May 20, 2018
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Exploring the American apple: New collaborative celebrates heirloom fruit

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Red delicious apples hang from a tree as Mark Sheriff clears some weeds around a young apple tree at Avalon Acres Orchard and Farm in St. Albans Sept. 7, 2008.
By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, among other things, was an apple enthusiast and cider connoisseur. While he wrote the “Declaration of Independence” and “Jefferson Bible,” he also picked up a quill to map his orchards, record fruit varieties and write about developments in propagating budding American apple varieties.

“Apples were integral to his orchards and his table at [Jefferson’s estate] Monticello,” said Peter Hatch, director of the 2,400-acre landscape of Monticello since 1977.

Hatch, author of “The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello: Thomas Jefferson and the Origins of American Horticulture,” will visit Maine to give the keynote talk of the first Downeast Heirloom Apple Week and Festival 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7, at Woodlawn Museum in Ellsworth, where experts on apple history and cider will gather to educate and celebrate Friday-Sunday, Oct. 7-9, at a festival that is free and open to the public.

The celebration is sponsored by the new Downeast Food Heritage Collaborative, a partnership between the College of the Atlantic, Woodlawn Museum and Healthy Acadia to focus on the food heritage of Down East.

“As historians, we are always trying to get communities to think about how the past affects the future — in this case, how local farming and food systems have changed, so we can envision a future with healthy food and local farming in vibrant communities,” said Joshua Torrance, executive director of Woodlawn Museum.

Todd Little-Siebold, COA faculty member in history, co-founded the organization following a class titled “The History of Agriculture: Apples” at which students conducted local historical research on apples and orchards in the area.

“It’s a history that has basically disappeared,” said Little-Siebold. “You would have no idea that apple farming was a part of everyday life here. We’re learning the story of what happened to these orchards, what happened to these farms, and thinking about what rural Maine might look like again some day.”

The apple reaches back in history to religious texts, often cast in the role of an irresistible treat that causes a lot of trouble. For instance, Eris, the ancient Greek goddess of discord, began the Trojan War by tossing a golden apple into an immortal wedding party. But the most famous may be the apple that resulted in the banishment of Eve and Adam from the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament.

Apples have long been a part of the human diet in Europe and Asia, particularly in the form of cider. So when the pilgrims arriving in the New World found only sour crab apples, they promptly sent for seeds and cuttings of more palatable apples from England, which were brought on later voyages of the Mayflower, according to the Maine State Pomological Society.

“It wasn’t a native tree, but apple varieties began to appear all over the colonies, varieties adapted to regional interests and climate,” said Hatch.

In 1850, there were 10,000 known varieties of apples in Maine, though not all tasty. On most farms and homesteads, apples were eaten fresh and used for cooking and making hard cider.

“Every apple seed is in fact a new variety. Most of them are bad, but one out of a million had really fine qualities,” said Hatch. “Apples that could be stored through the winter months or apples that would make particularly good cider were prized … and so they find these really good kinds of apples and they graft it to preserve those apples.”

Jefferson had what he called a “fruitery” or the South Orchard, a collection of 170 varieties of the finest fruit, both European and American, including 18 varieties of apple trees. Newtown Pippin and the Esopus Spitzenburg were his favorite eating apples, but when it came to cider, he planted a separate orchard of 300 Hewes Virginia Crab apples, the first choice for cider in 18th century Virginia. He also grew a mystery apple called Taliaferro (pronounced “Talliver”).

“It made liquor that tasted as much like Champagne as anything [Jefferson] had ever tasted, but we don’t really know what it looked like,” said Hatch.

Cider used to be the standard drink throughout the U.S., and recent research by COA’s Little-Siebold and Jill Piekut, a fourth-year COA student, has revealed that cider was a vital part of Maine’s agricultural economy.

In 1880, Ellsworth was home to 84 apple orchards, but today, the town has just one, said Little-Siebold. Only a handful of apples are commonly available in grocery stores, but with a revived interest in local food, there is hope that more varieties will return to store shelves or at least become available at local farmers markets.

“A lot of young farmers are coming to Maine and starting farms, and a lot of them are interested in heirloom fruits and what place they can play in a redefined economy,” said Little-Siebold.

All week, Healthy Acadia’s Farm will bring educational programs on apples and cider pressing to schools throughout Hancock and Washington counties. Saturday’s festival will feature orchard tours, talks, cider pressing and children’s activities, and Torrance looks forward identifying the trees of Woodlawn’s apple orchard with Little-Seibold, Hatch and John Bunker, Maine heirloom apple expert and author of “Not Too Far From the Tree.”

As part of the festival, the collaboration and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association will host a hard cider workshop at 11 a.m. Oct. 8. Ben Watson, author of “Cider, Hard and Sweet: History, Traditions, and Making Your Own,” will lead the workshop, which costs $20 per person. Watson has spent years studying the history of cider making in England, France, Spain and the United States. Preregistration is required.

An apple pie contest concludes the celebration 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9, at the Woodlawn Farmers’ Market. Registration starts at noon and judging begins at 1 p.m. Several fruit and apple producers will be guest vendors at the market.

A full schedule can be found at In addition to the Downeast Food Heritage Collaborative, the apple week is supported by grants from the Hancock County Fund at the Maine Community Foundation and by Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

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