Two hundred years ago, as the late summer sun warmed the soil in the fertile San Juan Valley, friars and Native Californians enjoyed fresh, luscious pears from a thriving 40-acre orchard behind the town’s sprawling Mission.
That 897-tree orchard owned by the circa 1797 Old Mission San Juan Bautista, though, has been destroyed by weather, bugs, disease and vandalism – save for a lone, tenacious pear tree that continued to grow against all odds with the help of a motley crew of locals dedicated to preserving what’s left of it.
The tree somehow survived decades of neglect long after its contemporaries died off. That is, until around 2007 – when someone allegedly became hell-bent on killing the piece of history that so many San Juan Bautistans cherish.
“Somebody knocked it over, dragged it, sprayed it with Roundup,” said Mission historian Ruben Mendoza. “We don’t know who it was, but somebody really wanted it dead.”
Prior to that around 2005, the tree had actually taken a turn for the better and was even “producing fruit again,” says 73-year-old lifelong San Juan Bautistan Richard Ponce, from his dining room full of antiques and funky relics.
A short, tan man dressed in Levi’s and a baseball cap, Ponce’s exuberance grew as he flipped through photos of the ancient tree in full blossom a few years back.
“Then one day,” he continued, “I went out there and found someone had knocked it down.”
But the pear tree didn’t give up that easily. It came back next year, with a 3-inch thick green shoot emerging from its base.
The next year, the tree was vandalized a second time, probably by a wayward teen, according to Ponce, who said the shoot was pulled out and thrown on the ground.
“This time I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we lost it for sure,’” he said.
But again, to his surprise, the tree came back with a bright green shoot the following year – only to be whacked down, trampled and sprayed with an herbicide, as Ponce discovered one day when walking in what used to be the old pear tree orchard.
Ponce, who remembers many childhood summers relaxing under the single pear tree and playing in the surrounding fields, banded together with others who cared about the tree’s survival. A day or two after the tree had been demolished for the third and final time in 2010, Ponce found a twig of the shoot a few feet away from the stump and kept it, hoping to resurrect it somehow.
That’s where Ashlee Hill comes in.
The 26-year-old shop owner in San Juan Bautista with a horticulture degree from Modesto Junior College was relatively new to town at the time. Ponce wondered if she had enough obstinacy and skill to graft a 200-year-old fruit tree branch into another young, healthy pear tree.
The Mission offered to pay Hill $25 to attempt the feat. She jumped at the opportunity.
“I mean, it’s the famous Mission pear. I had to,” she resolved.
Two years later on a sunny afternoon in April, Hill stood near a 5-foot tall pear tree with glistening green leaves in her outdoor nursery called Gardener’s Eden on Third Street. Two of the three twigs Hill grafted took, one of them is barely still alive – but the third one is now a thriving 10-inch branch with a few inches of new growth this spring.
“Two hundred year old tree here,” Hill said, gently tugging on the grafted branch. “It’s pretty much a miracle it took.”
A petite brunette who uses large hand gestures to tell a story, Hill is fiery about nurturing the piece of living history.
“There’s a lot of people who really, really want this tree to live,” she said, gazing at the plant.
The revived tree’s fan club includes Mendoza, an artist and local antique store owner Halina Kleinsmith and historical author Ron Olmstead, who is currently researching the tree’s story for a book.
On a recent hot spring day, Kleinsmith and Ponce made the quarter mile trek from the Mission through pepper trees, cactus and oak trees to the muddy fields behind the Mission to pay a visit to the pear tree’s original and former site.
What remains of the once 20-foot stately tree is a dried out, 2-foot stump in the middle of a radicchio and butter lettuce crop owned by Coke Farms of San Juan Bautista. The dead tree is encompassed by a small fortress of four metal posts and a short wire fence built by the Mission.
Kleinsmith, an animated woman with frizzy auburn hair, leaned over the stump and poured the last few ounces of her bottled water over it, gently patting its bark.
“Oh you poor tree, you have gone through so much. You have seen so much,” she whispered before lifting her hands to the sky in a prayer.
Ponce stood over the stump, sipping a can of Pepsi and remembering what the field looked like when he was a child.
“It was always on its last leg, just trying to survive,” he said. “It’s a real fighter.”
Kleinsmith and Ponce still hope for a miracle – that the stump will resurrect itself – but knowing that may never happen, they are thrilled about Hill’s successful graft.
“Now our focus is to agree on a safe place to plant it,” Ponce says. “We want it so the public can see it and enjoy it, but where it is protected. Perhaps in the Mission courtyard.”
Mendoza, a local historian and professor of archeology at California State University, Monterey Bay, is a huge buff of the Mission’s history and has scoured countless primary historic texts to paint a picture of what the orchard looked like way back when.
“It was once bound by a wall of cow skulls that were butchered to feed the Indian population of the Mission, to keep cattle from eating the fruit,” he explained.
By the turn of the 20th century, about 40 trees were left, he says. One by one, those trees died off from old age and tree blight disease. Just one remained by the mid-century, and as the effort to preserve the solitary plant revved up in the 2000s, it appeared as if someone else was intent on its destruction.
But whoever it was – the mystery still remains – San Juan’s little pear tree that could has a dedicated posse of guardian angels.
Hill looks forward to giving the tree back to the Mission when it is strong enough to plant in the ground. For now, she watches over it at her nursery, which she recently opened up last month adjacent to Vintage Corner, the antique store she runs with her mother, Wendy Hill.
People who know about the tree’s story stop by on the weekends to badger Hill about selling it – some even going so far as to offer a lump sum of $500 cash just to own a piece of San Juan Bautista’s history.
“I tell them, ‘get out of here, that’s God’s tree,’” Hill laughs.
Ponce also worries the precious tree could be stolen.
“There’s some wackos out there who have the money, want a piece of history, and will do whatever it takes to get it,” he says.
But locals such as Ponce, Hill and Kleinsmith, among others, are committed to raising resources to re-plant, protect and publicize the one-of-a-kind tree as a piece of the town’s vibrant, living history.
“We’ll do whatever it takes,” Ponce said. “We’ll see it flourish again.”