Is this the mighty Mac’s end?

Owner would sell it, not keen on oper­at­ing an ap­ple mu­seum

Standard-Freeholder (Cornwall) - - FRONT PAGE - JOE O’CON­NOR

DUNDELA — Nancy McIn­tosh was run­ning er­rands on a cool, cloudy, mid-April af­ter­noon, driv­ing the back roads north­west of Mor­ris­burg in her white Ford and day­dream­ing as she went.

When it oc­curred to her that her route was go­ing to take her right past her child­hood home in the vil­lage of Dundela, for a fleeting sec­ond, she con­sid­ered turn­ing around. Nuts, she knew — but per­haps bet­ter than catch­ing sight of the two-storey white coun­try house she grew up in, cur­rently un­oc­cu­pied, seem­ingly unloved and sag­ging into se­ri­ous dis­re­pair, as is the sur­round­ing 14-acre prop­erty.

“I tried to close my eyes when I went by,” she says. “I never go to Dundela. If my grand­mother was alive to see the prop­erty now, she’d roll over in her grave.” McIn­tosh is a semi-re­tired high school teacher with short, grey-brown hair, a feisty sense of hu­mour and a black-and-white Corgi named Piers. One late Au­gust morn­ing she was at her kitchen ta­ble in Long Sault, near the banks of the St. Lawrence River, telling sto­ries about her fam­ily and their old place. Ap­ple mo­tif place mats adorned the ta­ble; framed pho­to­graphs of ap­ples hung from the walls; a sign by the back­door read: “Have an ap­ple a day.” But her name is the most telling clue.

She is the great-great-grand­daugh­ter of John McIn­tosh, a pi­o­neer with Scot­tish roots who, in 1811, was clear­ing his land in Dundela when he stum­bled upon a clus­ter of ap­ple seedlings. McIn­tosh trans­planted the seedlings — 20 or so — to the gar­den. One among them even­tu­ally bore ap­ples, stripy-red with a taste un­like any other: not quite sour, but not quite sweet.

John and his wife Han­nah’s ninth child, Alan, took a spe­cial in­ter­est in the tree. A hired farm­hand, whose name has been lost to his­tory, taught him the agri­cul­tural art of graft­ing — of taking a bud from a tree and fas­ten­ing it to the roots of an­other seedling to en­sure the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the orig­i­nal sur­vive in its de­scen­dants. Alan, also a lay preacher, trav­eled from place to place spread­ing the good word and shar­ing the bounty of the ap­ple tree by hand­ing out seedlings to the peo­ple he met. The ap­ples be­came known as McIn­tosh Reds — or “Macs” — and by the mid-20th cen­tury they ac­counted for more than a third of Canada’s an­nual ap­ple har­vest and were be­ing planted in abun­dance in the United States.

Even to­day, in an age of va­ri­etal plenty, food en­gi­neer­ing, shift­ing con­sumer tastes and fierce pro­duce aisle com­pe­ti­tion from the Royal Gala, Fuji, Am­brosia and the sweet (and ex­pen­sive) Honey Crisp, Macs still reign atop Canada’s an­nual ap­ple crop in terms of pro­duc­tion, and are a top-10 ap­ple south of the bor­der. Thanks to an ap­ple-lov­ing Ap­ple em­ployee, they are the name­sake of an iconic com­puter brand. And ev­ery McIn­tosh tree in North Amer­ica claims a com­mon an­ces­tor in Dundela.

Cana­di­ans can de­bate the pri­macy of Mon­treal smoked meat ver­sus pou­tine ver­sus maple syrup ver­sus wild blue­ber­ries all they want, but a com­pelling ar­gu­ment can be made that the right­ful king of Cana­dian eats is a hum­ble ap­ple — which is why Nancy McIn­tosh gets so de­pressed when­ever she drives past the prop­erty where it all be­gan.

“I’m not even al­lowed on the prop­erty any­more,” she says. “He threw me off.”

