Grants Pass, Ore.–When prohibition was repealed, Americans celebrated with a passion for beer that led to a big demand for one of the brew’s key ingredients… hops. And Southern Oregon jumped on the bandwagon with a number of hop yards being re-established. Several were in the Grants Pass area, and others in the Applegate valley. And by the time the Great Depression was in full gear, the summer harvest of hops was a magnet for out-of-town workers, local students and others hoping to pick up a little spending money. But it wasn’t much by most accounts. Pickers were paid by the pound, and in 1936 and ’37, accounts say that only amounted to a penny or less a pound. And it took a lot of hops to make a pound! Average pickers might manage to gather a hundred pounds or less in a daylight to dusk picking day, with a small bonus paid for those who stayed to the end of the harvest that might last for several weeks.
Tall poles supported cross wires with twine hanging down upon which the vines climbed up to 20 feet high. The lines would be cut down and the pickers would gather all the little pinecone-like buds they could and put them in a bag, which was weighed, and the picker given a ticket-like receipt to be cashed at the end of each day. Adults and kids alike worked side by side. But at a penny a pound or less meant a dollar a day was what most pickers could expect to earn.
A letter to a Provolt woman in 1931 tells some of the story. Lois wright of Grants Pass writes: “I think hop picking will start next Monday. In a way I am anxious for it to start and in a way I dread it. We are going to pick at the Kings”. They were one of the commercial hop growers in the valley. She continues, “I wish you could be there too. We could have lots of fun in our spare time. I’ve picked hops there before so I will probably know some kids there.”
Many families camped, or stayed in small cabins provided by some growers. Others slept in tents. Some in their cars. Facilities were bare and the work was tiring.Stronger workers with stilts strapped to their legs did the high work while kids and less experienced pickers worked on the ground. In the early days the work was all done by hand, but in later years equipment was brought in that removed a lot of the handwork that made it such a laborious job.
The last hop harvest in Grants Pass was in 1989. The 400 acres leased by the John Haas company of Yakima was using mechanized equipment that brought the strings of vines into a building where the buds were stripped off, dried, and baled in burlap for shipping. It was labor issues that brought the harvest to its final end.
But hop growing is apparently making a comeback on a small scale. A small hop yard at Frau Kemmling’s in Jacksonville is just for show, at least for now. They hope to get a permit to make their own beer using their home grown hops. Nearby, Mike Bartlett of Bartlett’s Tree Service just harvested his first crop. About 25 pounds dried. He says he’s catering to the home brew crowd for now. Pointing to a hop bud, Mike says, “the component that makes these so useful is inside here. It’s called lupulin. It’s the yellow little powdery stuff in there and that’s what gives the beer its smell. That really nice aroma and it helps bitter it.” So after 150 years, Southern Oregon hop history may be making a comeback, one vine at a time.