The Flathead cherry orchards surrounding the lake are, by and large, family owned and operated businesses. Many of the families have lived here and grown cherries for generations. One of those families is the Bowman family and their legacy of cherry growing is truly a legacy of love.
“Cherry” Jerry and Marilyn Bowman are third generation cherry growers. Their children, who are also intimately involved in the family business, represent the fourth generation, and their grandchildren, the fifth generation, are already helping out in the orchards and store. One thing that is common across all of the generations of Bowmans is a very evident love of cherries.
Back in the 1920’s, after losing his wife, Simon Bowman came to the valley with his two young sons, Adam and Eby and purchased a few acres of timbered land on the East Shore. There were already several small orchards along the lake and that inspired Simon to clear the timber on his land and plant cherry trees. That original Bowman orchard was just 1-2 acres. It grew to about 4-5 acres during the second generation and under the third and fourth generations it has grown into a much larger operation with orchards here as well as in Washington.
Over the decades, the Bowman family, along with the other cherry producers along Flathead Lake, have had many years of great crops, but also a few years that were devastating. In 1935, second generation growers Adam and Esther Bowman had just gotten married when winter came calling much earlier than normal—before the trees had the chance to go dormant. Days of rain were followed by snow and the trees were left standing in the orchards with their browned leaves still hanging from the limbs. The “experts” told Adam not to worry—to just go fishing and everything would be alright, but when spring came, it was clear that everything was not alright—the trees were dead. The Bowman’s lost their entire orchard that year. That did not deter Adam, however, he replanted and, knowing that it would take the young trees 5 years to begin producing and 7 years to become good producers, he took a job with the forest service to make ends meet. The family also had milk cows, a garden, and the lake for fishing so they dug in and continued to pursue what had already become the family business. Adam’s brother, Eby, went to Alaska for a time in search of gold and then into the military where he served in WWII. Because Adam already had a young family he did not go off to the war and instead, like a good neighbor, helped many of the other cherry growers with their crops—picking rock, cultivating, clearing, planting, and generally helping where needed. Over the years he shared his passion for cherry growing with his family and his son, Jerry, carried on the legacy.
After graduating from Montana State University with degrees in Agriculture and Industrial Arts, “Cherry” Jerry and his wife Marilyn took over as the third generation of Bowman cherry growers. Both also taught school in Bigfork—Marilyn for two years while Jerry finished college and until they began their family and Jerry for about 5 years. They had the normal ups and downs of the cherry business for many years until January of 1989 when the devastating “Siberian Express” hit. Many entire orchards along the lake were lost in that bitter freeze and Jerry and Marilyn lost about 75% of their trees—the more fragile, very young and very old ones. Instead of ‘closing up shop’, which many growers did, Jerry and Marilyn decided at that point to expand their business to Washington. That move also expanded their cherry growing season with some of the Washington orchards ripening at the beginning of June while some of the Flathead orchards continue producing late season, wonderfully sweet and flavorful fruit into September.
Generation Four of the Bowman family is working alongside Marilyn and Jerry. Denise, Diana, and Doug have brought fresh ideas, business expertise, and that same passion for cherries to continue the legacy. The fifth generation, like those before them, are already out in the orchards—irrigating, picking brush after pruning, and “testing” the cherries for ripeness. Denise and Diana remain here in the valley working with their mom, while Doug manages orchards in Washington. Patriarch Jerry, goes back and forth between the Washington and Montana enterprises while Marilyn is in charge of the local operation—in large part because she adores being in the mountains next to the lake.
According to the Bowmans, the key to great cherries is picking them at just the right time. Knowing when to pick is in part due to experience and a trained eye, but the best method, according to Marilyn, who repeated this a few times—with a twinkle in her eye—is to taste them. There is a device called a brix meter which can be used to test for sugar content—sweetness, but Marilyn’s never fail taste test is what she relies on most to determine when to call the pickers
There is nothing like tree ripened fruit, so the Bowmans, as is true of many of the local growers, do not pick until the cherries are ripe. Because of this, although the Bowmans do ship some of their cherries, those they ship are not sold to stores but rather, only to people who have fruit stands. They also make use of all of their cherries, using the culls to make cherry wine. The best cherries for wine, according to Jerry, are the Lamberts, the very variety that made the Flathead cherries so famous. Their sweetness and juiciness make them ideal for wine!
As Jerry and Marilyn Bowman talked about the generational history of their orchards, about planting, growing, and tending the trees, and about involving their kids and grandkids in the whole production, their love for cherries and the Flathead tradition was clearly evident in their expression, their humorous quips and their insistence that it all comes down to tasting the sweetness of the deep red fruit. As long as that passion, that love, is passed to each emerging generation, there is little doubt that the legacy will continue for many, many more generations of Bowmans.