September 1988

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The Apples

of Steuben County


John Rezelman

Index of articles by John Rezelman

"Did you say the apples of Steuben County?" I can hear you asking. If I'd said Wayne County or Niagara County it would have slid right by, but Steuben? Yes, that's what I said. This is a historical publication, and the apples of Steuben County exist chiefly in history.

Steuben has a great many acres 894,720, the second largest in this State. On those many acres it once had a lot of farms. Almost without exception, every one of those many farms had an apple orchard. Not just a tiny orchard. Medium small, rather forty or fifty trees, often. Sometimes more. Rarely less than ten or a dozen. Small numbers repeated often enough make big numbers. Therein was Steuben County's claim to apple tree numbers. Home orchards. Everybody had them.

My own recollections in Steuben County go back 45 years. At that time, the old orchards were in three categories. One category, on the farms still being operated then was "still standing, as planted." Those trees may not then have received any care beyond having the grass in them grazed down by sheep or calves, but the count was complete, few or no missing trees. They were tall, high headed old trees, hadn't been pruned in years, most of them. They were mostly "a forest of suckers", lower branches pretty well shaded out, but they produced great masses of bloom every spring. Every few years they rained down for, yes, most of the crop dropped apples in enormous volume. Not too much could be said, usually, for the condition of such apples, as to freedom from worms and blemishes. But as to varieties, what apples! Northern Spies, Greenings, Wageners, Pound Sweets, Sheepnose, Russets, Dutchess—all those great old kinds favored by the early settlers, who knew what they liked and who did not have to heed the tastes of shippers and supermarket customers.

From these orchards farm families would eat some of the best ones fresh, cook what they could in pies or sauce, and make more cider than could possibly ever be consumed while it was still sweet. But that didn't matter. Fermentation still made the same product it always had, and there were still people who knew what to do with that product, as well as how to arrive at it. This was the state of apple growing here mid-twentieth century. The second category of apple orchard then was a notch further down the scale. No livestock pastured there; it was overgrown to grass, weeds, briers, saplings and full of woodchuck holes. Trees were missing, half-rotted trunks lying flat on the ground and dead branches were more numerous even than live suckers. Still they bloomed, and still they bore now and then, with the deer and rabbits the chief beneficiaries of their bounty.

The third category was the oldest and the absolute bottom—old orchards almost totally in ruins. Of these, only here and there a half dead tree still stood among thickets of forest saplings an inch or two inches thick. They deserve mention, though, because they yielded an occasional fruit that testified to the varietal preferences of the pioneers, and they were also the progenitors of clumps of wild apples that have nourished a variety of wild animals and birds and still do.

Today, 45 years later, this third category has disappeared without a trace except its offspring, wild seedlings. The second category has either moved into the place of the third, or has likewise completely disappeared. The first is nearly all gone, too, but it went in a different way, succumbing to bulldozers operated with more enthusiasm than reverence, to make more cropland, or pasture, or just to clear up what had become an eyesore.

So much for apples in Steuben County as I personally remember them. Now let's turn to history that goes back farther than that.

In his book A Reverence for Wood, Eric Sloane writes of pioneer apple orchards in New England in the 1700's. That time would have been the equivalent period in New England to the 1800's in Western New York. (The Seneca Indians had orchards, but presumably General Sullivan destroyed them) Sloane says:

"Apples were no occasional food. They were America's national food . . . . there was apple at the table in some form all year 'round." He adds, "so an apple orchard was planned to supply fresh eating apples and proper cooking apples for each season."

He describes in detail the great care used to prolong the apple season with early and late varieties and the meticulous methods used in harvesting and storing the fruit. So it was in New England, and so it was here.

That's why there were so many varieties. In my earlier listing of some of them I have surely left out some reader's favorite old time variety. Take no offense at this, or, if you must, I apologize, for I understand fierce loyalties here. There was wide room in historic apple growing for individual preferences. Take the class of "sweet apples." Where would you go to buy a sweet apple today? I don't know. It would have to be some unusual and out of-the way source. Commercially, they're about extinct. But the early apple planters liked them very much, and left many trees of Tolman Sweet, Pound Sweet, Pumpkin Sweet and other "sweets." I like those sweet apples, myself. To my unorthodox notion, the Hendrick Sweet, to which I was introduced by Sebring and Marian Howell of Six Nations Hill, Tyrone, is a top quality eating apple, equalled by few and surpassed by none.

