Healdsburg Prune Blossom Tour Attracted Visitors from Far and Wide

Written By: Katherine J. Rinehart & Meredith Dreisback
Published: March 7, 2022

While organizing the Sonoma County Farm Bureau archives, I came across a March 1966 newsletter article that described how the Russian River Farm Bureau Center would once “again cooperate with Healdsburg Annual Prune Blossom Tour.” Curiosity piqued, I contacted the research curator at the Healdsburg Museum, Lauren Carriere, who shared some terrific information including an article authored by Meredith Dreisback, a long time Museum volunteer, that appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of the Russian River Recorder, a quarterly publication of the Healdsburg Museum. The following is an edited (revised?) version of that article written by Meredith.

To celebrate the beauty of the prune blossoms’ flowery show each spring, Frances Carson, chairman of the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce’s publicity committee, organized the first annual Prune Blossom Tour in March 1961. Local residents and visitors from the Bay Area were invited to travel the 30-mile route, including Fitch Mountain, Alexander Valley, Geyserville, Asti, and Dry Creek. The tour began at the Chamber of Commerce office where visitors were given a brochure, a map of the route and free prunes. In the first year approximately 200 people attended.

Now keep in mind, blossoms are an act of nature, and determining when they would be at their prime was often an issue in planning the Prune Blossom Tour. In an interview with Frank Zak, who chaired the event for over ten years, he said he would talk with prune farmers to determine when the trees would bloom. He also learned how the Vernal Equinox played a factor in bloom time each spring from the Catholic fathers.

In 1962 the blossom tour was planned for March 17th and March 18th. However, Mother Nature did not cooperate. March 17th and March 18th arrived, but not the blossoms, forcing the Chamber to extend the event to a second weekend, March 24th and March 25th when the trees actually did put on their flowery show. There were other years, throughout the event’s history, when the blossoms were either late or early, but the people came anyway.

Over the years, with extensive advertising in Motorland and Sunset magazines, the number of visitors to the event increased . . . by the busload. Five buses toured in 1962; 25+ at the peak of the event. The Prune Blossom Tour was a popular day excursion for senior citizen groups traveling from the Bay Area and the peninsula. The event guest register kept at the Chamber office also included out-of-state and, at times, international visitors. They came to see the beauty of Healdsburg and the surrounding area.

They also came for lunch. The Russian River Farm Bureau served a ham luncheon at the Alexander Valley Community Hall. The lunch included green, potato and Jell-O salads, peaches or pears and cottage cheese, spiced prunes, baked beans and ham, all for $1.35 (in 1963 . . . the last luncheon in 1995 cost $9). Profits from the luncheon funded scholarships on behalf of the Russian River Farm Bureau.

Over the years, visitors stopped at Timber Crest Farm’s prune packing facility where they were introduced to how prunes were processed and handled after picking. There were art exhibitions by the Healdsburg Arts, hoedowns by the Healdsburg Country Dancers, country barn sales by the Geyserville Dorcas Ladies Aid, a “Collections Showcase” sponsored by the Soroptimist Club and historical displays by the Alexander Valley Ladies Aid at the historic Alexander Valley Community Church. KVRE radio broadcasted live from the Prune Blossom Tour in 1971. All of these activities associated with the tour attracted nearly 4,000 at its peak in 1971. In 1966 the Prune Blossom Tour was rated as one of the top ten travel events in the nation (the only one in California) by the National Association of Travel Organizations. People appreciated the opportunity to view “the wild mustard, green grass, fresh country air and friendly people of the area.”

When the number of visitors to the Prune Blossom Tour increased to the point where the Chamber office could longer handle the crowds, the tour headquarters moved to the Villa Chanticleer where larger groups could be accommodated and outside vendors could display their offerings. Additionally, the Chamber began giving away prune cookies along with sample packets of prunes. The prune packets were bagged by local 4-H groups, Girl Scout troops and the Senior Citizens’ Club. The 3,000 prune cookies were made by the Healdsburg High School home economics classes. An article from the March 23, 1978 issue of the Healdsburg Tribune tells of Florence Wheeler’s Home Ec classes mixing 33 pounds pitted prunes, 19 pounds of shortening, 37 ½ pounds brown sugar, 12 ounces vanilla, 75 eggs, 23 ½ pounds of flour, 1 ½ cups baking powder, 1 cup salt, 37 ½ teaspoons cinnamon and 2 quarts prune juice to make the cookies.

People came by bus, private car, sometimes in antique autos and by plane. Beginning in 1965, pilots were encouraged to fly into the Healdsburg Airport, where private vehicles were on hand to meet visitors and take them on tour. The tour route was marked by wooden stakes, painted white with black lettering. Frank Zak would get up early on Saturday morning and drive the route, placing the directional stakes to guide the visitors. Healdsburg was serious about this event and wanted to ensure the area was “spic and span.” Sonoma County road crews cleaned Healdsburg Avenue and Alexander Valley Road as far as the County dump and from there, the Alexander Valley 4-H kids picked up the task, cleaning from the dumps to the community hall. Boy Scout Troop 21 helped direct traffic at the Villa Chanticleer.

In 1973 the Prune Blossom Tour took on a new name, “Spring Blossom Tour.” Grapevines were replacing prune trees. Though the blossoms were diminishing, interest in the event was not. People still came to see the countryside and enjoy lunch. In addition to all the other goodies offered at the Villa, they did receive information about the First Annual Russian River Wine Festival to be held in May that year. Times were changing; a new agricultural focus was emerging.

With the Chamber of Commerce’s attention shifting to the Wine Festival, they decided to remove themselves from the Spring Blossom Tour in 1986. From that point forward, the Russian River Farm Bureau, also known as the Alexander Valley Farm Bureau, took over responsibility for the Blossom Tour. They continued to serve lunch at the Community Hall and put on exhibits. The Alexander Valley 4-H Club prepared a farm animal display. Maps were given out directing visitors to other local activities, such as the quilt display at the Healdsburg Museum and the art show at the Healdsburg Senior Center.

The Spring Blossom Tour came to an end in 1995, after celebrating its 35th anniversary.

The original version of this article can be found, along with other issues of the Russian River Recorder, on the Healdsburg Museum’s website https://www.healdsburgmuseum.org/

 

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