Orchards and Slavery on the Rappahannock


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 second in a series of blog posts on battlefield orchards.

Chatham Manor today. Before the Civil War, this was the back of the house, with the front yard overlooking the Rappahannock.

Chatham Manor today. Before the Civil War, this was the back of the house, with the front yard overlooking the Rappahannock.

Chatham Manor sits on the north bank of the Rappahannock River, on a high bluff overlooking the City of Fredericksburg. It was built for entertaining Virginia’s elite.  Its first owner, William Fitzhugh, was among that elite, and at different times both Washington and Jefferson were guests at the house. The 1280 acre plantation, surrounded by carefully-designed and managed gardens, two orchards, and fields of commercial crops, was designed to impress its guests with the wealth and refined tastes of its owner. We can imagine William Fitzhugh providing guests like Washington and Jefferson with a spectacular meal, perhaps one that ended with a dessert of fine and rare fruits from his orchards. And we can imagine the fruits of Chatham’s orchards being a subject of their conversation. Both Washington and Jefferson were immensely proud of their own carefully kept orchards of the fine fruit, acquired from nurseries on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps Fitzhugh and his guests promised to exchange grafts of especially rare varieties with each other, as members of this elite club were wont to do.

William Fitzhugh, member of the 2nd Continental Congress, builder of Chatham Manor.

William Fitzhugh, member of the 2nd Continental Congress, builder of Chatham Manor.

The Fitzhughs, Jeffersons, and Washingtons of Virginia could afford to devote time and resources to the hobby of fruit growing because they commanded the labor of hundreds of unfree persons. Slavery made Chatham’s fine gardens and orchards possible. Despite the efforts of Fitzhugh and other southern planters to present themselves to the world as benevolent patriarchs overseeing an Edenic and peaceable kingdom, the truth was that all of this wealth and refinement was derived from their exploitation of other people. In 1805, Fitzhugh’s slaves rose up in rebellion against their cruel treatment. An armed posse of white men put the rebellion down. Two of the rebels were killed as they tried to escape; another was captured and executed as a warning to others; two more were sold away to another plantation, probably in the West Indies. Fitzhugh, who had come to find both managing enslaved laborers and entertaining other elite Virginians a wearying task, sold Chatham the next year.

James Horace Lacey, owner of Chatham Manor, confederate staff officer.

James Horace Lacey, owner of Chatham Manor, confederate staff officer.

Its subsequent owners continued to operate Chatham manor as a plantation estate.  When southern states seceded in 1861, believing Lincoln’s election a threat to the institution of slavery, Chatham’s then thirty-seven year old owner, James Horace Lacy, followed his interests and joined the Confederate army as a staff officer. In April of 1862 when the Union Army occupied the north bank of the Rappahannock,  Lacey’s wife and children fled to Fredericksburg on the south side of the river.

In December of 1862, Union General Ambrose Burnside used Chatham as a command center. He hoped to launch a quick strike across the Rappahannock before Lee and his Army were prepared, then push on towards the Confederate capitol at Richmond.  But when he arrived with his army on the north side of the Rappahannock, the pontoon boats he needed to build a bridge across the river had not. As Burnside waited, Lee and his army dug in, occupying a long imposing ridge just south of the city of Fredericksburg.

The Sunken Road at Fredericksburg. Hundreds of Union soldiers fell trying to take this position.

The Sunken Road at Fredericksburg. Hundreds of Union soldiers fell trying to take this position.

In the 19th century, it was customary for armies to suspend campaigns in winter. Most of the major battles of the Civil War occurred in the spring, summer or fall.  But Lincoln, eager for a decisive victory before the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect on January 1, pushed Burnside to act. Burnside, too, was eager to demonstrate that he was different from the overly-cautious McClellan whom he had recently replaced. The result of this impatience was one of the costliest, most lop-sided Union defeats of the war. Union forces were able to make the crossing and take the town, but the assault on the Confederate position on Marye’s Heights, across open fields, was a terrible folly. Confederate riflemen fired upon advancing Union soldiers from a sunken road at the base of the heights; Confederate artillery rained down upon the exposed soldiers from the heights. Burnside stubbornly persisted, sending fourteen separate charges against the entrenched Confederates, all of them costly failures. At the end of the day, Union casualties just in the Marye’s Heights section of the line, were six to eight thousand, while Confederates lost less than a quarter of that many. After the battle, Chatham Manor was converted from Union Command Center to field hospital. Hundreds of wounded and dying men faced triage and amputation in tents set up on its grounds, many of those who did not survive were temporarily buried in Chatham’s gardens.

