It must have been a sight to see on a fall morning in 1916 — a caravan of 77 automobiles outbound from Wilkes-Barre headed north on Wyoming Avenue. On board were parties invited by Luzerne County Farm Bureau to tour the Exeter Fruit Farm, considered the largest and best fruit farm in Pennsylvania.
Hosting visitors was nothing new for Exeter Fruit Farm proprietors, cousins Wesley J. and Howard Lewis. As early as 1911, one section of their orchard was set aside by a state bureau for a state biologist to demonstrate the culture of fruit. Wesley J., who the Pittston Gazette called the “Best example of modern scientific fruit grower,” said an acre of fruit properly cultivated would produce a better return than an acre of coal.
The Exeter Fruit Farm which took root in the early 1900s when Wesley and Howard grafted branches from wild apple trees onto rows of saplings they planted to create an orchard on land their great-grandfather Levi Lewis had bought in the 1820s. By the end of the 1900 decade, Wesley and Howard’s apple orchard was 50 acres with 2,500 trees
The 1910s through 1936 were the heyday of the Exeter Fruit Farm. The farm — 1,050 feet above the valley on Mt. Zion Road in Harding, Exeter Twp. — hosted an annual fruit growers picnic, where fruit farmers from Luzerne and Wyoming counties partied and discussed their trade. The beekeepers association met at the farm to hear Penn State professors discuss the management of bees.
Lewis apples were shipped to Binghamton and New York City, where they were individually wrapped in wax paper and put in new baskets with lids and sold for $1.05 a bushel, a 50-cent mark up. In 1912, in an ad in the Pittston Gazette, Wesley announced, “While it is true that dealers and consumers in the large cities are always anxious to buy our fruit, our plan is to supply home people first.”
The brothers made contracts with local distributors, Evans Brothers, Harry Haine, M. Bolin in Pittston and H.P. Campbell, EC Jenkins in West Pittston. By the 1920s, the farm was producing 25,000 bushels of McIntosh, Rome, Wagener, Sweet Delicious and Pippin apples, which could be harvested from late summer to early winter. High school and college students and itinerate workers were hired to pick for $1.25 a day.
The 1920 crop was so strong it was feared the trees would break down under the weight of the apples. The brothers had to build an extension to the underground storage. They donated 10 bushels to Pittston Hospital. Hospital workers canned 170 quarts. The farm established its own wholesale route which was run twice a week from Pittston to Plymouth. The biggest stores on the route would buy 50 to 60 bushels, or a ton of apples. Scranton agencies made their own pickups at the farm. By the late 1920s, thousands of miners from Scranton to Plymouth carried Lewis apples in their lunch pails, while their wives canned apples and Exeter Fruit Farm peaches, cherries and pears, of which the brothers had five acres of each.
The Lewis brothers entered their fruit in food expositions. They won the Second National Bank Cup at Luzerne County Fruit Growers Association competition at the armory, selected by judge from Penn State, several times. In 1914, their display for the Wilkes-Barre Agricultural Association was a sensation. They built a pyramid of fruit with “Exeter Fruit Farm” spelled in relief with fruit of different colors on a large platform in the center of the armory floor. At a county apple show at The Globe Store, they took first place in four categories.
A storm in July of 1936 pounded the fruit farm with golf ball sized hail, tearing the bark off fruit tree branches and smashing most of the apples to the ground. An expected yield of 30,000 bushels was reduced to 3,000. Howard’s son, Norman, suggested making cider to recoup. He was sent to Sunbury to buy a brand new cider press for $375 with no money down. The cider sales helped, but the farm never recovered fully from the hailstorm.
Wesley J. and Howard had seven sons between them. Howard’s son, Norman, continued to work the apple orchard until 1987. Norman’s brother, Nelson, and his cousin, Wesley J.’s son, Wesley G., started their own fruit businesses a few miles from the original site on Mt. Zion Road. Wesley G. worked as a rural mail carrier, but made a good supplemental income from 1951 to 1980 with 1,200 peach trees he planted in 1946. Norman and Wesley G. lived well into their 80s and died in the 1990s. Nelson operated his own apple and cider business from 1946 until 1983, also on Mt. Zion Road. He died in 1993.
Today, Nelson’s apple and cider business is operated on a small scale by a family friend on a lease. The small barn on Mt. Zion Road, not far from Oberdorfer Road, is all that’s left of what was once the biggest fruit farm in Pennsylvania. The original trees are long gone. Subsequent plantings are getting old.
Much has changed, but one thing is the same — the cider is delicious.