Every season has special qualities of its own that I enjoy, and one of my favorite things about the spring and summer months is the increase in fresh produce from the local area. There’s nothing quite like pulling an apple from a tree and biting into it or pulling an ear of corn off a stalk to throw on a campfire for some corn on the cob.
Since not all of us have apple trees or cornfields, however, there are other options for delicious produce, and one historic building in Rapid City was built to house a fruit company. Built on Seventh Street in 1920, the Rapid City Fruit Company building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, and its history goes hand in hand with Claude E. Gray (a businessman about whom I wrote a previous column). He was the president of the Black Hills Wholesale Grocery, and it was he and C.A. Nesbit, a produce manager for the Wasmer Fruit Company, who built the 98- by 50-feet building. Gray bought the property on which the building was constructed about a year earlier.
The single-story, brick commercial building is near the historic warehouse district in Rapid City, and the original bricks were made of Portland cement, a locally-manufactured cement from the state-owned plant. J.T. Garland completed the brick work on the building (Garland Construction was one of the city’s early general contracting businesses), and the Rapid City Brick and Tile Company did the brick-casting work.
Prior to this venture, Nesbit had managed Cash Grocery Company, and the National Register of Historic Places describes this experience as giving him “the necessary knowledge to establish a successful cold fruit storage warehousing business.” The Rapid City Fruit Company building was the first cold storage building in the city. Because of its proximity to the railroad, produce could be housed at the warehouse before distribution, and the building served Rapid City, as well as much of the surrounding area, becoming part of the business district that helped Rapid City grow.
Unfortunately, many of the records about the building have been destroyed, so many of the details about its use have been erased, so to speak. Gray reportedly sold the building in 1935, so it may not have been used for cold storage, at least specifically for fruit, after that point. At one point, a tobacco company used the building, and there were likely other occupants in the warehouse through the 1960s. In 1962, Zella Barber, of the Barber Company and Black Hills Warehouse, Inc., owned the building. Her husband, Milo, was a businessman in the transportation and freight business, so the building served in that capacity. In the 1970s, Crown Candy used the building, and later, different wholesale businesses utilized the space.
The building is rectangular, with a flat roof, and it was built to accommodate an additional story, should its owners ever elect to expand the warehouse in a vertical direction. It was built with a basement, as well, and it originally had 14 upper-level windows in its original design. There was also a docking area and an elevator. The National Register of Historic Places lists some of the interesting items within it “that exemplify the building’s use as a produce warehouse … : a 4’ by 6’8” scale built-in the floor on the second level, two 34’ diameter holes cut into the second level floor which in the past housed tubular ice cauldrons embedded in the lower level concrete floor, which when filled with ice kept the lower level cold-storage rooms at temperatures necessary for storing produce (these rooms were insulated with sawdust), and a vintage Otis Elevator for moving produce from one level to the other.”
It sounds like a place I would have enjoyed touring during its heyday – just think of all the fruit! On a hot South Dakota day, fruit can be just the thing to hit the spot, and the Rapid City Fruit Company building shows that’s been true for many years.