Today on the Inland Journal podcast, a word game. We’ll give you a few phrases and see if you can figure out what they have in common. For example, if I say red delicious, Honey Crisp, Granny Smith and Fuji, you’d probably gather that we’re talking about apples.
So let’s try another one. Nero, Duchess of Oldenburg, Cox’s Orange Pippin and Kingston Black. What do they have in common?
They too are varieties of apples. Kingston Black is used for ciders. Cox’s Orange Pippin is an English apple that’s primarily eaten fresh. Duchess of Oldenburg is used in pies and sauces. Nero was considered a lost apple. It was grown a hundred years ago in Washington, but through time, it fell out of favor and just disappeared. About five years ago, Spokane apple detective Dave Benscoter rediscovered the Nero growing on a tree in eastern Washington’s Palouse and is working with Washington State University to try to bring it back.
You’ve probably gathered that this podcast is about apples, especially those that were once popular and are now forgotten.
Last year, we told you about one of this story’s main characters, that apple detective to whom we referred. Dave Benscoter is a retired federal law enforcement agent who is now using his investigative skills to track down and find lost apples. He works with a group in Whitman County to check out old trees in the rolling hills of the Palouse.
Benscoter has been profiled in the New York Times. He’s talked apples with the BBC.
He was the driving force behind a first-ever heritage orchard conference in Sandpoint, Idaho in May. The meeting was held in a lodge-like conference center adjacent to the University of Idaho’s Sandpoint Organic Agriculture Center, which has its own heritage orchard that is managed by Kyle Nagy.
“He had visited the orchard and taken some scion wood and he approached me and asked if it was something we would be interested in. I said, “Heck yeah.” We have a perfect spot for it and everything and so he went ahead and started talking to other people about presentations and that kind of stuff and I took care of all the details and we were able to put it together. I’m pretty happy with the turnout that we’ve had,” Nagy said.
Benscoter was the conference’s featured speaker. He talked about how apples made their way to the U.S. hundreds of years ago and then were brought to the Northwest in the mid-1800s by people traveling the Oregon Trail.
At the beginning of his talk, Benscoter held up a big book with a green cover and illustrations of a red apple and a yellow apple, along with cross sections of both. It’s called Old Southern Apples, written by Creighton Lee Calhoun. Benscoter considers it his apple bible.
“In the first half of the book is all about old Southern apples that still exist. Then the last half of the book is about old Southern apples that are considered extinct and that’s when I first started to understand that there were apples that were extinct," he said. "And then I started reading that so-and-so ‘found’ this apple back in North Carolina. Somebody else found an apple in Alabama.”
Benscoter caught the apple bug and began searching in eastern Washington and northern Idaho.
From reading Old Southern Apples, he was struck by the fact that all of the apple detectives were working in other parts of the country. As he pursued his own investigations, he gradually found others in the Northwest who have the same passion. For example, there’s a organization based in Molalla, Oregon that specializes in identifying old fruit varieties.
“Shawn, are you here? Shawn? There," Benscoter said as his eyes scanned the room. "Shawn Shepherd back here is with the Temperate Orchard Conservancy. He and Joanie Cooper identified the Gideon Sweet, which was an apple that was lost for many years.”
Benscoter’s investigative tools are historic government platting maps, old letters and advertisements. They give him clues about where apples were grown and sold and where he might find them. He told the conference audience that he has documentation that about 250 varieties of apples grew in eastern Washington and northern Idaho in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“I found out there were only two apples from eastern Washington that ever achieved any notoriety or any success. And that was the Spokane Beauty and an apple called the Palouse. Palouse at one time, carloads, lots of Palouse were shipped from Whitman County back to places like New York,” he said.
Now, besides researching apples, Benscoter is working to pull together people with the same interest. He talked about that during a break between conference sessions.
“I knew of a few people in the area who were interested in heritage varieties of apples and then, once I got on the Internet and started looking at the universities in this area, I was really surprised to find how many universities actually had programs around heritage apple varieties. None of us knew about the other ones," Benscoter said.
"I don’t think Montana State had any idea about Idaho or WSU or Wyoming. There’s even another program in southern Idaho. No one had ever talked to each other all together. It’s a lot of fun to talk with people with the same interests," he said.
The Sandpoint conference was a chance for people from some of the intermountain states to share stories.
They included Steve Miller from the University of Wyoming and the Wyoming Apple Project. Many of the varieties that grow there are hardy and can tolerate the biting cold of winter. They’re apples brought from places like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Russia. The most common variety is called Wealthy.
Miller says apples were once a staple during Wyoming’s homesteading era. Now the interest is back with a growing demand for apples used for ciders and desserts.
He talks of building a central repository, kind of a one-stop shop for apple education in his state.
“The idea was that, in the future, they could go to this and have a grafting workshop, go right out into the orchard, get the scions that they wanted and right onto the trees and take them home,” Miller said.
To the north, the Montana Heritage Orchard program is sponsored by Montana State University and directed by Katrina Mendrey.
“We have lots of smaller orchards scattered throughout the state. But most of the orchards that we have that are of large size are in the Bitterroot Valley and, to some extent, in the Clark’s Fork Valley, which is just outside Billings, near Fromberg," Mendrey said.
She says Montana has more than 100 registered heritage orchards and about 40 commercial orchards.
