Heirloom Southern Apples

Old-fashioned Winesap apples.

We generally gather the last of our heirloom apples in November.  When my husband and I were looking to plant our orchard about 15 years ago, we ran across an article about old-time Southern apples.  Modern apple varieties often perform poorly in the South – they’re developed for commercial production in cooler climates.  We figured these trees would be better adapted to conditions in the Uwharries.  We also liked the idea of preserving a piece of our history. 

Fortunately for us, Lee Calhoun, a passionate advocate for heirloom apples, lived in Chatham County.  This was prior to widespread use of the internet, so instead of sitting down at our computer, we did our research the old-fashioned way – we got in the car, drove to Pittsboro, and talked to the man.  At that point, he’d been collecting trees across the South for over a decade.  When he saw a promising tree, he’d stop, learn as much as he could about it, and take a cutting back to his own burgeoning orchard.  He found himself in a race against time – the trees were nearing the end of their life span, as were the elderly Southerners who remembered their stories.

He and his wife Edith also did research at the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland.  He defined “heirloom” as being 60 years prior to the date he started compiling information.  The choice was somewhat arbitrary, but he noted the late 1920s had been a time of transition in the South, when agriculture shifted toward industrial production, away from the subsistence farms that had nurtured unique local varieties.

With his guidance, we chose a half-dozen varieties from nearly 200 he had available at the time – a well-rounded selection for cooking, eating and making cider.  As a bonus, we also acquired the stories he’d collected about each one.  George Washington and Thomas Jefferson extolled the virtues of the Hewe’s Crab as a cider apple.  The Yates is much-loved by Southerners because it stays on the tree well into fall.  The Lacy originated in Union County.  Old-fashioned Winesaps spawned another Southern favorite, the Arkansas Black.  I also learned I had a personal connection to some of his apples.

When Mr. Calhoun saw my name on the order form, he told me he had a Grissom apple from the Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee.  I was intrigued.  My grandfather always said the Grissoms came from Tennessee in a covered wagon, but we’ve never known exactly where.  We have evidence of Stephen Grissom being in Montgomery County as early as 1801, but my mom, the family historian, hit a roadblock when she tried to trace his birthplace.  The state records in Tennessee burned in the 19th century.  The Grissom apple seemed like a clue to this ancestral mystery.  Of course, I ordered two.  I hate to say it, but the Grissoms haven’t amounted to much in the Uwharries.  The trees seem stunted.  The apples come in early and don’t keep.  I believe it’s a little too hot for them down here – it is for me at times.

When Mr. Calhoun learned we’d be planting the trees in the Uwharries, he told us he had a local apple for us.  He said he got the graft from the daughter of a man who’d sold fruit trees for Stark.  I knew he was talking about my dad’s cousin Jewell Saunders.  That tree was right up the road from our proposed orchard, but I’d never thought to ask about its history.  Jewell later told me Mr. Calhoun had turned up at the community building one day when she was quilting.  He asked about the large apple tree next door.  She said her father, John Hill, had brought it home from the sawmill.  There, trees often sprouted from the workers’ discarded apple cores.  He would study their performance and bring the best ones home.  Since the variety didn’t have a name, Mr. Calhoun dubbed it the Ophir apple in honor of the community where it grows.

Our Ophir apple trees were grafted from a tree that was grafted from a tree less than a mile away.  They traveled a long, long way to end up back so close to where they started.  Much like the journey Mr. Calhoun has made across the South to document the trees that originated in our own backyards.

-- Ruth Ann Grissom

Photographs by Ruth Ann Grissom

Mr. Calhoun closed his nursery in 2005, but many of the heirloom apples he collected are available from Century Farm Orchards near Reidsville (www.centuryfarmorchards.com).  A new edition of his book, Old Southern Apples, is scheduled for publication in February 2011.