The Modern-Day Johnny Appleseed

The Modern-Day Johnny Appleseed

If historic apples from America’s pioneer past were fugitives, they’d find few ridgetops high enough or woodlots dense enough to elude Tom Brown.

Brown, 81, is a die-hard apple hunter who traverses the Appalachians from Georgia to Pennsylvania tracking down and conserving lost and long-forgotten apple varieties. “You’ll never meet a more persistent person than me,” said Brown, who lives in Clemmons, North Carolina. “If I’m not finding an old apple variety I’ve heard about, I keep believing it’s out there waiting to be found. I just need to search more thoroughly.”

To appreciate Brown’s detective skills and the challenges of finding a forgotten fruit, folks must first acknowledge they know little about his quarry, “heirloom” or “heritage” apples. Brown’s “Apple Search” website lists the 800-plus varieties he’s found, the stories behind rewarding hunts, the prices of apple trees he sells, and insightful tips for finding and identifying his region’s long-lost apples.

Few folks can identify the heritage apples in Brown’s lineups. Old-time varieties are neither your mother’s nor your grocer’s prized apples. In fact, if you’re younger than 50, the varieties Brown pursues aren’t even your grandfather’s apples.

tom brown

The Modern Apple

Heritage apples are basically varieties growing before World War II (1939-1945). Some old varieties remain in cultivation, but many others known before the 1930s can no longer be found. Apple varieties—and consumer choices—plummeted during the mid-1900s as family-run orchards lost the apple market to large-scale farming. By the 1980s, “most American apples grew on the cloned rootstocks of just one or two parent trees,” wrote William Kerrigan in his 2012 book “Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard.”

Yes, you can still enjoy today’s Fuji, Gala, Rome, Empire, McIntosh, Honey Crisp, Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, or Cripps Pink/Pink Lady apples. Those are the top varieties now being grown, sold, and exported from the United States, according to the USApple Association, the “The Voice of the Apple Industry.”

And Tom Brown won’t say you’re wrong for liking any of them. It’s just that commercial orchards and mass-produced apples aren’t his jam. Modern orchards have become compact, crowded, and common. As Kerrigan writes, today’s orchards often pack 240 cloned dwarf trees into each acre, roughly five to six times the density of the 45 trees per acre of old-time orchards. Further, today’s cloned dwarfs typically live only 10 years and bear fruit every year except their first. At the end of the clones’ efficient decade, growers tear them out and replace them with newer varieties “to excite and reawaken consumer demand.”

Brown won’t even bad-mouth Frankenstein creations like the Grāpple, which is a Fuji or Gala apple soaked in a purple concentrate until it tastes like a Concord grape. Brown has never heard of apples masquerading as morbidly obese grapes, but he won’t speak ill of them if they pique peoples’ interest in apples.

Brown told MeatEater he just wants Americans to learn the vital role apples played in the nation’s history and culture. After all, until the mid-1900s, apples and apple trees were nearly as unique as the people planting and tending them on U.S. farms, frontiers, and backyards.

To help identify and verify the old apple varieties he hunts, Brown caretakes a 3-foot-high stack of books, notes, and old nursery catalogs. This retired chemical engineer knows all the numbers, including those Tim Hensley reported in “A Curious Tale: The Apple in North America.”

In 1905, the U.S Department of Agriculture cataloged 17,000 apple names in a 400-page bulletin. Those names identified about 14,000 apple varieties in U.S. orchards and backyards, of which roughly half (7,000) were synonyms. Hensley considers 1804 to 1904 to be America’s golden age of “pomology,” or fruit growing, a time span covering Thomas Jefferson’s presidency through the Wright brothers’ first flights at Kitty Hawk.

Further, apple enthusiast Dan Bussey of Edgerton, Wisconsin, published a 3,500-page volume in 2017 titled “The Illustrated History of Apples in the United States and Canada.” Bussey’s tomes cover 1886 to 1942 and list 16,000 apple varieties, with 9,700 known synonyms. He has documented 2,000 more heirloom varieties the past six years.