“We also have a fairly large cherry industry up here on Flathead Lake. If you’ve ever had a Flathead cherry, it’s delicious. In the Bitterroot we also have a sour cherry orchard that’s pretty sizable. But that has really been the extent of our tree fruit production," she said. "Currently what people are interested in is planting the cider orchards and so that’s why our focus has shifted toward cider apples and which ones we can grow.”
In central Idaho, orchardist Sadie Barret runs the Idaho Heritage Tree Project. She’s focusing her attention on creating ciders and finding the apples that are best for them.
“Cider, post-Prohibition, I call it a cider apple genocide, occurred where cider trees and cider vanished from the American landscape during Prohibition and many of the orchards were just burned to the ground," Barret said.
"The nation, by the 20th century, had pretty much turned to beer and the apple crop had pretty much reverted to eating apples. If I remember, that’s where the ‘apple a day keeps the doctor away’ thing started to try to promote more eating apples and being planted," she said. "But most of the heirloom cider varieties, that acidic, high tannin, bitter sweets, bitter sharps, just all but vanished. However, some of the back country homesteads used cider through Prohibition and, thankfully, were unscathed. And that’s where my interest is is in finding these back country, little hidden orchards that could potentially have cider varieties in them.”
Also present at the Sandpoint conference were two north Idaho apple growers whom we profiled last year on Inland Journal.
Nikki Conley and her husband operate Athol Orchards and Antique Apple Farm, about 20 miles north of Coeur d’Alene.
We stand right outside a fence that borders a group of apple trees planted last year. Conley points to an area that’s about 50 yards away, an old heritage orchard that has been revitalized.
“We started planting those trees in 2016, in the fall of 2016 and the following spring. So we filled all that in. And this was back last year, in April. We had a bunch of community members come out that were on a local Facebook page. They all became customers because of the syrup. They’d been following our story so they really wanted to come out. We wanted to give community members a sense of purpose here and that they’re part of it," she said.
Those community members helped to plant the trees across the fence from us. Those young trees are bearing some fruit, but not a lot yet.
So how did she choose the trees?
“Number one had to be history," Conley said. "Number two had to be the story behind them, where they came from, what year they were discovered. And then the third was the uses, what these apples would be used for.”
Conley and her husband plan to begin building an authentic cider mill and bakery on their farm, a project she says they’ve been working on for a year and a half. She says they plan on launching a Kickstarter campaign soon to help offset the costs of the project and give their customers a chance to take a personal stock in her small family-owned company. They’re also planning a third orchard on a hillside at their farm this fall.
“We’re planning on clearing it off. It’s got some brush and some older trees, but we’re going to clear it off and have it terraced so that we can plant our orchard trees up into that hillside so when you’re approaching our farm, you’re going to see this big hill full of apple trees. In the spring, I imagine it will be beautiful," she said.
Nikki Conley has had a rich and varied career. She’s been a graphic artist and a teacher of primary school-aged children. She combines those talents when she invites children and their families to come and see their orchard. She has created placards that show the different varieties of apples that are planted there.
“I love to teach kids, but I like to teach their families and their parents too, because even the parents, their jaws drop when you tell them stories about these apples because everybody’s used to what’s at the store and that’s about it," Conley said.
About 60 miles to the north, Casimir Holeski and his family live on a farm in the hills near Bonners Ferry. His children have planted their own small garden near an outbuilding. In a cleared area maybe a hundred yards away from that, Holeski shows me the progress he’s made since he welcomed me to his farm last May.
“Since you have been gone I have been non-stop planting. I planted a bunch of pears and mulberries and walnuts and plums out here in the orchard and apples. It’s kind of hard to see them. They’re small, but I’m going to keep filling it up and filling the niches over the next couple of years," he said. "We’ve actually still got lots to do this spring. We’re still planting vegetables. We’re going to put in the first part of our vineyard.”
Holeski also spends time searching Boundary County for old fruit trees. He routinely posts pictures on Facebook showing the different fruits he finds. He also has plans to breed his own fruit trees and vines on his farm.
"Before I was ever able to have my own orchard, I probably spent a decade just mooning over the Raintree nursery catalog every winter, dreaming about having my own fruits and nuts and so I’m interested in all of it,” he said.
Holeski created the Boundary County Orchard Restoration Project. The area’s farms now mostly bear wheat, but back in the day, he said fruit trees were all over the place. There’s no reason, he says, why they couldn’t recreate some of that and he points to the Creston Valley, across the border in British Columbia, where the fruit industry is strong.
Like Dave Benscoter, Holeski has become a devoted student of apples. At the Sandpoint conference, he showed pictures of and described the wide variation of fruit that he has found in his area. Ultimately, he hopes to create a living museum of fruit trees in Boundary County that would be open to the public.
“So that the community people can see and feel and taste this massive diversity of flavors and colors and sizes. They were available to our ancestors," Holeski said.
In August, Holeski and Nikki Conley will go back east to Maine for a three-day apple camp sponsored by the Maine Heritage Orchard. There they’ll rub elbows will some of the nation’s other heritage apple enthusiasts.
Meanwhile, the planning has informally begun for another Northwest conference, perhaps next year in Sandpoint.
Kyle Nagy from the University of Idaho’s orchard anticipates the conference will continue to grow.
“We weren’t sure how much engagement we were going to get, but there’s definitely been interest from other folks who weren’t able to present at this year’s, going forward into next year, possibly making it a two-day conference and having more speakers," Nagy said.
You can expect Dave Benscoter to be back next year.
“I really look forward to having more contact with these people in the future and I think it’s going to be a long-lasting relationship between us," he said.