Fruita: a ‘tasty’ testament to Mormon grit, industry

Credit: Jason Swensen
Credit: Jason Swensen
Credit: Jason Swensen
Credit: Jason Swensen
Credit: Jason Swensen
Credit: Image displayed at the Gifford House
Credit: Image displayed at the Gifford House
Credit: Jason Swensen
Credit: Jason Swensen


An overlook just a few steps from the Hickman Bridge natural arch offers hikers a stunning, waiting-to-be-photographed testament to Mormon grit and ingenuity.

A rich valley orchard rests deep below and flanked by the vastness of cliff and sage that define this untamed region of Capitol Reef. It’s an oasis of fruit-laden, verdant trees that almost seems to mock its surrounding desolation.

This trail-side view prompts an obvious question: How did apple, pear, apricot and cherry trees find a home in such wilderness?

Its answer is found in the long-abandoned Mormon settlement aptly called Fruita.

Located in the northern half of Capitol Reef National Park, the Fruita Historic District is likely an inspiring (and often tasty) surprise for the hundreds of thousands of worldwide visitors who pass through the park each year.

The park’s visitor center offers a brief history of Fruita:

In 1880, Mormon settlers — answering Brigham Young’s charge to “go forth and populate the territory” — recognized opportunity in this lonesome sliver of land in what is now Utah’s Wayne County.

Yes, there were extreme arid temperatures, flash floods and daunting high canyon walls — but there was also water for irrigation and rich soil to be farmed. The Latter-day Saints who would populate Fruita would plant the aforementioned orchards, build homes and construct a tiny school.

Life was often hard for Fruita’s Mormons. The summers were hot and the winters could be bitter cold. Sudden rains often turned into deadly washouts. But for more than half a century, the residents of Fruita formed a determined community.

“Their cooperative spirit, determination and spiritual bond were important to the survival of Fruita as an isolated settlement in a remote location,” notes a historical marker placed aside Fruita’s historic one-room schoolhouse.

The Amasa Pierce Orchard is found just a few steps from the schoolhouse. The Pierce family moved to what would become Fruita around 1895. Amasa Pierce served for years as the community’s presiding Church elder. His wife, Maria Ann, would organize Fruita’s first Primary.

The communal labors of the Pierces and several other LDS families would earn tiny Fruita the title “Eden of Wayne County.”

The Mormons weren’t the first to call the Freemont River Valley home. Centuries earlier, Fremont Indians supplemented their hunter/gatherer existence by growing corn, squash and other crops near the river.

And like the region’s first indigenous settlers, the Mormons would not find a permanent home in this valley. Over time, the area’s colorful natural landscapes captured the attention of outdoor lovers. Calls were made to place the region under federal protection and the National Park Service purchased land owned by the residents. Fruita’s last family, the Giffords, left the valley in 1969.

In 1971, the Capitol Reef region encompassing Fruita was officially designated as a U.S. national park.

The Mormon residents of Fruita are gone — but their legacy of community, hard work and industry remains. A few of the remaining structures, including the restored schoolhouse and the Gifford House, attract tourists every day.

Meanwhile, the Fruita orchards — which include about 3,000 trees — are maintained by the park service. Visitors can pick and snack on orchard fruit when they come into season.

Perhaps with each juicy bite of a local apple or pear, a Fruita newcomer’s thoughts turn to the area’s remarkable Mormon past.

“For both regional neighbors and visitors throughout the world,” notes a park release, “Fruita will continue to be the ‘Eden of Wayne County.’”

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