One week after the battle the poet Walt Whitman came to Chatham House to nurse and comfort the wounded and the dying. Today Chatham is owned and maintained by the National Parks Service, as part of the Fredericksburg National Battlefield Park. On a wall next to a window that overlooks the front garden, a copy of Walt Whitman’s The Wound Dresser is mounted, open to the pages that describe what he witnessed at Chatham:

“Outdoors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc., about a load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each covered with its brown woollen blanket. In the dooryard, toward the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel staves or broken board, stuck in the dirt.”

Whitman's catalpa tree from a parlor in Chatham Manor.

Whitman’s catalpa tree from a parlor in Chatham Manor.

The catalpa tree which sheltered the pile of unsalvageable appendages survives, and is visible from that window.  Its bark more gnarled and knotted with age, and its aging trunk and some of its heavier branches now held up with steel supports, in a heroic effort to preserve the last witness to this terrible scene. It is as if this old catalpa has become Whitman himself, pointing at the precise spot of the carnage, telling us not to look away.

While Whitman’s catalpa tree survives, the orchards of Chatham Manor, a symbol of the luxury that slavery provided to an elite group of white men, do not.  After the battle the Union army hunkered down for the winter on the north side of the river. On January 1, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, and the Rappahannock became one of the most important boundaries between slavery and freedom. Throughout that winter Virginia slaves stole themselves and gained their freedom by crossing to the Union side.  Many stayed with the Union camp, and took jobs with the army. Soldiers and freedmen scoured the countryside that winter, seeking fuel to keep them warm. By spring the north shore of the Rappahannock was mostly denuded of trees, save Whitman’s Catalpa and a few other mature trees that graced the lawn of Chatham Manor. Chatham’s two orchards were no doubt among the first targets of the fuel foragers. When I asked the park rangers on duty at Chatham if they could point me to the original location of these orchards, they could not.  The opulent orchards of Chatham, created by slavery, were ultimately extirpated by the soldiers and freedmen who brought about slavery’s demise.

The gnarled, knotted bark of one of the last witnesses of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

The gnarled, knotted bark of one of the last witnesses of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

The Apples of Antietam


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 third in a series of blog posts on battlefield orchards.

Two cannon sit on the southern edge of the new Piper Orchard at Antietam

Two cannon sit on the southern edge of the new Piper Orchard at Antietam

An Army marches on its stomach.” This old adage, commonly attributed to Napoleon, was certainly one every Union and Confederate soldier understood. Soldiers spent a great deal of time thinking about their stomachs: what last went into them, and what might next go into them. Even when rations were plentiful, they were nonetheless dependably monotonous—salt pork, hard tack, and desiccated vegetables were standard fare. When opportunities arose to satisfy their stomachs with something different, soldiers could go to extraordinary lengths to seize them. This truth was perhaps no more dramatically demonstrated than at Sharpsburg, Maryland in the Fall of 1862, on the bloodiest single day of the war. The battle of Antietam has long been remembered for the fierce fighting which occurred in the cornfield, the West Woods, along Bloody Lane, and at Burnside’s Bridge, but actions that day in the Piper Orchard were also worthy of commemoration.

Four fierce-looking members of the 22nd Georgia. Some believe the object in the hand of the soldier on the left is a confederate grenade, but I'd like to think it's actually an apple.

Four fierce-looking members of the 22nd Georgia. Some believe the object in the hand of the soldier on the left is a confederate grenade, but I’d like to think it’s actually an apple.

