On a bucolic nursery owned by one of the state’s founding fathers, a Chinese sojourner developed one of the most dominant varieties of fruit ever grown. The cherry named in honor of him can trace its lineage to the first fruit trees planted in Oregon.
As the Bing cherry gained popularity in the marketplace, an anti-immigration fervor against Chinese laborers rolled through Western states and Ah Bing retreated from Oregon, never to be heard from again.
There’s a timeless quality to the godfather of the Bing cherry. A quick Google of Henderson Luelling reveals a portrait in which he sports a chinstrap beard, a vest and affected grimace. He’s just as likely to traverse the Oregon Trail as to pick up the new Mumford and Sons on vinyl after brunch.
In an era when families are reluctant to travel to the coast without seemingly three screens per passenger, it’s hard to comprehend Luelling’s journey from Iowa in 1847. He moved his eight children, pregnant wife, and 700 fruit trees in a wagon that traveled about 15 miles per day. With minimal protection from the elements, the travelers faced mortal threats from freezing, scurvy and death from dysentery. The Luellings transported sixty varieties of plants, trees and vines in their traveling nursery, which would become the foundation of Oregon’s thriving vineyards, orchards and nurseries. They reached Portland in late 1847, all family members and half the tree stock intact. While Luelling was looking for suitable land for his permanent nursery, his wife, Elizabeth, unable to reach Fort Vancouver for medical attention, gave birth to her ninth child on the southern shore of the Columbia River. They fittingly named the child Oregon Columbia.
Once Luelling was established, his extended family followed him here. In 1850, his younger brother, Seth, moved to Luelling’s Milwaukie-based nursery after briefly trying his hand at gold prospecting. Seth spelled his last name Lewelling. The alternative spelling could be something as simple as a “double-u,” or could be a distancing from his brother who put himself at the center of a scandal by leaving his wife to join a group of free love advocates sailing for Honduras.
The younger Lewelling arrived from California with additional tree stock and seed and the two brothers, along with Luelling’s son-in-law, began scaling their nursery business. Through tree grafting, Luelling’s operation expanded to four growing locations and an estimated 100,000 trees in the ground.
The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 offered 640 acres of land to homesteaders. One of the conditions of receiving a land grant was that property owners needed to make improvements to their land. Planting an orchard was considered such an improvement. Fruit trees were in demand, and the Luellings were soon selling their stock for an exorbitant $1.50 per tree. For perspective, forty years later, Seth Lewelling’s nursery catalog still listed the price of young apple trees at the same price.
Luelling’s first wife died from complications of childbirth as their nursery business was taking off. He remarried within months; his second wife passed three years later. Struck by tragedy, sensing opportunity in booming California and filled with a restlessness that defined his life, Henderson Luelling decamped south, leaving his brother behind with the nursery business.
Luelling planted orchards in what would become the Fruitvale section of Oakland. In 1859, he sold his holdings to the governor of California, skipped out on his third wife and boarded a ship to Central America. When the Honduran colony founded on utopian ideals and free love unsurprisingly failed, Luelling escaped with his life but lost his fortune. He returned to California, eventually settling in Mountain View, possibly to avoid the awkwardness of running into the wife he abandoned across the bay.
Luelling’s life is a near-archetypal story of how the West was settled. His family’s migration to Oregon is just one part of the force of change in nineteenth century Oregon.
In the 1850s, a series of natural disasters, famine, political strife and the Second Opium War devastated southwestern China forcing hundreds of thousands of men to seek wages elsewhere. Many would migrate to California, working first in the mining operations of the gold rush, then as the Civil War drained the available manpower, Chinese workers labored to build railroads, manned lumber mills and cleared the land to make way for the epoch of California’s agricultural industry. As gold claims were exhausted and railroads completed, Chinese immigrants diversified their labor and embraced entrepreneurship, owning and operating restaurants and laundries as well as founding financial and other services to cater to the Chinese population.
By 1880 there were approximately 10,000 Chinese in Oregon, about 5 percent of the state’s population. The workers lived throughout the state, including 2,000 laborers in John Day. Seth Lewelling’s nursery employed around thirty of these men, including the Chinese workers’ foreman, Ah Bing.
If not for his namesake cherry, Ah Bing’s thirty-five years in the United States may have faded into anonymity. Only decades later, when people realized the economic importance of the Bing cherry was an effort launched to investigate Ah Bing’s life. Bing left behind no correspondence, immigration paperwork or journals. Much of his biography is hearsay, but it’s similar to that of thousands of other Chinese laborers. He apparently entered the country in California, following railroads north and briefly cooking in a lumber camp before finding permanent employment with Lewelling. One person with firsthand knowledge of Ah Bing was Florence Olson Ledding.
In a family full of freethinkers, suffragists and trailblazers, Ledding held her own. She graduated from the University of Oregon and became one of the first female attorneys in the state. She first met Seth Lewelling when she moved to Milwaukie at age 6. When Ledding was a teenager, her mother married Seth Lewelling, and she moved to the Lewelling house and nursery.
At nearly 60, Ledding documented her memories of Bing. She remembered he was well over 6 feet tall, and she believed he was Manchurian, unlike the majority of laborers who were from Canton. Lewelling and Bing alternated rows in the nursery’s test area and legend has it the memorable cherry fruited on a tree in Bing’s row. Lewelling honored his Chinese foreman by naming the new cherry after him. This account may be true, though the Bing cherry was developed years before Ledding joined the Lewelling home. Seth Lewelling’s journals from this time offer little clarity on the issue. He was more prone to record the weather and expenditures for his nursery than the thoughts and details of his daily life—his writing remains mute on the subject of Ah Bing, except for paying him.
In 1882, the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, restricting the immigration of laborers. It is regarded as the first law targeted at a particular ethnic group. Early immigration laws didn’t identify who could immigrate, only restricted those who couldn’t. In 1885, Tacomans rioted against the town’s Chinese residents, expelling the community en masse. Many who were forced on a train south found sanctuary in Portland’s Chinatown. The year of 1887 saw the murder of thirty-four Chinese workers in Hells Canyon. The perpetrators went unpunished. The Geary Act of 1892 renewed the Exclusion Act and compelled the Chinese to carry papers, procured at their expense, proving they were legally in the United States.
Ah Bing returned to China during this period of legal restrictions. He had periodically returned to his homeland during his thirty-five years of employment with Lewelling, and often spoke of a wife and family in China to whom he regularly sent wages.
Ledding speculated Bing was unable to reenter the United States due to immigration restrictions; others proffer that Bing left the country as a reaction to the growing anti-Chinese sentiment, that he no longer felt safe outside the sanctuary of Lewelling’s nursery. Bing would have been near 50 at this time. After years of strenuous labor, it’s possible he fulfilled his ambition and returned to China to invest his earnings.
Even with just half of the acreage grown at the turn of the century, the Bing cherry today is still the most popular sweet cherry produced in Oregon. Henderson Luelling’s journey to Oregon is the subject of books. Seth Lewelling has his name inscribed in the Senate chamber of the Oregon Capitol and a school in Milwaukie named after him. In addition to the fruits he developed, he’s occasionally remembered for his effort promoting the state’s ballot initiative system. Ah Bing faded from memory. The details of his journey, hardship and American experience are all but lost. It’s possible he is the best remembered, memorialized countlessly in the early days of summer when the sweet cherries arrive, and people indulge in the fruit that bears his name.