Ap­ples Were Im­por­tant Food On Fron­tier


Ap­ples Come West

Early set­tlers to our area trav­eled light. They could bring only the ne­ces­si­ties to their new home — tools, live­stock, fur­ni­ture, cloth­ing, bed­ding, cook­ing ves­sels, and plants and seeds. Ap­ples were an im­por­tant food source on the fron­tier. Ap­ples were con­sumed fresh of course, baked, fried, or eaten straight from the tree. Firm late-sea­son ap­ples could be kept all win­ter long. But in an era be­fore elec­tric re­frig­er­a­tion, ap­ples had to be pro­cessed if they were go­ing to be kept for a long time. They could be cooked down into ap­ple but­ter (a thick, sweet paste) or they could be sliced, dried, and later re­hy­drated in hot wa­ter for pies and cob­blers. Their juice could be turned into vine­gar, fer­mented into cider, or dis­tilled into al­co­hol.

The First Nurs­ery­men

When the first set­tlers ar­rived in the 1820s and 1830s they found that the area’s fer­tile soil, good climate, and high el­e­va­tions were just right for grow­ing fruit. They planted their seeds and young ap­ple trees and be­gan tam­ing the land. Soon nurs­ery­men set up shop, de­vel­op­ing and test­ing new va­ri­eties and sell­ing their prod­uct to new set­tlers. Some of the first com­mer­cial grow­ers in North­west Arkansas were James B. Rus­sell and Earls Holt, both of Boons­boro (later known as Cane Hill), one of the ear­li­est set­tle­ments in Wash­ing­ton County. Le­gend has it that the first com­mer­cial ap­ple or­chard in the state was planted near Maysville by a Chero­kee woman and her en­slaved Africans. Af­ter the Civil War she couldn’t af­ford to pay for la­bor so the or­chard went into de­cline. H.S. Mun­dell pur­chased her land and be­gan tend­ing the ne­glected trees. Gold­smith Davis started his nurs­ery busi­ness near Bentonville in 1869 with ap­ple seeds planted by his mother. He be­gan graft­ing the seedlings and built up his stock so much that at one point he had over 1,000,000 young trees (many of which were prob­a­bly Ben Davis va­ri­ety), which he shipped to al­most every state.

Why So Many Va­ri­eties?

It was im­por­tant for the home or­chardist to grow a va­ri­ety of ap­ple trees to spread the har­vest from early sum­mer to late fall. Dif­fer­ent ap­ples had dif­fer­ent qual­i­ties. Some were good for cook­ing, some kept a long time, and some made fla­vor­ful cider. Even though nurs­ery­men prop­a­gated trees, many folks planted ap­ple seeds. It was a very demo­cratic process. Any­one who planted a seed had a chance of dis­cov­er­ing the per­fect fruit in their or­chard. Ev­ery­body wanted to de­velop a great ap­ple, the ap­ple that would make them rich. In 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair, Arkansas won awards for “a col­lec­tion of sixty new and un­named seedling va­ri­eties, many of which show con­sid­er­able merit.” It’s thought that over 300 va­ri­eties were grown in the area with such fan­ci­ful names as Nick­er­jack, Sheep­nose, Bright­wa­ter, Au­gust Red, Mam­moth, and 80-Ounce Pippin. Over 50 va­ri­eties were de­vel­oped lo­cally.

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