Notes from the Border: Apple trees and cellar holds

Apple trees outlast cellar holes. In fact, one of the best ways to discover an old house’s laid stone foundation as you hike through the now heavily wooded landscape of Vermont is to happen upon an ancient apple tree, still blossoming and still bearing fruit despite years of living wild amid the maple and birch that dominate the woodscape. This is how my mother and I found the outlines of a cellar hole on the CVPS road leading into Sucker Brook Reservoir. We didn’t even notice it when hiking in, but on the way out, my mother, ever the Girl Scout with her knowledge of tree bark, leaf shape, and other identifying characteristics, easily spotted the domesticated misfit, and from there the sunken ground and two of the carefully laid cellar walls that were still visible and mostly intact.

(Photo credit fauxto_digit)

This time of year there is so much excitement over apples. VPR featured a wonderful program about running a commercially viable orchard. One caller remembered the early days when McIntosh and Red Delicious were the only varieties available; now Vermont orchards provide dozens of varietals, from heirlooms to new cultivars, each with its own unique characteristics and peak picking time. So I was touched when one of the orchard owners claimed the humble Mac as his all-time favorite. And I began to wonder what varieties were planted by the early settlers of Vermont, those tenacious trees that continue to work their gnarled reaching arms up to the sun through the tall, straight stands of newer forest.

In this part of Vermont, the early settlers almost all hailed from Connecticut, southern New Hampshire, and eastern Massachusetts. Coastal New England had become crowded with settlers from England, Ireland, and Scotland, as well as the natural population growth that arose from the average of seven live births colonial New England white women endured; but “Indian troubles” had prevented westward expansion. With relative peace established along the Appalachian frontier at the conclusion of fighting in the French and Indian War, New Hampshire colonial Governor Benning Wentworth signed over one hundred town charters in 1761 and 1762 in what became Vermont. The early charters were usually bought by groups of land speculators who were well connected with Wentworth, himself a wealthy merchant and corrupt land-speculator The names of these towns reflected these political connections, borrowing not only from the royal house of Governor Wentworth himself, but from the names of his closest political and business associates.

Few of these early owners ever saw Neshoba (as Brandon was then called), Leicester, Salisbury, Middlebury, Bridport, Shoreham, New Haven, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Bristol, and Addison—all chartered as part of the Wentworth land grants. Rather, they sold their shares to intrepid individuals and families who made up in hard work and ambition what they lacked in resources and opportunity in the more established parts of the country. Few white settlers ventured to the area until after the Revolutionary War, when hostilities with Tories and Native American Indian tribes who had allied themselves with the British had ceased to be a threat in the Champlain Valley. These settlers built log cabins, cleared fields, built stone walls—and planted apple seeds.

Hardy and well-suited to the climate, an apple sapling grew into a fruit-bearing tree within three to four years. The colder and more severe northern New England winters of the 19thCentury provided a natural pruning and thinning system that made apples a relatively low-maintenance crop. With ample sunlight on the branches, the trees created bountiful yields of nutrition-dense fruit that could be preserved and even fermented into an alcoholic beverage we Vermonters still love: hard cider. Though nowadays, orchardists and backyard apple trees require more aggressive intervention to produce an acceptable apple, the early settlers were both far more frugal and far less concerned with appearance, and they used drops and worm-eaten apples in “value-added” applesauce, apple butter, dried apples and apple brandy.

If settlers wanted to plant an orchard, they needed to bring enough seeds with them. A quirk of apple’s genetic reproduction is that the offspring of an apple tree does not inherit the characteristics of its parents: scientifically speaking, apples are examples of an “extreme heterozygote.” With three sets of chromosomes rather than the usual two, most triploids cannot reproduce at all; apples occasionally can, but the seedlings rarely survive. The crab apple seedlings that keep cropping up in my backyard where an ancient tree fell victim to a wind storm are not, as it turns out, the result of the years of rotting apples returning to earth, but rather root buds insisting on searching out light and life from the underground remnants of the stump.


“The old Vermonters grew apples in a rich and amazing variety. From orchards here were harvested Honeygold, Summer Rambo, Tompkins County King, Cox Orange Pippin, Pound Sweet, Nonesuch, Wolf River, Wealthy and Winter Banana. Vermont had apples named for towns, such as Bethel, Roxbury Russet, and St. Johnsbury Sweet; others were named for their shape (Sheepnose), their taste (Sops of Wine), and their color (Red Astrachan, Yellow Transparent, and Peach). Some of the apple names were mysterious, or pure poetry - imagine, for example, the taste of Seek-No-Further, Duchess of Oldenberg, King David, Black Gilliflower, and Lady.


Why so many? Apples have a natural tendency to reinvent themselves. A seed of one variety, once planted, will grow to bear something different. ‘They won't come true to themselves,’ a Vermont grower once said of apples.

Source:  A History of the Vermont Apple Industry

So as you wander the wilder parts of Vermont where the hill slope farms once stood, the apple trees you find are survivors of the efforts of human hands planting and tending their orchards, not the willfulness of nature to overgrow human efforts to domesticate it. The foundation holes and the apple tree were both left to us as humbling reminders of the toil it took to build a new life on the Vermont frontier.

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