Developed in the 1920s on Vashon Island, this hybrid was called the best berry in the Northwest.
HERE IN THE Northwest, we love our strawberries, our raspberries, even our tangling invasive blackberry vines.
What we’ve all but forgotten, though, is when the Olympic berry ruled the harvest.
The berry, developed in the 1920s and patented in 1937, inspired a flavor of sherbet and a shade of paint. Frederick & Nelson — the department store that was once similarly illustrious — would buy the entire crop from the Vashon Island farm where the berry was developed. Fresh, whole Olympic berries filled what was described as a “queen’s tart” in 1937 at the Frederick & Nelson bakery, laid on a base of rich cake batter and topped with meringue.
By 1939, tracts of land for new ranchette homes were advertised for sale with bonus Olympic plants, “without question the most aristocratic of all the juice-bearing berries.” The Seattle Times called it, “the most outstanding berry of the Northwest.”
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The berry’s story began, as so many Seattle stories do, at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Vashon and Bainbridge islands were known for agriculture in the years before World War II, and Sweden-born Peter Erickson, a Vashon farmer, visited the show to exhibit his blue-ribbon fruits.
Erickson “was always eager to try out new things, and was generous about helping others with their horticultural problems,” recalls his grandson, Hallack “Hal” Greider, now 85. At the World’s Fair, Erickson befriended famed horticulturist Luther Burbank, whose inventions included the crimson Phenomenal berry, a blackberry-raspberry cross similar to a loganberry. With Burbank’s permission, Erickson crossed the Phenomenal with the complex wild blackcap raspberries he remembered from his youth. Working with his son-in-law, also named Hallack Greider, they perfected and marketed the cross.
The Olympic berry patent describes “very large” berries, as much as 2 inches long and an inch in diameter, “wine black” and shiny when ripe. Among their almost-otherworldly public descriptions: They resisted harsh temperatures, remained succulently firm for long periods and boasted imperceptibly soft seeds and cores. Seattle General Hospital claimed diabetic patients could eat them, Greider says. The flavor was described in later years by Sara Overton as, “a startling sweetness, an almost buttery richness and just the necessary slight hint of tang.”
Greider’s mother would tell him how his father “took berries into Seattle and walked up and down Second Avenue in the heart of the city and handed out samples” to market them, he says. It wasn’t long before menus and newspaper stories called them “famous.” And on the farm, he says, “My mother canned them and made jam and made pies.”
Tragedy struck in 1943, when Hal’s father died of a heart attack. Hal says his mother was left “with her aging father and young son — me — to run the berry farm.”
It was a strenuous life.
“Frederick & Nelson wanted the berries, so they brought somebody in to try to run the fields … that lasted a year,” Greider says. At 12, he did a little bit of everything.
But, “It was impossible to farm,” he says. “You couldn’t get help because of the war.”
Hal eventually went into business, becoming a banking manager. His mother taught school.
The berry fields that once buzzed with activity became quiet.
If you know where to look for the canes, though, Olympic berries are still beloved.
Karen Dale, who gardens at the Greiders’ original farm site (much of it now an alpaca ranch), has propagated Olympics from a cluster that remains on the property. Avid fruit grower Helen Brocard, who died in 2014, had a row of the berries in her Maury Island gardens, now owned and tended by Patty Hieb. (Hieb has focused on rejuvenating the similarly rare and toothsome Marshall strawberries, selling plants some years at the Vashon Farmers Market.)
The Greider family also retains its connection. Hal’s son, also named Hallack, and his sister, Heidi, made sure to plant some Olympics in their own yards when the original farm was sold.
“He makes enough to make jam and freeze berries; his wife makes pies,” Greider says.
And are they that much better than other berries still, outreigning the seedy boysenberry or the loganberry?