He would be Gerd Skof, a 76-yearold Aus­trian-Cana­dian with a dis­dain for tres­passers, rasp­berry thieves and day-trip­ping lovers of ap­ple his­tory. Skof bought the McIn­tosh homestead in 1987. It was never in­tended to be thus. Nancy’s mother, Olive, put the farm up for sale in 1974 af­ter her hus­band, Sam, died. Her wish — cham­pi­oned at the time by Roy Class, chief hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist at Kemptville Col­lege — was that Her­itage Canada would buy it and trans­form the house into a mu­seum and the or­chard into a park, pre­serv­ing the Mac’s birth­place forever­more. Cit­ing lack of funds, Her­itage Canada de­clined. The prop­erty cy­cled through a hand­ful of own­ers be­fore Skof bought it and, much like Her­itage Canada, he finds the idea of turn­ing it into an ap­ple shrine un­ap­peal­ing — un­less some­body else is will­ing to pay for it.

“I am not in­ter­ested in open­ing the place to the pub­lic,” he says, adding that the two road­side his­tor­i­cal plaques out front should be enough to sat­isfy cu­ri­ous passersby. (A third marker, viewed as a Holy Grail among ap­ple groupies, is hid­den from the road about 100 me­tres into the prop­erty, on the ex­act spot where the orig­i­nal Mac stood un­til its death in 1906, a decade af­ter be­ing dam­aged by fire.)

Skof has had some dust-ups with the McIn­tosh heirs, he ad­mits, but de­clines to of­fer de­tails, ex­cept to say that he has “no prob­lem” with Nancy but isn’t a fan of her brother, Har­vey.

“Those McIn­toshes don’t like me very much,” he says.

A book­keeper by trade, Skof, who now lives in Ot­tawa, looks the part of the gen­tle­man farmer: tall, erect, broad chested, big-armed — strong — with a head topped by a Friar Tuck ring of white hair. He wears a straw hat and pos­sesses a sturdy hand­shake, ev­i­dent on the hot Au­gust af­ter­noon he met with a re­porter and a pho­tog­ra­pher in Dundela to tour the prop­erty. Area lo­cals ex­pressed surprise upon learn­ing the Na­tional Post had been in­vited onto the land, spawn­ing a the­ory, among some, that Skof must have had ul­te­rior mo­tives. Chiefly: free pub­lic­ity for a di­lap­i­dated place he has been look­ing to un­load, on and off, for more than 20 years and re­cently listed for $875,000 on Ki­jiji. (A 2016 tax assess­ment puts the prop­erty’s value at $249,000.)

The mar­ket­ing the­ory, if true, would be a risky bet, since what Skof is try­ing to sell is a gen­uine dump. The old Mcin­tosh prop­erty is over­run by shoul­der-high weeds, with three de­crepit out­build­ings and a coun­try her­itage house with which even the most op­ti­mistic handy­man would be fool­hardy to tan­gle.

“The place needs some work,” its owner says. “But I am in no hurry to sell it. If it takes me an­other five years, an­other 10 years, I don’t mind. I like the place.”

For all the gos­sip about him, Skof was a wel­com­ing host, if a wan­der­ing con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist, veer­ing from ap­ples — Macs are his favourites, al­though he prefers the plums grown on the prop­erty — to the mys­te­ri­ous death of Horst Skoff, two “fs,” a former pro­fes­sional ten­nis player and dis­tant re­la­tion who died sud­denly at age 39 dur­ing a business trip to Ger­many.

Skof used to live in the house with his wife, Claire, and the oc­ca­sional rac­coon, un­til a rash of heart at­tacks among his sib­lings in Aus­tria con­vinced him to move into the city. Ap­ple lovers would some­times bang on the door week­end morn­ings, re­quest­ing a tour. To dis­cour­age them, Skof stuck a prom­i­nent “no tres­pass­ing ” sign on the large fir tree out front.

Not far from the house, in a clear­ing, is a clus­ter of Macs. The trees were weighted down with fruit and the air is hum­ming with in­sects and the per­cus­sive thump of ap­ples hit­ting the ground. They were small in com­par­i­son to the ap­ples you see in gro­cery stores, and blem­ished with black spots. But the taste? Vin­tage McIn­tosh: not quite sour, not quite sweet.

