Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Haunted by the Ghost of Johnny Appleseed: A Short History of Apples in America

I see a pie. What do you see?
Apple cider mills are big business in the fall here in Michigan, and
every September, we - my wife & I with our kids, sometimes a few friends, and many times other family members - join in and venture out to the apple orchard and cider mill to experience the season of autumn in one of the best ways we know how: by picking apples, drinking cider, and eating freshly made doughnuts.
Yeah...we're those kind of people!
And here in Michigan there are more cider mills than I can shake a stick at, and each can be pretty unique unto itself, from the ginormous commercial ventures that have singing hillbilly bears, witches flying into poles, and skeletons sitting on the toilet telling awful jokes, to the basic no frills apples, cider, and doughnuts with little else. And that's the kind of mill I prefer - the no frills variety.
And our day usually ends with my wife baking a couple of homemade apple pies!
It's a tradition we've had for at least thirty years, and there are no signs of us stopping.
Heirloom apple tasting
at Firestone Farm
Something else I've enjoyed is the 1880s Firestone Farm heirloom apple tree tour given by historic presenters during Greenfield Village's fall harvest weekends. They do a fine job detailing the history of each of their heirloom apple trees in the Firestone orchard, which is filled with a number of 19th-century and earlier varieties of apple trees, and we were able to see a wide selection of red, green, brown, yellow, and speckled apples growing upon them. Names like Rambo (around 1640), Baldwin (1740), Maiden's Blush (early 1800's), Belmont (late 18th century – one of Johnny Appleseed’s favorites!), Roxbury Russet (from before 1649 - possibly America’s oldest apple), and Hubbardston Nonesuch (early 1800’s) and a number of other varieties no longer readily available here in the 21st century can be found there. They all have different characteristics, flavors, and ultimately were used in different ways, either for sale, or for the family’s own use. With such a large amount of apples, there was a need for storage, and those not carefully packed away in sawdust were made into apple butter, apple sauce, pies, dowdies, dumplings, fritters, and cider.
I have even had the wonderful experience of drinking apple cider made from a replica 1800s hand-cranked apple press, for our reenacting unit purchased one!
I can just hear many of you saying to me, "Ken, it's no big deal. It's only apples."
Yeah...whatever. And the Super Bowl is just another football game, right? (Well, to me it is!).
But as I have written in previous postings, food is such an important part of our history, and it has, unfortunately, been relegated to be considered of little worth. Yet, in all actuality, its significance is just as important as any other part of our history.
Mostly MacIntosh apples from the late 18th century fill our crate.
And that brings me back to apples. Maybe after reading this posting you might look at that wondrous fruit a little differently, for apples in the United States have an interesting history:
Sacks of apple seeds were first brought to North America by colonists in the early 1600s. Before that time, the only apples native to this continent were crab apples (also referred to as "common apples").
By the mid-1600s, apple orchards with thousands of trees had been planted specifically for cider, a replacement for the poor quality water that was not fit for drinking. The proliferation of apple trees grew to the point where cider became the national drink of choice and was also used for barter.
After the establishment of orchards along the Atlantic coast, a second wave of apple varieties much further inland began with the distribution of seedling trees by none other than John Chapman, more popularly known as Johnny Appleseed.
"Up until Prohibition, an apple grown in America was far less likely to be eaten than to wind up in a barrel of cider," writes Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire,  "In rural areas cider took the place of not only wine and beer but of coffee and tea, juice, and even water."
One picture of Johnny Appleseed
It was into this apple-laden world that John Chapman was born, on September 26, 1774, in Leominster, Massachusetts. Much of his early years have been lost to history, but in the early 1800s, Chapman reappears, this time on the western edge of Pennsylvania, near the country's rapidly expanding Western frontier.
Starting in 1792, the Ohio Company of Associates made a deal with potential settlers: anyone willing to form a permanent homestead on the wilderness beyond Ohio's first permanent settlement would be granted 100 acres of land. To prove their homesteads to be permanent, settlers were required to plant 50 apple trees and 20 peach trees in three years, since an average apple tree took roughly ten years to bear fruit
Whenever Johnny Appleseed came to a region that wasn't settled, he would plant or distribute his seeds. Some said he carried the seeds in leather bags on his shoulders as he walked along the trails, and others reported seeing him paddling up and down rivers in a canoe. 
For clothing Johnny Appleseed wore the homespun buckskin of the settlers, and the story of him sometimes wearing a tin pan upon his head, I've come to find, was true!
Johnny Appleseed blowing his
powder horn to warn folks of a
possible attack
No one knew the frontier trails and woods as well as Johnny Appleseed. Even the Indians respected him. Because of this reputation, Johnny was allowed to move about freely without much concern, and, according to legend, he became a one-man warning system and alerted isolated families and settlements of impending dangers, including Indian attacks, by blasting an old powder horn.
As a member of the Swedenborgian Church, whose belief system explicitly forbade grafting (which they believed caused plants to suffer), Chapman planted all of his orchards from seed, meaning his apples were, for the most part, unfit for eating.
It wasn't that Chapman—or the frontier settlers—didn't have the knowledge necessary for grafting, but like New Englanders, they found that their effort was better spent planting apples for drinking, not for eating. Apple cider provided those on the frontier with a safe, stable source of drink, and in a time and place where water could be full of dangerous bacteria, cider could be imbibed without worry. Cider was a huge part of frontier life, and for transplanted New Englanders on the frontier, cider was as much a part of the dining table as meat or bread.
John Chapman died in 1845, and many of his orchards and apple varieties didn't survive much longer. By the time the U.S. government outlawed alcohol in 1920, Chapman had become an American folk hero. But this didn't stop the axes of FBI agents who mercilessly tore down orchards that produced sour, bitter apples used for cider to prevent the making of homemade hooch. Aside from slaughtering Chapman's trees, this also nearly killed America's connection to hard cider. 
This not only effectively erased cider, but it erased Chapman's true history from American life.  
Apple growers were forced to celebrate the fruit not for its intoxicating values, but for its nutritional benefits - its ability, taken once a day, to keep the doctor away... 
In a way, this saying (adage?)—so favorable by modern standards—was nothing less than "an attack on a typically American libation." 
Today, America's cider market is seeing a modest, but marked, resurgence as the fastest growing alcoholic beverage in America. Chapman, however, remains "frozen in the realm of Disney, destined to wander in America's collective memory with a sack full of perfectly edible, gleaming apples."
The orchard at Ross's in Romeo, Michigan
But not all of the apples that came from Chapman's orchards were destined to be forgotten. Wandering the modern supermarket, we have Chapman to thank for varieties like the delicious, the golden delicious, and more. His penchant toward propagation by seed lent itself to creating the great—and perhaps more importantly—hardy American apple. Had Chapman and the settlers opted for grafting, the uniformity of the apple product would have lent to a staid and relatively boring harvest. It was the seeds, and the cider, that give the apple the opportunity to discover by trial and error the precise combination of traits required to prosper in the New World. From Chapman's vast planting of nameless cider apple seeds came some of the great American cultivars of the 19th century.
The beverage rooted deep in our history has only recently seen a resurgence in popularity. 
By the way, Nova, Ohio holds a 176-year-old tree, the last known to be planted by Johnny Appleseed himself. It grows tart green apples, which are now used for applesauce and baking in addition to cider making. While Chapman might be glad to see his seeds still bearing fruit, he'd likely be sad to hear this tree is a noted bud source for grafting new apple trees.