The Piper apple orchard sat on a hill just south of the Sunken Road, where on the morning of the battle Confederate forces were entrenched in what appeared to be an impregnable defensive position. But once flanked by Union forces, the Sunken Road quickly became a death pit now memorialized as Bloody Lane. To the South of the Sunken Road on a hillside resided the Piper cornfield and orchard, and it was to this ground that Robert E. Lee sent a division of 4,000 men in an effort to rescue their trapped comrades. While this high ground allowed the Confederates to fire upon Union forces north and west of the Sunken Road, it also left the soldiers in that orchard terribly exposed to both Union artillery and rifle fire. Caught at the highest, most exposed part of the orchard, Georgia’s 22nd Infantry hunkered down, as minie balls flew over their heads and canister shot rattled the apple trees around them. Private W.B. Judkins, a member of that Georgia regiment recalled “the company was in the thick of the fight there in the apple orchard and cornfield. The ground was covered with apples where we fought, shot off the trees.” Judkins himself was wounded by schrapnel, but he and his fellow Georgians wasted no opportunity and instinctively grabbed as many fallen apples as they could.

Major Thomas Hyde, whose 7th Maine suffered more than 50% casualties in the Piper Orchard that day.

Major Thomas Hyde, whose 7th Maine suffered more than 50% casualties in the Piper Orchard that day.

Later that afternoon, the focus of the battle shifted south to Burnside’s Bridge, but the scene near Bloody Lane and the Piper Orchard was far from peaceful. Confederates continued to use the high ground of the Piper farm and orchard to fire upon Union forces now firmly in control of the area around Bloody Lane. At this point, seizing the high ground of the Piper Orchard had no strategic importance, so Major Thomas Hyde was a bit shocked to receive orders from Colonel William Irwin to send his 7th Maine regiment—diminished by earlier fights to only about 200 men—to take the Piper Orchard from a Confederate force at least four times as large. The Maine men did so, but soon found themselves pinned down in the hilltop orchard, with no support coming from other regiments behind them. Thomas Hyde remembered “how the twigs and branches of the apple-trees were being cut off by musket balls and were dropping in a shower.” Another member of the regiment recalled how  “bullets, men and apples were dropping on all sides.” Nonetheless, in a fight so fierce that Captain John B. Cook declared it was in the Piper orchard that he “learned how thickly bullets could fly,” the fearless and hungry men of the 7th Maine were reaching up into the branches of the trees to gather apples.

When the fighting finally ended that evening, more than one in three of Georgia’s apple-gathering soldiers were casualties, while Maine’s second-harvesters lost more than half their regiment.

One of the heritage varieties planted in the new Piper Orchard was the McLellan, which has no connection to the Union's Commanding General at Antietam, George McClellan. Image from S.A. Beech, Apples of New York.

One of the heritage varieties planted in the new Piper Orchard was the McLellan, which has no connection to the Union’s Commanding General at Antietam, George McClellan. Image from S.A. Beech, Apples of New York.

The Piper Orchard at Antietam, like the Sherfy Orchard at Gettysburg, survived the war but not the century. When the Congress acquired the battlefield at Antietam and established a national park, there were no more apple trees on Piper hill. In 2002, as part of a wider effort to restore National Battlefields to their pre-battle landscapes, Antietam National Battlefield replanted 6.5 acres in apple trees, selecting 19th century varieties; five years later, they planted an additional 13.5 acres, this time including some modern disease-resistant varieties. Protecting the young orchard from the ravages of deer has been a challenge, and today about half of the trees in the orchard are surrounded by sturdy deer-proof fencing. Slowly but surely, the Piper Orchard is returning to something looking a bit like its 1862 appearance.

long.road.antietamA detailed description of the 7th Maine’s fateful charge into the orchard can be found here.  For a thrilling description of the entire battle, including the experience of the Georgia 22nd in the Piper Orchard, pick up Richard Slotkin’s The Long Road to Antietam.  More about the efforts of Antietam staff and volunteers to restore the Piper Orchard can be found here and and also at the Save Historic Antietam Foundation website.