And Then There Were 200

In contrast, today’s U.S. apple market grows about 200 varieties, roughly 35 times fewer than the 1905 lineup, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. That doesn’t mean Americans have forsaken apples. The AMRC reports that apples remain the nation’s most consumed fruit, followed closely by oranges.

In fact, the average American ate 26.3 pounds of apples in 2019, and the 2021 U.S. apple crop weighed over 10.5 billion pounds. Washington, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and California are the nation’s top five apple producers, leading 27 other states that grow apples commercially. The U.S. imports only 5% of the apples Americans eat, while exporting 33% of its crop to Mexico, Canada, India, Taiwan, United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere.

Still, family farms were an American norm a century ago, and most had an apple orchard. Likewise, most homeowners had an apple tree or three in their yard and took pride in growing apples that differed from their neighbors’ varieties. Unique apples were common, too, given that apple trees are not self-pollinators. Because they must cross-pollinate with other trees, their fruit generates seeds that differ from both “parents.”

The resulting seedlings carry on their parents’ traits, but differ from them and their “siblings.” In fact, only one in every 80,000 apple trees grown from a seed inherits the same quality of the parent tree. To duplicate a tree’s exact qualities, horticulturalists must graft stems, or scion wood, from the desired plant to base plants or rootstock.

And given that an apple tree and those eating its fruit seldom last 100 years, Tom Brown races time and his own mortality to find and identify apples from America’s past. Each time he finds and identifies a “lost” heritage apple, he collects scion wood and grafts it to a tree in his 2-acre home orchard. His orchard has over 700 apple varieties, and he tends them so carefully that he has increasingly less time to hunt for other old varieties.

Brown balks, however, when someone credits him with “saving” heritage apples that he identifies in old woodlots or long-forsaken orchards. Since becoming an apple hound after retiring in 1998, his work has generated headlines like “Apple Rescuer Saves Over 100 Species,” or “Apple Hunter Saves Over 1,200 Varieties from Extinction.”

“I’ve found over 1,200 rare and lost varieties in my region, but some of them weren’t necessarily lost,” Brown said. “Maybe they’re just rare, out of circulation, or lost to the old apple trade. You can’t claim with certainty that an apple is lost when you have no way of knowing what’s growing in every orchard around the country.”

heritage apples

Driving for Apples

Brown, however, has conducted his share of that inventory over the past 25 years. Although he has found roughly 300 heritage varieties in Wilkes County, North Carolina, roughly 50 miles from home, he often drives over 30,000 miles annually to hunt for more. Besides his home state, he also scours Georgia, Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and South Carolina. He estimates he’s driven over 600,000 miles to pursue his calling, mostly in two aging Subarus; one with 360,000 miles on its odometer, and the other 380,000 miles.

Brown usually hunts alone, but his wife of 36 years, MerriKay, occasionally joins him. “I like going by myself, because then I don’t have to justify where I’m going, or where I’m turning, stopping, or backtracking,” Brown said. “I can’t drive every road I cross, but I’ve driven some roads five times before finding what I came for.”

He concedes, too, that his wife willingly skips his longer trips. After all, he often starts those “three No-Doz” excursions at 3:30 a.m., with plans to return home the same night after a full day of hunting. “It’s more acceptable to the home team if I’m back in time to water my plants,” he explains.

Brown doesn’t claim to love driving. It’s just what his calling demands. “If someone were making me do it, that would be terrible,” he said.

Brown listens to National Public Radio to help pass his time behind the wheel and sometimes scolds himself for not using those hours more ambitiously. “I should probably learn Spanish or something else of interest, but I never have,” Brown said.