Even though Johnny Appleseed did not believe in grafting, many others did from years before up to our modern times, and through it all such a variety of apples as one had never seen was the result. Due to grafting, orchards with named selections were planted for the first time. By 1850, uncounted named apple varieties for fresh eating, cooking, cider, apple butter, applesauce, drying, pickling, vinegar, wine, and livestock food were listed in nursery catalogs.  
Over time, mainly due to prohibition (which helped the growing popularity of soft drinks such as Coca Cola, Dr. Pepper, and root beer), apples became and were promoted as a popular eating snack rather than for drinking (remember, "an apple a day..."), therefore the 'look' of the fruit became all important; perfectly round, bright red or green with no blemishes was sought - the perfect supermarket fruit.
In the 19th century, farmers would haul their apples to cider mills like this one to have them ground and pressed into cider. In the 21st century, the popularity of visiting the cider mill here in Michigan and in New England has gone through the roof, only it's not the farmers who visit, but city dwellers who want to experience the old-time woodenness of days gone by and yet still have fun things to do for the kids.

For the last few years, our civilians in the 21st Michigan reenacting group I belong to have put on a fall harvest presentation at our October reenactment. I have been lucky enough to purchase heirloom apples through a variety of internet sources as well as a few locals, including Ross's in Romeo and a very large orchard located about three hours from where I live - Uncle John's Mill (which has the russets and others not available nearby). 
Yes, I go to extremes to get history!
Here are the heirloom apples I chose to display this year recently:
Roxbury Russett, Cox's Orange Pippin, Pitmaston Pine Apple,
Ribstin Pippin, Maiden's Blush, and the Hubbardson Nonesuch.    

Photo taken by Charlotte Bauer

One of the questions I like to ask the visitors is, "Would you buy these apples if you saw them in a store?"
Most respond with a "No!" and explain their reasons as being they are two small or discolored or they are unfamiliar with the brands.

I just smile...

I really enjoy researching and then teaching the historical things few others think about, even something as 'minor' as apples (though they weren't minor to the people living back in the day).
And I really enjoy seeing the popularity of the cider mill continue to rise, with families heading out in droves on autumn weekends. There are just some traditions that will continue to be a mainstay in our society, and visiting the cider mill in autumn is one of those wonderful traditions we have here in Michigan (as long as the mills don't price themselves out of business!).
Yeah...Johnny Appleseed/Chapman may not have approved of grafting, but something tells me he would be pretty pleased at the continued popularity of his favorite fruit.

By the way, here are a few video clips I took in 2014 at the Firestone Farm apple tour:

Maiden's Blush

Hubbardson Nonesuch


Information about the history of apples in the U.S. came from the following sources:
The Smithsonian Institute
Apples of North America by Tom Burford
American Folklore and Legend by The Reader's Digest

And for more blogs related to this one:
Cooking on the Hearth
A Taste of History

“And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.” 
(Genesis 1:11-12)

~   ~   ~


The BUTT'RY and BOOK'RY said...

Oh I enjoyed this so much, I will have to come back and take more in!
Apples are my back yard!! :-) We live in the middle of eight hundred acres
of orchards (not ours)They give us free windfall and some, and our area is steeped in apple history!
I loved every image!! Patty is a CUTIE and I wish that we lived close so we could spin and hang together!
Thanks Ken for another great post!!
many Blessings and warmth, Linnie

Historical Ken said...

My wife would LOVE to have a spinning neighbor!
And what a blessing to live so near to an apple orchard - - are they heirlooms?

Gina @ VictorianWannaBe said...

Wow Ken, what a wonderful history lesson on the apple! No I don't think I will ever look at the apple in the same way after this post. :) I had heard about cider replacing water back in the day but had forgotten all about it until reading this post. How wonderful that you have cider mills there, I always buy my cider at Aldi and it is always so good but something happened to it this year and it was not so good, which is a bummer!
Have a great Autumn week ahead,