Apples still appealing for nostalgic few
Farmers, researchers hunt for lost Arkansas varieties from glory days
Scott Gothard, of Armorel, doesn’t claim what he does is profitable. Neither do other heirloom apple growers. He sees himself more as a fruit preservationist, who finds native apple varieties once lost to earth and time. So far, Gothard has grown more than 20 types of forgotten apple trees with Arkansas roots, including those dating back to the 19th century, such as the Arkansas Black, Tull and Shannon varieties.
“I don’t think you’ll ever see a huge orchard [with heirloom varieties], but at farmers markets they’ll get a good following,” he said. “I want to make sure these varieties are available.”
Gothard is part of a niche group of apple enthusiasts who sift through public documents, newspaper clippings, census records and reference books to find abandoned orchards — where some varieties might still grow today.
Apple hunters, farmers and historians know Arkansas’ apple lore and are continuing the fruit’s legacy, in spite of changing climates, a
challenging market and commercialization.
For many years, at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, Arkansas was a national leader in apple production. About two-thirds of the $4 billion apple industry is now concentrated in Washington state. The Pacific Coast state produces 10 major varieties — led by the Red Delicious — according to the U.S. Apple Association. An estimated 17,000 varieties of apple trees once grew in North America, and about 13,000 are considered lost. In the book Old Southern Apples, historian Creighton Lee Calhoun lists more than 1,800 recorded Southern varieties before 1928. About 500 varieties still existed in 2011.
Diseases brought on by monoculture practices, climate change and the birth of industrial-scale agriculture in the Pacific Northwest led to the demise of Arkansas orchards. However, many trees have unexpectedly survived and enthusiasts such as Gothard have taken to online message boards to share their findings with the world.
Two years ago, a once lost Arkansas apple variety was found in Washington state at Steptoe Butte State Park by a retired FBI investigator. David Benscoter, 62, a so-called “apple detective,” located what may be the only remaining Arkansas Beauty tree. The variety’s identity was confirmed in late February after testing by U.S. scientists and food historians.
Benscoter said he found the Arkansas Beauty about 8 miles from the old Hansford Nursery, which later became the Vineland Nursery in 1906. According to a Vineland Nursery catalog from 1912, the nursery sold at least four varieties from Arkansas: the Elkhorn, Arkansas Black, the Benton County Beauty and the Arkansas Beauty. The Elkhorn and Benton County Beauties are considered extinct.
With some help from his son, Gothard soon reached out to the retired FBI investigator for a sample for grafting. Gothard now has one of the only known Arkansas Beauty trees in Arkansas.
OZARK CASH CROP
In the span of 30 years, Arkansas experienced — more than any other state
— the boom and bust of the 19th-century apple craze. The Ozark region had ideal climate, soil, railroad access and plenty of orchards to make it one of the leading U.S. apple producers. According to U.S. census data, 2 million trees covered the state’s Ozark region in 1890, and blossomed to nearly 7 million over two decades. By 1910, Benton County alone had about 2.5 million apple trees — more than any other county in the nation, including those in Washington state.
“This meant everything you would have seen at the time in those counties were apple orchards,” said Curt R. Rom, 61, professor of horticulture at the University of Arkansas.
According to a May 1913 study — “Apples and Peaches in the Ozark Region” — by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it was common to see orchards of 80 to 160 acres, and it was not unusual for a single family farm to work 250- to 500-acre orchards.
The cool climate and heavy soils encouraged healthy growth, and railroad promotion sparked the fruit’s expansion.
“The railroads said all you had to do was plant a tree and pick fruit,” said Roy C. Rom (age 95 and Curt’s father), emeritus professor of horticulture at the University of Arkansas. “So large orchard producers really didn’t know what they were doing.”
A reputation for poor apple quality also hastened the demise of Arkansas apples, Roy Rom said.
For markets outside Northwest Arkansas, the railroads required a tough apple that wouldn’t bruise during travel and could be used for processing. The farmers grew Ben Davis apple trees because the fruits were tough as bricks.
As much as 75 percent of the trees in commercial orchards were Ben Davis, according to the 1913 study. Farmers were divided by the Ben Davis: some were drawn by the quantity of apples they produced, others refused to grow them because they didn’t like the quality of the fruit.
As years passed, farmers grew the same fruit in the same location, which created a favorable environment for disease and insects.
The railroads and farmers also fell into a contentious relationship, Rom said. Without the railroads, supply surged because of a lack of local demand.
Other hurdles for Ozark apple farmers included Prohibition, which curtailed production of apple brandy; the World Wars, which took a generation of young farmers; and the Dust Bowl drought, Curt Rom said.
