By John Bunker
Not long after MOFGA’s new executive director came on board, she asked if she could join us for our next Orchard Committee meeting. The committee members were delighted. It would be a chance to tell her about our collection of nearly 300 Maine heirloom apples, as well as our innovative orcharding practices, land reclamation work and educational programming. The big day arrived. It was my job to introduce Sarah Alexander to the group. I hadn’t met her yet, so I didn’t have much to say as we gathered in the MOFGA library. I did, however, know her name. It was the perfect Maine apple name if ever there was one.
Those MOF&G readers who really know their apples have all heard of Alexander. Others might be familiar with its famous child, Wolf River. Alexander is a large, red, roundish-conic cooking apple, one of the four Russian varieties imported to the United States in about 1820. Two of Alexander’s best qualities are its great hardiness and its thick skin. Both are also highly desirable in an executive director! Although technically from “away,” Alexander has made Maine its home for 200 years. You can still find ancient Alexander trees from central Maine all the way north to Fort Kent. With a name like Alexander, I figured our new ED must be a perfect choice.
Sarah, on the other hand, is a long lost local apple. Born and raised in Wilton, deep in the heart of Maine’s apple country, Sarah apples were once popular throughout Franklin County. In 1907 the tree was described as “vigorous … productive, an annual bearer and comes into bearing early.” Sarah also sounds like the perfect executive director. Although the Sarah apple hasn’t been seen in many decades, it was on my list to track down someday. So I had my introduction: one hardy, thick-skinned apple from away that “really cooks,” and one from Maine that’s vigorous, productive and hits the ground running.
The introduction got a chuckle and the meeting went well. When I got home, I quickly checked my email before heading out to the orchard for the afternoon. Among the usual odds and ends was an email I found hard to believe. The subject line read: “Sarah apple (East Wilton Maine).” The message was short and to the point: “Do you know if this apple is still in existence?”
Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. I’d never before received any communication of any kind about this apple. Evidently the time had come to go track it down. I began to correspond with the writer of the email, Travis Brown. Apparently his third great grandfather, Benson W. Brown, was an orchardist in East Wilton. One of the apples he grew long ago was Sarah. Travis was recreating Benson’s orchard. He had an idea of where a Sarah tree might still be standing and hoped I could help him find it.
A few weeks later, Maine Heritage Orchard manager Laura Sieger and I traveled to Franklin County. Our mission was clear: We want to find Sarah! We stopped at several orchards and half a dozen Mom and Pop grocery stores. We had a stack of WANTED ALIVE posters with us. (When it comes to apples, we don’t want them dead.) Everywhere we stopped, clerks and store owners were excited by our search. Up went the WANTED ALIVE posters. By the end of the day, we had found one candidate – a huge, ancient tree, 40 feet high and several feet in girth. The few fruit still on the ground were not in great shape, but we knew we were getting warm.
Was that old tree a Sarah? Will we find Sarah? As of this writing, the search is still on. We planned to head back to Wilton with Travis Brown this fall. We’ll graft scionwood from the old tree. We’ll look at the fruit again in 2019. We’ll keep you posted. Until then, we’ll just be thrilled that the hiring committee “picked” the candidate with the perfect, apple name. Welcome to MOFGA, Sarah Alexander!