As he drives, Brown focuses on his destination and its potential for heritage apples, which carry names varying from poetic to off-putting. The long list includes rarities like the Junaluska, Manson Beauty, and Bull Face; as well as the Pippin, Rambo, Cullasaja, Permain, Nonsuch, Greasy Skin, Jellyflower, Big Andy, Wolf River, Royal Lemon, Virginia Beauty, Grimes Golden, Thinskin Neverfail, Black Winesap, Arkansas Black, Rusty Coat, White Winter Jon, Yellow Potts, Red Potts, Limbertwigs, Balsam Sweet, Night Dropper, Candy Stripe, Sour Jon, Early Ripe, Bitter Buckingham, and Billy Sparks Sweetening.

Versatile Varieties

What ignited Brown’s midlife passion for heritage apples? He traces it to a local farmer’s market in 1998. He recalls pausing at a table covered with odd-shaped, unusually colored apples that were common in the 1700s and 1800s. That’s when folks commonly grew apple trees from seeds, which produced fruit of varying color, taste, texture, and skin thickness.

Apples were a prized staple centuries ago, and those grown from seedstock were the people’s fruit. In contrast, apples from trees with grafted stems or cloned rootstocks were more consistent and sweeter, sure signs of colonial society’s upper crust.

No matter their source, apples could be dried, baked, cooked, or fried; and squeezed or pressed for cider, brandy, and vinegar. Brown said nearly all East Coast homesteads planted and tended orchards. “The goal was to pick fresh apples from June to November, and maintain a diverse fruit supply all year,” he said. And what they couldn’t eat or drink, they fed to their hogs or other livestock.

Hard apple cider was especially crucial because it could be stored for months and was often safer to drink than water, even if it was alcoholic. Besides, native pests killed most Old World grapes, and most colonials couldn’t afford imported wine. In addition, apple orchards were easier to maintain for making cider than barley fields were for making beer.

New World pioneers also preferred apples from seedstock for cider. “They usually made cider out of real bitter, stringent varieties because those apples had properties that ensured taste survived the fermentation process,” Brown said.

johnny appleseed

Hints of Johnny Appleseed

Given Brown’s fervor for historical apples and his travels to document them, it’s inevitable that folks call him a “modern-day Johnny Appleseed.” In real life, a pioneer and nurseryman named John Chapman, 1774-1845, grew, sold, and gave away apple seeds and apple seedlings across large parts of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Ontario, and northern West Virginia.

As Kerrigan notes in his book, it's no coincidence that Chapman was dubbed “Johnny Appleseed,” not “Appletree.” Chapman often scavenged seeds from discarded pomace, or pulp, which he found behind cider mills after millworkers crushed or pressed apples for cider. After stuffing his bags with the seeds, Chapman planted and tended nurseries in scattered riverbottoms, and sold or bartered his seedlings to other settlers.

Disney and other myth-makers portrayed Chapman as a kind, gentle, bare-footed, God-fearing vegetarian and missionary who disdained guns. One could imply such traits from what’s known of him, but Chapman probably differed little from his frontier neighbors. Kerrigan notes, for example, that a store receipt in Chapman’s name showed he bought pork, sugar, brandy, whiskey, tobacco, chocolate, gunpowder, and several pairs of moccasins.

Either way, Chapman’s impact on the growing nation was real. As Daniel Boone biographer Robert Morgan wrote in his book “Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of the Western Expansion,” Johnny Appleseed was “the saint of Western frontier folklore,” while Davy Crockett was “its martyr.”

Brown, meanwhile, shrugs off comparisons to John Chapman and the mythical Johnny Appleseed. “It’s all right,” Brown said. “I don’t mind. What I do is hard for most people to take on, considering the time and expenses. I just ignore those costs.”

Brown is more interested in the apples. Yes, it’s possible he’s found varieties that descended from Chapman’s seeds and seedlings, but he’s cautious when hearing about ancient trees, no matter who might have planted them.

“Apple trees aren’t long-lived,” Brown said. “Many people tell me they have a tree that’s 100 years old, but I’ve only seen one that old. They’re extremely rare. Old apple trees get hollow inside, and when they get big, you can’t properly prune them and keep them productive. Their apples get faulty.”

hunting historic apples

Hunting Historic Apples

To find authentic heritage apples, Brown avoids commercial growing areas and focuses on backyards and quiet spots. His searches sometimes start with newspaper ads, online tips or social-media questions, but few leads go anywhere without face-to-face conversations.

