Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

Picked Perfect

Oct 10, 2014 09:40AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Ellen Moyer

The thought of sweet juice from a crisp winesap apple seemingly tickles my tongue and my mind. I am on a journey to the National Apple Harvest Festival with a list of the delicious apples and apple-related products I will stock up on to carry me through the cold winter months ahead. Apple butter, apple brandy, candied apples for Halloween, and apples freshly picked from the local orchards. It is fall. The farmlands of Western Maryland are a quilt of yellow, orange, and brilliant reds. Shunning the Interstate, I follow Old Frederick Road to Route 15 through Thurmont on the very path followed by the armies of the North and South to that fateful Battle in Gettysburg.

 I crossed the Maryland State line from Frederick County and wended my way over two-lane roadways through the ancient battlefield towards Arendtsville, Pa. and discover miles of orchards open for tours and apple picking. And finally I arrive at the festival grounds with lanes named Cider Press Alley, Red Delicious Drive, Stayman Stretch, and two dozen more that guide me to crafters, vendors, musicians, good food, and apples of every description. This year [2013] is special. It is the 50th year that the Upper Adams Jaycees have sponsored this event on the first two weekends in October. Proceeds from the festival have funded a 92-acre public park.

Adams County was once the nation’s largest fruit processing area. Musselman’s Applesauce made their home here in 1913. Motts, founded in New York in 1842, may have been the first large-scale applesauce producer, but Musselman’s now holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the Largest Bowl of Applesauce, an achievement made closer to our home. Weighing in at 716 pounds on October 15, 2013, runners in the Baltimore Running Festival—sponsored by Musselman’s—dumped cups of applesauce into a giant bowl, which ultimately beat the previous record by 276 pounds. Meanwhile, Adams County is still the 7th largest apple producing area in America, which is the second largest supplier of apples in the world. Years ago, the U.S. was first.

Seeds That Bear Fruit

The round juicy apples you and I are accustomed to were not the apples enjoyed by most Americans 150 years ago. The apples we enjoy are grafted to produce one of the 2,000 varieties we eat today. Trees grown from apple seed produce small, sour apples. Settlers moving west after the Revolutionary War were required by land companies to plant 50 apple trees and 20 peach trees on newly acquired land. This assured them a source for apple cider, vinegar, and good health.

Into this milieu, in 1805, stepped the Apple Man, John Chapman. Chapman loved nature and also saw the apple as an economic asset. Memorialized in children’s books and by Walt Disney as Johnny Appleseed, Chapman planted his first nursery in Warren, Pa., from seeds gleaned free from cider mills. Nursery stock was then available to new settlers moving westward. For fifty years until his death in 1845, Chapman planted nurseries— sometimes called missionary gardens—throughout Ohio and Indiana. Living like a homeless person, Appleseed is remembered in the campfire song “The Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord, for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the apple seed, The Lord is good to me.” When he died at age 71, John Chapman, the apple man, left approximately 20,000 trees valued at 2 or 3 cents each on 1,200 acres of nursery land.

But by the 1900s, population creep in the East was consuming apple orchards. The Presidents Hill neighborhood off West Street in Annapolis, for example, was built on an apple orchard owned by Judge Brewer, who was the region’s largest supplier of cider vinegar—the brew that killed germs and kept people healthy during and before the Civil War. 

At the turn of the 20th century the apple and its economy was the victim of this militant temperance abstinence movement, whose most ardent believers took axes to apple trees and vilified apple cider mills and demon applejack. On the Potomac River in Maryland, Mertons Orchard, once billed as the largest apple orchard in the world, went bankrupt in 1918 shortly after Congress passed the 18th amendment establishing prohibition. The State of Maryland purchased the abandoned land during the depression and reclaimed it with the mighty oak and the labor of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Today it is the 47,500-acre Green Ridge State Forest and Park.

As orchards in the region dwindled, Adams County orchards survived, protected by a rural road pattern established in the mid-1800s and the National Battlefield. In 1904, fruit growers aligned to establish National Apple Month and promote apple blossom and harvest festivals to save the reputation of the maligned apple, as well as their livelihood.

Apple Sauce’d

Though the apple—a member of the rose family—is native throughout Central Asia, it became one of the most widely cultivated fruit trees in the world and is of particular importance to the settling of the American Colonies. Colonists were of British stock that depended on alcohol as a beverage. Brits of all ages drank brewed beverages as beer and ale. Water was considered unhealthy, while alcohol was deemed essential to good health and strength. In fact, occasional intoxication was thought to purge the body of toxins. Every social occasion thrived on alcohol; today’s bridal shower comes from the practice of selling bride-ale to cover the expenses of weddings.

America, of course, was wilderness during early settlement by the colonists. There were no distilleries, no breweries, no fields of grain and hops, no taverns—just land, trees, and water. In the Mid-Atlantic, water was believed to be as tainted and unhealthy as the River Thames in London. Arrival in the new world was a shock to the body, as well as established traditions. The majority of the colonists were indentured servants who could not afford expensive imported rum, nor wine and beer. The solution for drink was found in the juice of berries and persimmons, uncommon to Europeans but found in the new world. Imported fruit trees also became a natural remedy for providing drink. The apple trees were easy to grow. And cider could be brewed at home.

Rev. William Blaxton is credited with planting the first apple orchard in Boston in 1625. But whether this was for munching on the notion that “an apple a day kept the doctor away,” or for drinking, or even as an antiseptic is unknown. By 1662, Lord Baltimore had planted 300 acres of vineyards to promote domestic wine production. Hoping to reduce dependence on Britain for alcohol beverages, in 1704 the Maryland legislature prohibited the import of malt and beer, and taxed imports of rum and spirits.

In this social climate, the apple was elevated to the principal means of quenching thirst. Every small farm had a dozen fruit trees. So important was the apple tree that a tree was willed to the wife and daughters of the deceased.

Cider making in the Mid-Atlantic was the province of women. Until beer was produced 100 years later and men took over the new distilleries, women were the first tavern keepers—their reputation often related to the quality of their home fruit brews. In Winchester, Va., founded in 1752, apple pies made by the Quakers on Apple Pie Ridge sustained Virginia’s militia. Once the center for apple production, Virginia still produces 2 percent of the nation’s apple crop, celebrated since 1924 at the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival.

For 250 years the apple reigned supreme. It provided an egalitarian staple of the colonial diet, a refreshing drink, a healing agent, and a reason for social interactions. For the ancient Greeks it was a symbol for knowledge. For the Norse it was a symbol for rebirth and beauty. For Isaac Newton it was the inspiration for the discovery of gravity. In the 1920s, jazz musicians used it as slang for any town they visited; hence to perform in New York City was the Big Apple.

In the month of May, we pause to drink in the beauty of the rose family apple blossoms. In the month of October, it is harvest time—we toast the legacy of the first colonists’ need to quench their thirst, to stay healthy and strong. We celebrate our number one favorite fruit—the round, crisp, sweet, juicy apple that tickles our tongues.