Robert Pritting of Cohocton told of selling a whole truckload of Tolman Sweet apples once. "About half the orchard," he said, "was sweet apples." Why there were that many, he didn't know. He hadn't planted the trees; somebody else had done that, long before. A possible reason is suggested in that classic 1860 book, Fruits and Fruit Trees of America by A. J. Downing, from which I quote:

"The recent practice of fattening hogs, horses and other animals upon sweet apples accounts for the much greater number of varieties of sweet apples here than in any other country. In fact, so excellent has the saccharine matter of the apple been found for that purpose that whole orchards of sweet apples are frequently planted here for the purpose of fattening swine . . ."

I found this a rather startling idea at first reading growing apples expressly for pigs! But when you consider the labor involved in growing corn in those old days hand planting, hoeing, shocking, husking, cribbing, the plan begins to look much more sensible, especially with the hogs doing the harvesting.

For apples back then were not hard to grow. We do well to recognize that the "good old days" weren't always so good. Not much air and water pollution, maybe, but people, children especially, died like flies of diseases easily preventable today. But when it came to ease of producing apples, it seems that they really were that good. No spray was used, but little or no scab infested, and very few worms, too. Downing devotes only a few paragraphs in his thick 1860 book to aphids, codling moth and Fire Blight, just those three. An old timer remarked, "Housewives used to be able to cut out a worm hole," implying thereby that worm holes did exist, but he quickly followed this with assurance, as have others that worm holes were rare. The conditions for growing apples today just are not what they used to be. Nostalgia will not restore them; we have to deal with them as they are, noting that our ancestors had it better on that point.

Still, apples as a commercial crop never figured much in Steuben County. There are remnants yet of what looks like a once large orchard at Coopers Plains, but longtime residents of the locality agree that while it covered several acres, it never marketed many apples.

The nearest thing to a center for commercial apple production in Steuben County seems to have been Cohocton. Though I have found no truly personal recollections of it, there is hearsay around Cohocton of apples being packed in barrels and loaded on railroad cars for shipment at one time and, surely, what's that if not commercial orcharding?

Then, too, in Cohocton there was the evaporator (it made dried apples) built by George Naas about 1908, later converted to a vinegar works and operated as such until the late 1920's or early 1930's. This, whether producing dried apples as initially, or vinegar as later, represented a market for a significant volume of apples. They were good apples, too, not just culls and junk, I've been assured.

Quite possibly there were other commercial ventures in apples elsewhere in Steuben County, on some scale larger than a few barrels of cider brought home from local cider mills to farm cellars. I have not found evidence of them, but if anyone knows of such enterprises I hope they will come forward with the story; that's how information can get preserved, kept from being lost. Meanwhile, people like Ted Markham and Henry Hughes have sold enough apples to keep the lack of sales from being total in recent years.

With few exceptions, back when orchards grew on every farm, farm families ate better, enjoyed a more varied and healthful diet because of them. That was their reason for being; it was all that was expected of them, and that they did deliver.

Today, while the old trees are few and declining, there aren't many young ones either. One place younger trees grow is in groups of a few in people's yards, in towns and in the country. Most of these are the result of dreams stimulated by nursery catalogs. They receive little or no knowledgeable care, so yield little or no usable fruit. Their chief products are messy litter and insect and fungal pests to migrate to and prey upon other apple trees. If their owners are satisfied with the riot of bloom they display for a few days each spring, then these trees constitute a rewarding project. If more than that is expected of them, mostly they are disappointing.

There is widespread interest in the revival of old varieties in home plantings, however. Most nurseries offer at least some of them and others offer an extensive choice. Another way of acquiring choice old kinds is to graft, sometimes with scions taken directly from the old orchards, on rootstocks of your choice. I have a dozen trees grafted on dwarf (m 9) rootstocks, varieties such as Tompkins King, Gilliflower, Esopus Spitzenberg and others. Ted Markham has a number of such trees and Claude Arnold had still more; no doubt others do, too. This is a fascinating and absorbing way to acquire such a planting. It is not extremely difficult to learn grafting; people have been doing it since far back in antiquity in the most primitive of times. It's a hobby. but these little trees if given the care and attention they need will reward you with amazing crops of apples of sorts that can be obtained in no other way.

One thing stands out in reviewing the history of apples in Steuben County. The played a much larger role in Steuben agriculture once than you would ever guess from any evidence observable today.

© 1988, John Rezelman
Index to articles by John Rezelman
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