A pear tree at Fort Wayne’s old GE campus is finding new life through Electric Works

There are few things that stand the test of time. Perhaps that is what makes historic buildings and old trees so enchanting.

They remind us that amidst a sea of change—the ebbs and flows of people, jobs, and trends in communities—there are elements that remain the same. Better yet, there are old things that can be reimagined and find new purposes in a different chapter.

That’s the spirit of a vision that has driven RTM Ventures and a team of other investors to redevelop the old General Electric campus on the South side of Fort Wayne into an ambitious, adaptive reuse project called Electric Works. And it’s the spirit of a smaller project-within-a-project to preserve a beloved pear tree on the campus, too.

The pear tree on the former GE campus plays a special role in many ex-employees' memories.

As Managing Director of Innovation at Electric Works, Crystal Vann Wallstrom was touring the former GE campus in 2018 when she spotted a lone pear tree in full bloom next to Building 20 on Broadway, and began to wonder: How can we make use of this tree’s fruit? And ultimately: How can we preserve its heritage for future generations?

In conversations with former GE employees, Vann Wallstrom learned that the pear tree played a special role in many of their memories, finding respite under its shade or plucking fruit from its limbs on their breaks.

These stories, along with her own background as a gardener and self-described “tree-hugger” from San Francisco, drove Vann Wallstrom to find a solution to the problem at hand: A perfectly good and meaningful pear tree going to waste.

The pear tree at Electric Works has been blooming every year, with or without anyone around to harvest its fruit.

Vann Wallstrom’s colleagues put her in touch with Terri Theisen at the Allen County Purdue Extension office who introduced her to Rick Ritter, the Master Gardener and Founder of Dick’s Organics. Ritter has been growing and propagating fruit trees on his seven-acre farm off Coverdale Road for the past seven years, and he has experience with practices like tree grafting as Co-Founder of the Three Rivers Fruit Growers Club.

When Ritter moved to Fort Wayne in 1974, he noticed the pear tree on GE’s campus and identified it as a Bartlett pear. Probably 35-40 feet tall today and about 80-100 years old, he estimates.

Year after year, he had watched the pear tree bloom each fall, but as the number of employees on GE’s campus dwindled throughout the 1990s to zero by 2015, he saw that much of the tree’s fruit was falling to the ground with no one around to harvest it. So when he met Vann Wallstrom, he was eager to put his extensive knowledge to use, saving the tree’s fruit and preserving its DNA.

Ritter has experience grafting trees as the Co-Founder of the Three Rivers Fruit Growers Club.

Dick’s Organics farm is a multi-faceted operation, which includes a 500-plus tree orchard, a greenhouse, a vegetable garden, honeybees, and a variety of rescue animals—sheep, alpacas, mini donkeys, laying chickens, and more. It’s also the main drop off site for the Dirt Wain composting program in Fort Wayne, making it fully sustainable.

But what caught Vann Wallstrom’s attention was that Ritter donates an estimated 98 percent of the food he grows at Dick’s Organics to the St Mary's Soup Kitchen in Fort Wayne.

She had been wanting to donate the fruit from the Electric Works pear tree ever since she saw a statistic that more than 16,500 children in Allen County were food insecure in 2018.

“That stuck with me and was a guiding force in my plans for the pear tree,” Vann Wallstrom says.

A team of six volunteers, including Ritter, second from the left, and Vann Wallstrom, lower right, help harvest the tree each fall.

For the past two years in early-October, she and Ritter have gathered a group of about six volunteers to harvest pears at Electric Works. With the help of Herc Rentals, they were able to donate 400 pounds of pears to the St. Mary's Soup Kitchen and the nonprofit Out of a Jam in 2019. In 2020, they increased their donation to 703 pounds.

As more of Northeast Indiana's residents face food and budget shortages in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the pear tree’s supply of free fruit has become even more valuable this year, Vann Wallstrom notes. 

While the GE-site has faced extensive remediation for hazardous contaminants since the Electric Works project began, Ritter says any potential soil contamination won’t affect the pears, so they are safe to eat and share. But harvesting the tree is only half of the project; the other half is honoring its heritage. Herc Rentals donated equipment to help volunteers harvest the pear tree at Electric Works.

Since plans for Electric Works will require the pear tree to be cut down, Vann Wallstrom and Ritter have been working to preserve and propagate its DNA, allowing it to live on in Fort Wayne’s future.

While they originally tried harvesting seedlings beneath the tree, they were unable to get them to germinate because they didn’t have enough of their own genetic identity and vigor to survive, Ritter says.

As a result, this February, he and Vann Wallstrom began the process of grafting the pear tree, or harvesting new growth from its bark and attaching it to rootstock on Ritter’s farm.

“We’ve got about 100 trees right now we’re nursing along that came from the pear tree at Electric Works,” Ritter says. “Assuming that we can cut some more grafting wood off it next year, hopefully, we’ll have another hundred or so.”

Out of the 100 trees he’s been nursing so far, he’s recently planted two on his property that are effectively carrying on the pear tree’s DNA and extending its legacy.

“We now have an ongoing supply of wood we can graft for years,” Ritter says.

Vann Wallstrom says that while she’s usually the last person who would want to see a tree removed, she feels that it makes sense for the Electric Works project to proceed, and she’s optimistic about the pear tree’s ongoing legacy.

“I think it’s important to honor the legacy and the heritage of the campus and the role this tree has played in the lives of GE employees for generations,” she says. “By working with Rick and propagating new trees from the source, we are giving it a new future and multiplying its potential impact. We should never forget our past as we build our future.”

Volunteers met in February to collect bark from the pear tree to graft onto rootstock at Dick's Organics.

For Ritter, this isn’t his first time he’s preserved a community’s legacy through his work at Dick’s Organics. An avid seed-saver, he’s turned an old file cabinet into a seed bank, where he collects seeds from other savers across the country.

One seed native to Northeast Indiana that he makes a point to propagate periodically is Myaamia white corn from the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma who once called Fort Wayne’s land home. Over the years, Ritter has received this rare seed from various growers and tribal groups in Northern Indiana and Michigan who don’t have the time or space to grow it. He’s been told that he now has “the biggest supply of Miami white cornflour in the country.”  

Ritter says once his cornflour is harvested, he shares it with modern descendants and members of the local Miami Tribe. He sees value in helping people preserve their heritage through culturally meaningful crops, and he sees the pear tree at Electric Works as being no different.

“It’s a micro lesson about sustainability, and it’s a micro lesson about actually paying attention to historical lessons,” he says. “I have no idea who planted the tree or cared for it until it was viable. But I appreciate their effort. As a fruit tree grower, I know what it takes to get a tree from a seedling to a viable fruit-producing tree. I appreciate the fact that somebody at GE valued this tree over the years—and I appreciate the fact that they left it for us to find a way to carry on with it.”

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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