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When the apples bloom in Fairbanks, think of Clair Lammers

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Posted: Sunday, January 6, 2013 1:45 pm | Updated: 6:39 pm, Mon Jan 7, 2013.

FAIRBANKS - Clair Lammers, who died on Christmas Eve at 77, was a farmer, X-ray technician, cement truck driver, pilot, electrician, wood cutter, gold miner, singer, yodeler, home builder, trapper, riverboat captain, plumber, skier, business owner and a man who appreciated old hats.

He was also a husband, father and a dreamer, one who understood the phrase in the Song of Solomon, “comfort me with apples.”

The fruit catalogs that list varieties that have been successfully tested to 50 below zero are a tribute to the unlikely orchard the self-taught scientist established on a terraced hillside off Esro Road.

Lammers, one of 7 children, grew up on a farm in Nebraska and worked as an X-ray technician at the Fairbanks Clinic after arriving in Fairbanks in 1964.

He and his wife, Vivian, moved with their four sons from Island Homes in 1979 to the site where he built a home and an orchard in the decades that followed.

At his funeral Friday, the Immaculate Conception Church was filled with friends of the Lammers’ family to honor his memory.

In a eulogy for his dad, Joe Lammers said that establishing an orchard in this cold climate was the wildest of Clair’s dreams.

“It was a dream he pursued with intelligence, diligence, perseverance and with an idea that he would have to take lessons from others,” Joe said.  

“He took a lot of joy from his apple orchard, the fruit it produced, the people he met in the process and the friendships he created. And I must admit he did rejoice in proving it could be done.”

Other people managed to grow some apples in the Fairbanks area before him, but Lammers grew fruit on a larger and more sophisticated scale, testing hundreds of varieties through a rigorous system of trial and error.

“A lack of training never stopped dad from accomplishing something that was part of his dream,” Joe said. “If he did not know it, he would figure it out.”

Through his research and field work, Lammers figured out how to successfully grow fruit trees in Fairbanks, harvesting apples from several dozen hardy species that came from northern Canada, Russia and other cold regions. He also experimented with apricots, plums, pears and cherries.

In the apple kingdom, he was a big fan of the September Ruby, the Golden Uralian and others among the 200 varieties spread across his hillside, which is enclosed by a industrial-strength 8-foot fence to keep out the moose.

“It’s a lot of work but it keeps a guy out of the bars,” he told writer Nancy Tarnai in a 2011 interview.

He harvested 6,000 pounds of apples in 2010, selling them at the Tanana Valley Farmers Market in the fall.

In 1998, Lammers gave me a tour of his orchard on a sunny September afternoon. As we walked among the trees, he kept picking ripe fruit and handing me slice after slice that he cut with his penknife.

 When I asked him about which trees were the best, he reached for a notebook in his shirt pocket on which he had statistics for all of the 90 types of trees that had produced fruit that summer.

His best tree contained 53 pounds of apples. He was selling some apples already, but he looked forward to the day when local apples would be accepted in Fairbanks.

“I think what I’m doing is gaining the knowledge and experience that will be of use to someone else in the future,” he said.

As to what the future holds, Joe said he and his brothers are not sure yet of the operational details, but they plan to keep the orchard operating.

In a tribute posted online, Pat Holloway, the head of the Georgeson Botanical Garden, said it was a privilege to have had Lammers as a mentor and a friend.

She is among many who will miss him and think about him, “especially when the apples bloom each spring.”

Dermot Cole can be reached at cole@newsminer.com or 459-7530.

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