Prunarians (Vancouver, Washington, 1920s)

  • By Bill Alley
  • Posted 3/24/2005
  • Essay 7206

This piece on the Prunarians, a group of civic-minded Vancouver businessmen active in the 1920s, was written by Bill Alley. During the 1920s, Clark County, Washington, was the prune capital of the world.

Prunes, Picnics, and Long-eared Gorillas

The Prunarians organized in 1919 to promote prune culture and consumption and to foster cooperation between local growers and merchants. Initially limited to 100 members, the Prunarians would soon evolve into a major civic booster, increasing their membership and promoting the interests of Clark County in general. They were perhaps best remembered as the driving force behind the annual Prune Harvest Festivals.

In the early 1920s, the nation as a whole was reaping the benefits of the economic recovery after several years of recession following World War I in Europe. Employment was rising, industrial production increasing and, although there were still substantial pockets of crime, poverty, and prejudice, a feeling of buoyant optimism prevailed across the land. New dances such as the Charleston and Blackbottom swung to the beat of countless jazz bands as young ladies’ dresses grew shorter and their hair shorter still. Even the more staid older generations indulged in such fads as crossword puzzles and mah jong while listening to their new radios.

Even here in Clark County this groundswell of good feeling could be felt. In downtown Vancouver substantial new buildings seemed to rise up like mushrooms after a spring rain. Prunes, the county’s leading agricultural commodity, were enjoying healthy prices, fueled by that commodity’s high demand as the nation’s most popular breakfast fruit. Even the local moonshiners and bootleggers must have enjoyed their share of this prosperity, given the number of newspaper reports of stills found in the surrounding woods. It seemed only natural, then, that the Prunarians would decide to treat the community to a massive picnic at downtown Vancouver’s Esther Short Park.

In 1924, the Prunarians set out to host what they billed as a "Super Picnic," the likes of which Clark County had never before seen. "The most elaborate program ever presented has been lined up," the group’s "Big Prune" promised, as arrangements committees worked to create a carnival like atmosphere at Esther Short Park. And, best of all, all the amusements would be free of charge.

For some members of the Prunarians, however, a community celebration of such magnitude needed something extra, a gimmick that would really draw in the crowds. At a meeting on July 16, 1924, the Prunarians came up with an idea that just might fit the bill.

For many years rumors had run rampant about a creature inhabiting the woods around Mt. Saint Helens described as "Mountain Devils, Wild Men, or Long-Eared Gorillas." Numerous sightings of this creature had been reported, but as with present-day stories of Sasquatch, no physical evidence had ever been found. What better way to showcase the social event of the summer than to exhibit to the crowds for the first time a specimen of this elusive beast.

Two "noted nimrods," County Assessor Chester Palmer and Ralph Dickson, were selected by the Prunarians to search out this elusive creature and bring him back for exhibit, dead or alive. This quest, of course, sparked a lively debate as to the veracity of the creature’s existence, and, after several days of hunting in the Spirit Lake region the two hunters found little save cougar tracks. The Prunarians’ big August picnic would have to do without their Long-Eared Gorilla.

The final word on the existence of the elusive Mt. Saint Helens creature ran on the front page of the Evening Columbian on July 18, under the headline "Local Jurist Solves Mystery of Wild Men."

"Those purported gorillas, or ‘ape men’ who are causing such consternation," Superior Court Judge George B. Simpson declared, "are no more than returning delegates from the recent Democratic Convention in New York City, who have become lost and are now vainly endeavoring to find their way out of the wilderness." And with that statement, the issue seemed closed.

Even without its hoped for main attraction, the Prunarians’ picnic in the park that August proved to be a huge success, which is more than could be said of the campaign later that fall of Democratic Presidential candidate John Davis. Calvin Coolidge and other Republicans swept the Washington general election on November 4, 1924.


Bill Alley

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