“You have to show up at people’s front doors and get them talking,” Brown said. “You need as many contacts as humanly possible. If I’m driving around and see a yard with interesting apple trees, I’ll stop and talk. I especially enjoy older people who know their neighborhood’s history and remember who grew what.

“Maybe their best buddy had a bunch of apple trees, but he’s dead,” Brown continued. “I can’t set foot on his property without a local connection, no matter how much I beg and plead. And if my connection dies or the property gets sold or developed, I have to start over or move on. Every ownership change creates a challenge. I came across a guy one time who never smiled. He had some heirloom apple trees, but he didn’t like mowing around them so he cut them all down. I guess he had no interest in their history or old stories.”

One satisfying hunt required Brown to make several 6-hour roundtrip drives to Haywood County, North Carolina, to find and verify the Junaluska apple, a variety over 200 years old and named for an early 1800s Cherokee chief. After visiting Kate Mincey, a woman in her late 80s, at her mountaintop homestead, Brown inspected her overgrown apple trees. Though the orchard closed in 1859, it had propagated varieties of the Bank, Sweet, Wine Sap, Wolf River, and John Berry Keepers.

Mincey also told Brown about a tree whose apples had a knobby stem, yellow flesh, blotchy brown patches, and a slight reddish blush. Brown realized Mincey was likely describing the long-lost Junaluska apple. He verified it that fall when returning to sample the tree’s ripened fruit. To Brown, that discovery was miraculous: “Can you imagine the feeling of tasting an apple that everybody thought had vanished forever?”

Not every search ends in miracles, of course. Brown’s efforts to find the “Peggy Apple” have proven futile, despite in-person contacts, genealogical research, and several visits to its reported origins in West Virginia. The Peggy variety is named for a settler’s daughter killed by Indians in 1781. The settler planted an apple tree where the girl fell, and neighbors preserved the “Peggy” apple for years by grafting the tree’s scion wood to their trees.

“I talked to a clerk at a convenience store who was 12 when her family had two Peggy Apple trees years ago, but she was busy and I couldn’t get much out of her,” Brown said. “I went back to the store a few times, but she was never there again. I finally found the old homestead, but no house or foundation. A man there knew about an older apple tree, but he didn’t save its apples, so I had no way to verify them. Someone else in West Virginia said they had a Peggy Apple tree 30 years ago. I eventually found a likely tree, but that lead disappeared over time.”

He also keeps searching around Williamsburg and James City County, Virginia, for the Taliaferro apple, whose history dates to Thomas Jefferson. The nation’s third president planted Taliaferro apples in his Monticello orchards, according to Peter Hatch, the director of gardens and grounds. Jefferson said Major Taliaferro of Williamsburg discovered the apple in the mid-1700s in a neighbor’s field, a man named Robertson.

Brown can’t find that link. He learned that colonial census records were destroyed during the Civil War when combatants burned local courthouses. Undaunted, Brown sent letters to 144 locals named Robertson or Robinson in hopes of unlocking the mystery. Unfortunately, he learned nothing new, and only one respondent even mentioned a tree.

A Burning Obligation

Brown isn’t discouraged, however. He knew from the start that his calling isn’t easy. After all, old apple trees grow weak, kids who eat their fruit grow old, and most Americans have grown distant from apple cider, especially the hard stuff.

Kerrigan put it this way in his Johnny Appleseed book: “As the memory of hard cider faded, the rise of the Red Delicious saw the apple’s reputation gradually shift from the perfect fruit to the perfectly ordinary one, as consumer desires changed.”

And so Brown keeps hunting for America’s lost apples, and their role in Western expansion. “I feel a strong obligation to do so,” he said. “Apple trees are an important part of our lives and agricultural history. It would be a shame to lose those old varieties forever.”

All images courtesy of Tom Brown.

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