The Promise and Perils of Restoring Battlefield Orchards

Between May 13 and May 23, 2013, I co-taught a study tour of Civil War battlefields with a colleague. While this was the sixth time I have offered this study tour for undergraduate students, I decided at the outset that I would use this opportunity to gather information about orchards on Civil War battlefields.  I was aware of the “famous” peach orchard where many men died on the field at Gettysburg, and was aware of a few other references to battlefield orchards, but was surprised at the abundance of information I uncovered on the eleven day trip.  This is the fourth in a series of blog posts on battlefield orchards.

The new Sherfy orchard at dawn, May 2013

The new Sherfy orchard at dawn, May 2013

It was about six days into my eleven day Civil War study tour that I realized that replanting orchards at historical parks had become something of a movement. It wasn’t that I was completely unaware of this. I had read Susan Dolan’s  excellent Fruitful Legacy: A Historic Context of Orchards in the United States, which catalogues historic orchards at National Parks sites and also offers a nice historical overview of orchard agriculture in America. I was aware that the Gettysburg National Military Park had replanted the historic Sherfy Orchard. But as we visited one Civil War site after another, and my students rolled their eyes each time I asked a ranger or interpreter about orchards at that particular place, I was happily surprised at how many of them were planning or already in the process of restoring historic orchards.

Heritage Apple Orchard at Belle Grove Plantation

Heritage Apple Orchard at Belle Grove Plantation

Gettysburg has replanted dozens of orchards on their historic sites, and now that they have removed the old Cyclorama building, they intend to replant a historic orchard on that site as well. The oldest trees in Antietam’s restored Piper Orchard are now more than ten years old. The privately-run Belle Grove Plantation on the Cedar Creek battlefield now has a small orchard, of heritage apples and is also keeping honeybees.

Young peach tree in front of Grant's Cabin, City Point

Young peach tree in front of Grant’s Cabin, City Point

At Grant’s Headquarters at City Point on the James River, which had been the Richard Eppes plantation before the war, a few fruit trees have been replanted on the grounds. More significantly, the National Parks Service commissioned a study by the Olmsted Foundation which scoured sketches and paintings of the Eppes Plantation, Richard Eppes’ diaries and account books at the Virginia Historical Society, as well as the letters and diaries of other visitors to the plantation just before or during the time it served as Grant’s headquarters to determine what Eppes planted and where.  They are using that study as a blueprint for a gradual restoration of Eppes’ original landscaping, which included a wide range of fruit trees scattered about the property.

Irvin McDowel went 0-2 at Manassas.  But he loved the local apples.

Irvin McDowel went 0-2 at Manassas. But he loved the local apples.

Nonetheless, it is easier to decide to restore orchards on historic sites, than it is to actually succeed in these efforts. Our National Parks have been starved for funding for years, and the current sequester will only make an already tight situation tighter.  Privately funded sites like Belle Grove also struggle to meet their payrolls. While visiting the Manassas National Battlefield Park, I was delighted to learn that at least one orchard was mentioned in the story of the Battle of Second Manassas, and that Park Service staff had made some effort to replant trees on the Brawner Farm. It was under the branches of the Brawner apple orchard that the hapless but always hungry Ohio General Irvin McDowell spread out his maps and ate “apples by the basket” as he tried to figure out what his Confederate foes were up to.

Deer have made quick work of the netting at Manassas

Deer have made quick work of the netting at Manassas

When I arrived at the Brawner Farm, however, I was disappointed with what I found. In the middle of a pasture of waist-high grass resided a motley collection of young apple trees, each surrounded by not-so-sturdy deer fence, many of them collapsed in on the trees.  I strode into the wet grass to get a closer look, and found several trees completely entangled in the collapsed deer netting, some of them having been in that condition long enough that they were now growing sideways.  While I didn’t hold out much hope for these trees, I couldn’t leave without making some effort to rescue them, carefully untangling the netted trees while my bemused but patient students waited along a dry path some yards away.

At the Shirley plantation, staff recently planted one peach, one apple, one plum, and one cherry tree where an orchard once stood. Hope they are self-fertile varieties!

At the Shirley plantation, staff recently planted one peach, one apple, one plum, and one cherry tree where an orchard once stood. Hope they are self-fertile varieties!

In the interpretive center at the Brawner Farm, one ranger expressed skepticism about the whole project. The farmhouse that the interpretive center occupies was itself a post-war construction, albeit on the site of an earlier farmhouse that resided on roughly the same footprint.  If the very farmhouse itself was not the same as the one that was there in the midst of the battle, he asked me, what value was there in trying to replant a historic orchard on the site? Was this taking the desire to restore battlefields to their precise pre-battle condition a bit too far?

Given what I know about the effort and resources it takes to care for an orchard—and to protect them from the ravages of deer, insects, and harmful diseases and fungi—I had to conceded that this might not be the wisest use of scarce park resources. At Gettysburg and elsewhere, success in these efforts came only when the historic site found committed and knowledgeable volunteers willing to take responsibility for the trees. I can’t fault the over-stretched staff of Manassas National Battlefield Park for neglect, and instead I applaud their intention. It is my hope that they can find a group of committed volunteers to take over this project. And they will need to invest in some more substantial deer fence.

Volunteers for the Philly Orchard Project.

Volunteers for the Philly Orchard Project.

These local volunteer organizations might learn a great deal by looking at the efforts of Urban Orchard organizations around the country, which would no doubt be great resources for them. These include groups like the Philadelphia Orchard Project, Seattle’s City Fruit, the Portland Fruit Tree Project, the Boston Tree Party, and Los Angeles’ Fallen Fruit collective. These organizations have learned a great deal about the pitfalls and promise of planting and maintaining public orchards. I hope that efforts to replant orchards on federal, state, and private historic sites continues to grow, and am eager to learn about other efforts out there.  Please let me know about other efforts by contributing a comment below.

3 thoughts on “The Promise and Perils of Restoring Battlefield Orchards

  1. This is a great post and we do see similar things happening in Canada. Here in Ottawa, small organizations like Hidden Harvest, Permaculture Ottawa and the Community Garden Network have certainly increased the local population’s interest in things like urban orchards & food forests.

    Suddenly we now have started to see plans for heritage orchards pop up in large urban parks & developments; however, when digging into the details you really have to think that it’s more a decision to simply plant orchards, than it is to actually succeed in these efforts.

    For example, the plans for Lansdowne’s Urban Park include designs for a small Heritage Orchard with exactly 40 apple trees and 10 plum trees. The species & specifications were drawn up by a firm in Vancouver (who won the tender for that phase of the project). Local growers have told me that they feel it might be a great heritage orchard for the West Coast of Canada but not for here in Ottawa. The work to purchase, plant and maintain these trees has been lumped into a different multi-million dollar tender for a general contractor who will also be responsible for building the underground parking lot, skating rink and fountains. The tender binds the contractor to “furnish nursery-grown trees compliant with ANSI Z60.1 – American Standard for Nursery Stock” and “select stock for uniform height and spread”.

    While such projects may not be starved for funding, they do share a common theme with the Battlefield Orchards you mentioned above — no discourse with local orchard organizations and no attempt (or structure) to involve knowledgeable volunteers.


  2. Pingback: The Sherfy Peach Orchard | American Orchard

  3. Pingback: The Trees of Camp Chase Cemetery | American Orchard

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