August 1993

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in Western New York


Robert Koch

The apple, that mythic fruit of Western Civilization, was brought to our shores by European settlers and has since pervaded this land, creating its own legend, "Johnny Appleseed," historically John Chapman, born about 1775 and died about 1845. Nearly every farm home in Western New York extended Eden's orchard, to provide several mainstays of appleknocker diets.

American apple production peaked at about 230 million bushels in 1896, 1904, and 1914, but has sunk to about half that. According to Ulysses Hedrick, a historian of Empire State agriculture, "The export trade in apples began even before the Revolution, with Benjamin Franklin as its originator."

New York State has been important in the saga of the American apple. Hedrick found that "500 varieties originated in New York previous to 1850. Not less than 100 apples have been named from seedlings which have sprung up in this State. Eleven of these are major sorts, once or now important." From our immediate area he cites Early Joe, Melon, and Northern Spy apples, all found at East Bloomfield in 1800, and the Wagener at Penn Yan in 1791.

In Forgotten Stories of the Finger Lakes, A. Glenn Rogers, cites divergent accounts of how the Northern Spy sprang from Connecticut seedlings, nearly half a century before its recognition as worthy of broader cultivation. Rogers also relates a story about the "Geniting" or "June Eating" apple, favored in pioneer homes for its early ripening. On Western New York farms apples were treated to considerable home processing, so time ripening was important.

One writer termed the apple "America's national food." Whether or not it kept the doctor away, it was served pretty much daily in various forms, depending on the season, methods of keeping, and culinary imagination. Apple pie was of course linked to motherhood. Sweet apple varieties are remembered fondly by Steuben County rural and historical writer, John Rezelman, in the September 1988 issue of the Crooked Lake Review . He cites A. J. Downing in 1860:

"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..." Rezelman adds, "I found this...rather startling...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."

Hedrick writes that 19th century orchards received little care. Itinerant grafters were often employed to get started. After that the orchards "were almost never cultivated, seldom pruned, and sprays were not known until toward the end of the . . . century." But an 1829 Ontario Almanac suggests a "Wash for Fruit Trees." Potash dissolved in water was applied by paint brush to trunk and limbs to counteract moss and lice.

Colonial Americans drank more than a barrel of cider per capita, so an average farmer prepared two to four dozen barrels each year, to slake the considerable family thirst, and to trade. Hedrick points out that in the 19th century, "'Apple juice' was the unfermented product, and 'cider' was apple juice fermented until all the sugar had turned to alcohol-hard cider... [C]ider was one of the commonest commodities in the country and village stores in newly settled New York. It is more often quoted as an exchange commodity than apples or potatoes or any other fruit or vegetable, and appears nearly as frequently as butter and eggs. Apple juice and cider were legal tender for the cobbler, the tailor, the lawyer, the doctor, and there is at least one record in accounts.. .of a farmer's paying for his daughter's schooling with cider."

Vinegar was another by-product and the Ontario Almanac quotes advice about making it. "[F]ill your casks with [fresh] cider, into which no water is put, bung them up . . . tight.. .set your casks in a garret, when the weather is warm, where there is nothing between them and the sun but the shingles...and keep them always full...twenty years ago a gentleman told me to put a peck of bran in, or six or eight sheets of coarse writing paper; I put the bran into one, the paper into the other; both answered well. My vinegar is so strong, that my family put water to it to make pickles." And Hedrick quotes the suggestion that sweet apples might replace imported sugar cane to produce molasses.

Cool, dark "fruit cellars" facilitated fresh apple storage and the Ontario Almanac advised immersing apples in corn for year-round keeping. But other apples were pared, cut up and dried for future use. Folks often shared this tedious work in light-hearted apple bees. The practical-minded Shakers invented an apple parer to facilitate the task. In any case, apples showed up in apple sauce, apple butter, apple pie, apple brown betty, apple pandowdy, apple crisp, apple float or apple snow, apple kuchen, as well as apple juice, hard cider, and, by distillation, apple brandy or applejack, which could lead to inebriation, or apple palsy.

Is it any wonder that polished apples were used to influence teachers, that we exhort baseball sluggers to hit that old apple, and that we've sung nostalgically about the "shade of the old apple tree"? Finally, we residents in upstate apple country share the Empire State with The Big Apple itself!

© 1993, Robert G. Koch
Index to articles by Robert G. Koch
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