First Heirloom Apple Collection

By John Bunker

Now and then someone asks me the date of the first heirloom apple collection. I usually say 1934 – and I usually attempt to define an heirloom apple. After all, if you don’t know what an heirloom apple is, can you know the date of the first heirloom collection?

The term “heirloom” has been applied to plants only in the last few decades. Before 30 or 40 years ago, objects could be heirlooms but plants couldn’t. They were just plants. In the orchard, they were just apples. Distinctions were rarely made. By the mid-20th century, new introductions were preferred, while older varieties were mostly forgotten or discarded or purposely destroyed. Then came Seed Savers Exchange, MOFGA, Fedco and similar organizations along with a recognition of the value of plants that predate modern agriculture, and the need to differentiate between modern varieties generally available in the trade and those traditionally grown many years ago and passed from generation to generation within families or small communities.

So what is an heirloom apple? At the beginning of the 19th century, Maine had few roads and thousands of small, diversified, subsistence farms. The railroad had yet to be invented. The only tractors in Maine had four legs; the only engines in Maine were powered by water, and there weren’t many of them. Nearly everyone in Maine lived on some version of a farm, and every farm had an orchard. Johnny Appleseed with his tin pot hat and his sack of apple seeds was just doing what everyone else was: planting apple trees from seed. Most of the apples they grew were small and sharp and bitter. They made good cider but weren’t much good for fresh eating or cooking. Public agricultural institutions then were as scarce as a good grafted apple tree. The USDA, land grant colleges and the Maine Pomological Society did not exist yet.

By 1800 the notion of the selected apple variety and the grafted tree was still rare in Maine, but farm families wanted winter storage apples for their root cellars. With Hannaford and Shaws and the Belfast Co-op Store being over 100 years away, there was great incentive to do it yourself. Farmers were already planting lots of apples from seed. They needed only to become observers.  Many did. When an apple showed promise, farmers passed it around town by grafting. One seedling apple kept until May; another made a great pie; another ripened in August or baked well or made great sauce. New varieties were born every year through observing, selecting and, by the few who knew how, grafting. Those grafters became popular, often traveling from town to town in spring, custom “top-working” seedling trees into grafted varieties. By midcentury Maine had many dozens of local, named apple selections. Every observant farmer was a potential apple breeder – and not just in Maine. From Fort Kent to Georgia and out to the Mississippi River, farmers were selecting, naming and passing around apples. By midcentury thousands of American varieties existed. No one will ever know the true total, but it may have been as many as 20,000.

By 1900 the railroads were well established. Mainers were leaving the farms for the factories.  Those who remained on the farm were specializing. The seedling cider orchards were long gone, replaced by the small grafted orchards of local and regional varieties, which were themselves being replaced by the commercial orchards of the future. Farmers stopped selecting apple varieties. That job was now entrusted to college professors who bred the apples of the future in test plots at universities.

In 1927 a group of New England Cooperative Extension officials created a list of seven preferred apples with the goal of encouraging growers to raise these seven commercially viable varieties and get rid of all the rest. The apple industry in New England then was at a tipping point. The commodity model was assumed to be essential to the modern industrial world of the new century.

Then came the winter of 1933-34, the most recent “test winter,” when Mother Nature largely rid New England of its old apple varieties. Temperatures fluctuated from extremely warm to extremely cold, sometimes within less than 24 hours. Vast areas of water along the Maine coast froze. Terrible storms combined severely low temperatures with huge amounts of snow. The plant world suffered tremendously. Millions of apple trees died that winter in New York and New England. It was tragic – and a terrible mess to clean up. Chainsaws were not yet in use.

The spring of 1934 saw the first Maine “tree pool,” through which the state sold commercial apples to growers at cost. This was also the year that McIntosh took over the top slot as the preferred commercial apple variety. It was also the height of the Depression, and millions were unemployed. To generate work, thousands of men were hired to cut down apple trees, cleaning up the mess of the terrible winter and ridding New England of old, unwanted varieties, thus setting the stage for the modern commercial orchard.

But even Mother Nature and the federal Works Progress Administration couldn’t rid New England of its old apple trees – a stubborn bunch. While many did succumb, many others did not. They were aided by a few orchardists and enthusiasts who did not bite the modern apple bullet and who saw value in the old varieties. Rather than allow them to pass away, they tracked them down and preserved them on their farms.

Among those champions of old apples were Lothrup Davenport of Massachusetts; Wendall Mosher of Jay, Maine; Ira Glackens and Henry Converse of New Hampshire; and Fred Ashworth of New York. These orchardists decided to protect the old varieties for future generations. They communicated with one another by snail mail. All had nurseries, all grafted and all knew the value of the varieties that had been selected and named by farmers generations ago. They were like the baton passers in a relay race. The scion snipped from an ancient tree and grafted onto a young rootstock was like the baton passed from one generation to another.

With these orchardists appeared the first heirloom apple collections, most of which are now gone. Lothrup Davenport’s still exists at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Massachusetts. Visit it if you can. Around the country other collections have appeared in the past 70 years – some huge, some small, none inclusive but all of value. Together they protect our rare genetic heritage and preserve it for future generations.

Next time you go to your favorite big grocery store, try this experiment. Ask the produce manager for a good pie apple. Explain that, as we all know, apples ripen in a progression from August until well into winter. “Please recommend a good August pie apple, one in early September, one in late September, one in early October, another in late October and a couple of good winter pie apples.” See what the manager says. Those who don’t call security and escort you out will probably just shrug their shoulders and say, “Sorry.”

But fret not. The Maine Heritage Orchard (MeHO) at MOFGA has come to the rescue. The orchard grows excellent summer, fall and winter pie apples, sauce apples, varieties for apple molasses, apple cake and fresh eating. Honeycrisp, get out of the way. The MeHO features the best fresh eating apples in the world.

If all goes according to plan, the MeHO, now in its fourth year, should be around for another couple of hundred years or so. It features nearly 300 varieties traditionally grown in Maine, and we’re adding more every year. These heirlooms have been collected from ancient orchards in every county of the state. The Maine Heritage Orchard is not just a museum of obsolete plant material of the past. With the generous support from many donors and volunteers, the MeHO collection will serve future orchardists for many generations to come.

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