvements in technology.

"I think the third generation are better farmers than the first -- they're doing a pretty good job," said Wimmers.

"They've got better tools," said Kobayashi.

"But I wouldn't want to trade places with them," Raye finished.

Indeed, even as improvements are made in orcharding method, fewer families are staying with the business. As Oak Grove becomes increasingly assimilated into the Hood River area, it risks losing its identity. And with increasingly threats to orcharding as a livelihood, the picture become even bleaker.

However, memories and stories remain as long as there are those who will tell and those who will listen. The legacy of the Oak Grove school, store and grange will live on, as well as the effects from cultural endeavors like the area's Music and Art Associations. Raye also pointed to the Oak Grove Park; the women's Home Extension service, one of the first in the valley; and the fire department, which Bruno helped found, and to which Wimmers and Pierson belonged.

Hukari doesn't see her old friends as frequently as she used to, but was upbeat as they parted ways.

"A lot of good things came out of Oak Grove," she said, as she watched them drive away.

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