Uprooted Harvest

Pat one: The Merz: a farm family adapts

They gathered at the small country church on a hot day in summer to pay tribute to one of their own.

In time-honored tradition, hundreds of fruit growers in the Hood River Valley crowded the pews of the Parkdale Community Church to remember the man who had been respectfully known by his six surviving children as the "God Farmer."

The late Lewis Albert Merz, Sr., had died in August, unexpectedly less than one week before from heart disease. He had been rushed into the hospital for an unsuccessful emergency surgery just eight days before his 88th birthday, and on the same day his late wife of 52 years, Janice Hall Merz, had been born.

Although there was laughter among the assemblage over the antics of the outspoken orchardist who had lived among them for more than six decades, there was also a somber undertone. For the upper valley community, the loss of Lew Merz was more than just the loss of a neighbor who had fed them from the bounty of his garden.

His death further diminished the ranks of a generation that had epitomized the American Dream. A way of life that had turned illusory for his 26 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Even Lew, always the optimist, had acknowledged in his last days that the fruit industry, like other food producers, was battling against a multi-headed foe that would be difficult to conquer. Although he had always encouraged his family to "just grow one more crop" when they struggled through bad years, he no longer believed the solution could be that simple.

"I try to keep their spirits up but don't know if I can keep using those same words anymore because there are political forces out there that are controlling this," said Lew less than one month before his death.

In many respects the story of the Merz' family is typical of many early settlers in the Hood River Valley. They came to find prosperity and the opportunity to carve out their own destiny. Lew and Janice had married in April of 1939 and settled into the community of Parkdale to teach at the local school. In 1942 they scraped together $500 to purchase their first 15 acres of apple and pear orchard land and a weathered farmhouse.

In 1944 Lew resigned his position as principal to become a full-time farmer. By that time the couple had three young mouths to feed and scrambled to buy more property, gradually increasing their holdings to 300 acres. As they struggled to get their tree fruit business growing, Lew credited the tenacity of Janice -- who earned the title of Oregon State Mother of the Year in 1982 -- for keeping him calm through his early worries over the success of their venture and managing the inherent chaos created by seven children. Born between 1941-51 were, from oldest to youngest: Judith Eleanor (Wyers), Patricia Alice (Campbell), Mary Lou (Tolbert), Ruth Cecille (McAlexander), Susan Jean (Donnelly), Lewis Albert, Jr., and Bette Anne (Benjamin).

"To be in this business you have to love the land and have a passion for being out in nature," said Bette.

She and her siblings remember their childhood as idyllic and closely tied to the earth. They spent long days on the end of a hoe tending to the strawberries raised as a cover crop, running barefoot through rows of fruit trees, and managing the herd of horses, cattle, rabbits, swine, sheep, cats and dogs that were either pets or being raised as 4-H projects for market. But it was Ruth, the family tomboy, who got to drive the tractor most often -- a remembered accomplishment that years later would be instrumental in leading her from a secure career in the school room back to the uncertain life of an orchardist.

"Daddy always said I was his cheapest and best hired hand," laughed Ruth.

On some outings, she recalled her father bouncing over the bumpy farm roadways with a pickup full of children and six German Shepherd dogs (he was named State of Oregon All-American Father of the Year in 1959).

Life was hectic in the Merz household during those years, with all of the children participating in both school activities and community events. But there was always time for collecting wildflowers and Native American artifacts along Oregon rivers.

"We learned very good work ethics growing up on a farm," said Susan.

At the urging of their parents, the Merz children all graduated from college with degrees in the education field. However, four of the siblings, Ruth, Susan, Lew, Jr., and Bette, decided to return to the Hood River Valley to become second-generation orchardists. They were "grub staked" in that endeavor by their parents, who either sold them parcels of the family-owned land or helped them purchase other properties. Eventually, Lew and Janice had only 80 acres for their own use which, in their later years, was managed by their only son.

"There's good times and there's bad times but, having grown up on a farm, it's all I've ever known," said Bette.

Although their family chronicled a long success story, the Merz' also had their share of problems. There was a bitter divorce and bankruptcy for Lew, Jr., the incarceration of a beloved grandchild -- and then tragedy struck twice, in 1991 when Janice died of cancer and again in 1996 when Judy lost her life from the same disease. Since that time, Mary Lou has also been stricken with cancer but has been successfully fighting back.

During these times of emotional crisis, the Merz' circled their wagons and helped each other survive. And eventually life once again settled and Lew found marital happiness for a second time when he married a childhood sweetheart, Mildred, and his children readily adopted her and her four children into their ranks.

Through good and bad years, there was always the uncertainty of the harvest and the Merz clan went to great lengths to keep each others' spirits high because they were grateful for the opportunity to live the American dream.

To pursue that dream, the Merz family has had to diversify. Their lives have fanned out beyond the orchards they have known and loved.

"There is no way we'd recommend that they farm right now, it's just too unsettled," said Bette. "We could be the last generation of the family to do that."

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