An Accidental Apple Collector
It started simply enough—with an apple named Hume.
In 2009, my wife and I were visiting apple orchards near the little town of Bayfield, Wisconsin. Bayfield is on the cold shores of Lake Superior, far north of most farms and orchards. In the hills above town, there’s a fruit-friendly microclimate with 14 fruit and berry farms growing a wide variety of old and new fruit. Altogether Bayfield orchards grow more than 50 varieties of apples, from Dudley to Zestar.
We were in Bayfield picking up mid-season apples and ran across one I’d never heard of: Hume. It was on the small side and available at several orchards. By look and taste it seemed to be somewhere on the McIntosh family tree. When I asked at the orchard, they told me the apple originated in Hume County, Virginia, and came west with settlers. Climatologically that struck me as unlikely, but it was the only story I had.
Back home, I tried researching the Hume online, but turned up nothing. Eventually I bumped into the website of a North Carolina man named Tom Brown. Mr. Brown was doing something I didn’t know existed—hunting lost apples. I told him my story. Although he’d never heard of the Hume, he suggested several new avenues to pursue.
Late that year, I found an orchard on Prince Edward Island in Canada that grew the Hume. They told me it was a 1920 release from the Central Experimental Farm, in Ottawa, Ontario. The tree was upright, annual bearing, and popular on the island in the 1950s. It also tended to be slightly more cold-hardy than McIntosh but many Hume had been killed by the harsh winter of 1993-1994 in Quebec.
That was it for me, and I fell down the rabbit hole into the world of apples. The 16,000+ known named varieties, their histories, tastes and textures opened up. I enjoyed learning the stories behind the fruit, and we started seeking out orchards that grew either a large number of different apples or that specialized in uncommon apples.
In October 2011, we traveled as far as lower Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula to visit Christmas Cove Farm and their more than 200 orchard-grown apple varieties. Walking into their simple salesroom and seeing 50-plus varieties available, many unknown to us—including Saint Edmund’s Pippin, Hawaii, Gravenstein, Kandil Sinap and Ashmead’s Kernel—was a revelation and we left Michigan with more than 40 different varieties.
Each year since, we have been seeking out new orchards, venturing a little farther. I wish I could say every weekend from late August to early November we’re off chasing apples, but it isn’t so. Instead we make one big mid-October trip, visiting a dozen or more orchards, mostly in the southern tier of Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota, plus several smaller regional trips. Occasionally we travel to more distant orchards in southeast Iowa, northeast Missouri and western Illinois.
Some orchards become instant favorites; others are one-time stops. After visiting more than 40 orchards in six states we have a pretty good idea when growers know and care for their apples, when apples are more of an afterthought, or when we know more than the folks working there about their apples.
My wife loves a good Honeycrisp above all else but is quite fond of a good Spitzenberg too. Texture is the most important quality for her. An apple can have great taste, but if it doesn’t have a crisp texture she’s not interested. Taste is the number one quality I’m looking for, but I’ll try any apple once. I favor the tart side and old high-flavor apples like Golden Harvey, King David, Orleans Reinette and Prairie Spy.
Once I realized we’d become apple collectors, I started a spreadsheet of what we collected, and when and where. Tasting notes came later.
From 2010 through late September 2019, we’ve brought home 163 different apple varieties from 43 different orchards. They include apples like the newly nationally distributed KinderKrisp; the local Bill’s Sweetie; club apple First Kiss/Rave; the antique English apple Golden Harvey; vintage Wisconsin apple Orange Winter (aka Newell’s Late Orange); and the mysterious Melissa Sweet.
Sometimes we buy just a few apples of a new-to-us variety; sometimes it’s half a peck. Some are great, some aren’t, some are water-cored, some are mushy, some are hard as a rock. A few were awful and a few spectacularly good.
The variability of the same apple from year to year or orchard to orchard has been a surprise. In our travels we have had what are quite possibly the world’s best, and the world’s worst, Sweet Sixteens.
Every year we learn more thanks to the knowledgeable, friendly orchard folks who take time out of their work days to talk shop, give us tips or suggestions on where to go or hand us apples they are testing out. In 2013, we visited Door Creek Orchard near Madison, Wisconsin for the first time. It was a rainy Friday and we went in, bought some apples and retreated to the car to try out a Tompkins County King. While we were trying it out, there was a knock on the window, and Liz invited us back into the building where we talked apples, tasted apples and talked a little shop. We’ve learned more from Liz and her family than from any other orchard, all because they invited us back in out of the rain.
We greatly appreciate the orchards that offer a self-serve tasting table. Perhaps half the orchards we have visited have these, and I strongly encourage every orchard to have one, including a description and uses for the apple. I found my favorite apple, King David, on a sample table at Kickapoo Orchard in Gays Mills, Wisconsin. I knew nothing about it walking in and left a convert. They have one King David tree and are 5 hours away. Some years I get King Davids, some years I don’t, but I’m there every year at about the right time. If you believe in the product, let people try it. Many folks won’t ask to taste apples they’re unfamiliar with. If you know your SnowSweet is better than your Red Delicious, let folks discover that too.
An unexpected bonus from our apple collecting was making the acquaintance of Lee Calhoun, the noted southern apple hunter. After retiring from a career in the Army in 1976, he began researching old southern apples. A friend challenged him to find a Magnum Bonum tree, which he did in Virginia after a two year search. He soon after tracked down a Summer Orange and a Bevan’s Favorite. After years of research and with the help of his wife Edith, in 1995 Lee published the bible of southern apples, Old Southern Apples.
The book’s more than 1,750+ southern-grown varieties are separated into 400+ existing and 1,300+ presumed extinct apple varieties. I knew a few that had originated in the Midwest like Wealthy and Wolf River, but most, like Barker’s Liner, Prissy Gum, and Rabun Bald were unknown to me. In the extinct section was a listing for Jersey Sweet, an apple I’d seen listed at a commercial Wisconsin orchard in our travels. I wrote to the orchard with the description as given in the book (see below).
They said it sounded like it was the same apple, telling me their dad grafted onto dwarf rootstock 20 Jersey Sweets from full-sized trees that were in the orchard when they bought the property in 1964. The original trees had died but the grafted ones survived and were harvested yearly for sales in the orchard store.
I wrote Mr. Calhoun, not expecting a response, so I was thrilled when he wrote back saying he was going to get cuttings and reestablish the Jersey Sweet in the south, which he did in 2016, at the Southern Heritage Apple Orchard at Horne Creek Farm in North Carolina.
I have yet to be at the orchard at the right time to have a Jersey Sweet, but I take pride in connecting that orchard and Mr. Calhoun, and knowing that apple has been returned to and will live on in the south long after I’m gone.
I will never be an apple hunter beating the bushes of the Midwest like Lee Calhoun or Tom Brown in the Carolinas or John Bunker up in Maine, looking for thought-to-be-extinct apples, but each year we go farther, visit unexplored orchards, find new-to-us varieties and learn more about the wonderful world of apples.
Have a good season & see you at the orchard,
More about the Jersey Sweet (from Old Southern Apples, 2nd Edition):
An old American apple considered valuable for dessert, cooking or feeding to farm animals. The tree is productive, an annual bearer, and ripens its fruit over several weeks. Fruit medium, roundish or oblate, conical, sides often unequal; skin thin, greenish yellow becoming clear yellow, mottled. Flesh yellowish, fine-grained, crisp, tender, juicy, sweet. Ripe August/September.
About the Author
Hank and his wife Jackie live on the beautiful, but cold shores of Lake Superior. They enjoy road trips along the back roads and seeking out quirky and offbeat attractions. Please contact us to get in touch with Hank.