Around the same time, other states began producing apples. Washington state and the Pacific Northwest region had suitable climate and plenty of irrigated farmland thanks to the new Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River.
According to 1960 census data, the number of Arkansas apple trees dropped to about 120,000.
“It’s a changing and evolving industry,” he said. “And I just think the industry evolved away from Arkansas and we could not compete. And when you’re a loser, you change to something else or go broke.”
When it comes to apple growing these days, Steve Vanzant tells it like it is.
“I’m too stupid to quit,” he said.
Established in 1949 by his parents, Fred and Kahylene, Vanzant’s Market began as just an apple operation. To survive, they diversified their orchards to include peaches, blueberries, grapes, strawberries, melons and vegetables.
At this time of the year, the market is filled with peaches and tomatoes. But soon Vanzant and his family will be picking some of the first Gala apples of the new season. (They produce 23 varieties of peaches and 17 varieties of apples.)
Rows and rows of yellowgreen apples hung in the orchards behind the market last week. Before one of the trees, Vanzant grabbed one of the plump, orange-ish globes and took a bite.
“They’ll be ready in a week,” he said between chews.
Vanzant, a sixth-generation farmer, has sold most of his produce out of his market in Lowell. In season, Vanzant said he sells peaches and apples at nearby Harp’s stores.
Come September his Arkansas Blacks, Winesaps and Jonathan’s will be ripe, among other older varieties not available in most grocery stores.
CONTINUING THE LEGACY
Black Apple Crossing cidery sits in an ironic spot, owner Leo Orpin said.
On Emma Street in Springdale, the cidery sits in a George’s Chicken hatchery built in 1935. After the apple bust, Northwest Arkansas farmers razed their orchards for chicken houses and raised poultry for a new industry.
After decades of chicken growth, most of the apple trees died or were bulldozed, Curt Rom said.
The Springdale cidery owners ran into a problem early on. The farmers who grew apples in Arkansas couldn’t supply Black Apple Crossing with enough product for its hard cider.
“At one point we were scrambling,” Orpin said. “We reached out to Michigan, Washington [state], and then got ahold of some orchards in southern Missouri.”
The apple cidery opened in July 2015 and within a year it made its top sellers available to businesses in Northwest Arkansas. Its products include strawberry and lemongrass infused ciders and more traditional options, like the extra-dry “Fitz.”
It’s 1904 cider is named after the year Springdale apples won top prizes at the World’s Fair in St. Louis (aka The Louisiana Purchase Exposition).
Today marks its second year operating from Emma Street, and in celebration of the current fruit season, the makers collaborated on a limited release peach cider, with fruit from Vanzant’s Market.
Black Apple Crossing has become Arkansas’ first commercial cidery. At the turn of the 20th century, many Southern apples didn’t make for good eating. Primarily, they were processed for brandies, vinegars and ciders.
“We wanted to give our customer base kind of a different perspective,” Orpin said. “At the same time, we’re in a cool spot where we can bring back the rich apple history of Northwest Arkansas.”
AN APPLE CRUSADE
Nearby the cidery is the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History, featuring catalogs and photos of Northwest Arkansas. Recently, Marie Demeroukas, photoarchivist and research librarian, has made finding the lost Brightwater apple her crusade.
Demeroukas said she learned of the apple at the Northwest Arkansas Community College’s new culinary school in Bentonville, aptly named Brightwater. Curious to learn more, she reached out to Guy Ames of Ames Orchard & Nursery, who reached out to Gothard, the heirloom apple enthusiast from Armorel. Both men searched through archives, books and contacts, but found no signs of the Brightwater.
The believed-to-be extinct apple is described in a June 1884 edition of Gardener’s Monthly and Horticulturalist as a “very desirable apple for that far down section of the country.”
It wasn’t until she contacted an archivist at the National Agricultural Library in Maryland that she found a Brightwater clue. The archivist sent an index card with an excerpt from a 1892 letter by George F. Kennan of Rogers.
“I believe [the apple] originated at Brightwater Benton Co., Ark. and the tree was set by Enoch Groot in a very early day. Mr. A. Peel bought the farm soon after the war and some 13 or 14 years ago he called my attention to the apple. I top grafted a few trees and fruited them and believed it would be a valuable addition to our list. I give this statement at length because it is in the nurseries and is cataloged in a great many states and will doubtlessly be of interest to a great many planters as well as nursery men.”
It’s whereabouts remain unknown, the apple hunters said.
Stephen Vanzant polishes a Gala apple Wednesday at Vanzant Fruit Farms in Lowell. According to U.S. census data, there were about 2.5 million apple trees in Benton County in 1910, more than any other county in the nation.
A Gala apple ripens on a tree at Vanzant Fruit Farms in Lowell.