“I have no use for the ap­ples,” Skof said, ges­tur­ing at a dozen or so crates filled with the fruit. He doesn’t sell the ap­ples, but lets them rot, per­haps in keep­ing with the over­all de­cay of the place — and of­fer­ing an un­in­ten­tional metaphor for an ap­ple whose best days, alas, are be­hind it.

“The Mac is def­i­nitely in de­cline,” says Charles Stevens. He is the pres­i­dent of On­tario Ap­ple Grow­ers, an or­ga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sent­ing On­tario farm­ers with more than 10 acres of or­chard, and has close to 100 acres of his own near New­cas­tle, Ont., about 70 per cent of which is planted with Macs. It is the ap­ple he grew up on, and an ap­ple he pre­dicts in an­other decade’s time he won’t be grow­ing.

“The mar­ket­place has changed,” Stevens says. “Con­sumers now want a hard, sweet ap­ple, and we have to match our prod­uct to our mar­ket. I am 65 years old. Peo­ple my age love the Macs. But I am go­ing to die here, some­day, which is kind of where we are head­ing with the Mac.”

Fif­teen years ago Macs ac­counted for 40 per cent of Cana­dian-grown ap­ples, a per­cent­age that has dipped to around 30 per cent to­day. More alarm­ing for fruit nos­tal­gists: one in three ap­ples con­sumed in On­tario is a gala. Mean­while in South Dun­das, the mu­nic­i­pal­ity that in­cludes tiny Dundela, signs that once her­alded the area as the “Home of the McIn­tosh Ap­ple” have been re­placed as part of a county-wide re­brand­ing ef­fort by signs wel­com­ing tourists to the place “Where On­tario Be­gan.”

“I feel as though local peo­ple just aren’t in­ter­ested in the McIn­tosh story any­more,” Nancy McIn­tosh says. She is the keeper of her fam­ily’s trea­sures. Boxes of black and white pho­to­graphs — there is great-un­cle Alan, pic­tured next to the orig­i­nal tree; log­books crammed with or­ders from across North Amer­ica for seedlings (the fam­ily even­tu­ally mon­e­tized great-un­cle Alan’s spirit of giv­ing and started a nurs­ery); yel­lowed news­pa­per clip­pings and a small brown wooden box.

Inside the box are great un­cle Alan’s graft­ing tools, along with some an­cient-look­ing ap­ple buds and a hunk of wood about the size of a base­ball. The wood is wrapped in a McIn­tosh fam­ily tar­tan. Ac­cord­ing to fam­ily lore, it was taken from the stump of the orig­i­nal tree John McIn­tosh stum­bled upon more than 200 years ago.

In more re­cent times, Nancy McIn­tosh mar­shaled her courage and parked at a ceme­tery bor­der­ing the Dundela prop­erty, hop­ping the fence to take a look around. It was early spring. It was quiet. The trees were bare. She won­dered which, among them, were Macs. When Nancy was a lit­tle girl, car loads of peo­ple from Ot­tawa, from Corn­wall, from all over, would de­scend on the or­chard Sun­day af­ter­noons in late Septem­ber, look­ing to buy ap­ples. Nancy would some­times give them a tour, show­ing them the plaques and the spot where the first McIn­tosh ap­ple tree stood.

“It would be nice if the prop­erty could be some­thing ,” she says. “Some day, some guy is go­ing to come through with a bull­dozer and the whole place, the whole thing, is go­ing to dis­ap­pear into his­tory.”


A his­tor­i­cal photo from the vil­lage of Dundela. The orig­i­nal McIn­tosh Ap­ple was dis­cov­ered on this site in 1811 by John McIn­tosh.


Gerd Skof takes a break on a bas­ket of ap­ples, while McIn­tosh ap­ples fall from trees all around him, at his prop­erty in the vil­lage of Dundela, on Aug. 27. The orig­i­nal McIn­tosh Ap­ple was dis­cov­ered on this site in 1811 by John McIn­tosh. Skof has let much of the site fall into dis­re­pair but is hop­ing to sell prop­erty.


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