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
"The climatic conditions are so superior for the production of fruit that it is estimated that if all the orchards in Benton county...were consolidated into one, it would cover...ten square miles. ...To all who are honorably inclined, industrious and desirous of happy home, Bentonville extends a cordial welcome."
Bentonville Democrat, August 26, 1899
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.
Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Hann, Friendship Community, southwest of West Fork, circa 1908. Elsie Cress Young Collection (S-85-129-32)
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.
Johnny Appleseed's mission of planting apple seeds wasn't about growing apples for pies, but for cider making. That's because apple seeds don't grow true. A seed from a Granny Smith apple doesn't grow into a tree bearing Granny Smiths.
Apples grown from seed are often bitter or sour. But every now and then a seed grows into a tree which produces a flavorful apple. In order to replicate the fruit, a scion (prepared twig) from the desired tree is grafted onto a sturdy rootstock. That is, the plant tissue from one tree is "fused" into the plant tissue of another tree. The resulting tree is a clone of the parent tree. Trees grown from seed are considered "seedling varieties." Trees grown from grafts are considered "propagated varieties."
During the 1700s and 1800s most people in the U.S. drank apples, rather than ate them. They turned their apple crop into cider (what we now call hard cider) a more popular drink than water, wine, beer, or coffee. A mildly alcoholic beverage, cider was easier and safer to make than corn liquor. Apple juice could also be distilled into high-proof apple brandy and applejack. In Northwest Arkansas folks probably made cider at home, but there isn't evidence of commercial cider mills like there were in the East or Midwest. It may be that folks better trusted the water in the Ozarks.
It wasn't until the early 1900s that apples were primarily considered a food crop. Around the turn of the 20th century groups like the Women's Christian Temperance Union began fighting alcohol and the evils associated with it. When Prohibition came into effect in 1920, distilleries across the nation closed. In order to distance themselves from any association with alcohol, the emerging apple industry began heavily promoting the phrase, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away."