Excellent, detailed maps of the entire battlefield, including the locations of the Piper and other orchards can be found in Bradley Gottfried’s The Maps of Antietam.

The new Piper Orchard at dawn, May 2013.

The new Piper Orchard at dawn, May 2013.

A Penny Per Pound


Tomatolandcover1“Any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave.”  When I first read this line in Barry Estabrook’s book Tomatoland, I was both shocked, but also, I confess, a little skeptical.  The assertion, made by U.S. District Attorney Douglas Molloy, of Florida’s Middle District is based on his extensive on the ground knowledge of the labor conditions in Central Florida’s tomato fields, which, Molloy claims, have been until recently “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Molloy’s insistence that the most exploitative working conditions in Florida’s tomato field amounted to slavery was no mere opinion, but supported by convictions of six men involved in the enslavement scheme. Migrant workers in the employ of Cesar Navarette were coaxed into accepting jobs that promised good pay and clean housing. Instead they found themselves lured into debt peonage, forced to live in unsanitary box trucks with no toilet facilities, locked in trucks overnight to ensure they would be available to work the next day, chained together, beaten and threatened.

Tomato Pickers in Central Florida are paid by the 32 pound pail.

Tomato Pickers in Central Florida are paid by the 32 pound pail.

While not all workers who toiled in Central Florida’s tomato fields in the first decade of the twenty-first century could be called slaves, instances of extreme exploitation and inhumane work and housing conditions were quite common. The good news is that in less than a decade, thanks to the collective action of workers and their allies, conditions in central Florida tomato fields have gone from among the worst in the United States to “probably the best working environment in American agriculture” according to Susan Marquis of the RAND Graduate School.

Before explaining how this remarkable turnaround occurred, I want to say a few words about my own interest in this subject. In the final chapter of my recent book, Johnny Appleseed and the American OrchardI offer a brief but sweeping history of the apple in America since 1860. When I finished that book I realized I had a lot more to say about the history of the apple in America, including much material that was too far afield from that book’s anchor narrative: the story of John “Appleseed” Chapman and the legend that emerged from his life. I decided that a broader history of the apple in American history was warranted, and have begun to map that book out.  One persistent issue in the story of the apple in America is, of course, the problem of labor: who picked your apple, and under what conditions was it picked? Was the laborer adequately compensated for her work?

Slavery and exploitation have been a persistent and recurring part of the global history of agricultural labor. Even in the early 19th century United States, a golden age of sorts for the family farm in the northeast and midwest, slave labor was the engine of southern agriculture.  In the middle of the 19th century most of America’s apple orchards resided on family farms and were picked by members of that family or local laborers, or not picked at all. (A significant percentage of the nation’s apples were simply left to drop on the ground, where they would fatten hogs released into the orchard.) In the late 19th and the early 20th century, as orcharding became an increasingly specialized and primarily commercial activity, orchards got larger, the challenge of seasonal labor needs became greater. And as markets became increasingly national and international in scope, competition, more often than not, exerted downward pressures on both the prices of apples and the wages those picking them received.  The same factors that created the exploitative working conditions in central Florida’s tomato fields have come to bear on agriculture across the United States and the world, and the apple industry has not been exempt from this.

Apple pickers were assigned numbers and placed a ticket in each basket of apples they picked. Then relied on the accounting of supervisors to determine their days' pay.

Apple pickers were assigned numbers and placed a ticket in each basket of apples they picked. Then relied on the accounting of supervisors to determine their days’ pay.

My project for this summer to is trace part of this transition in orchard agriculture in one small region by telling the story of the Shenandoah Valley’s orchard industry across the first half of the twentieth century. One part of that story is a transition in harvest labor, from family and local labor early in the century, when many Appalachian families came down from the mountains in the fall to pick apples, to their replacement with Jamaican and Bahamian guest workers by mid-century.  In the Handley Library in Winchester, Virginia I have found a large collection of the ephemera connected to this harvest labor, including the “picker’s tickets” given to each laborer, intended to help determine what each worker is owed in wages at the end of the day.  Agricultural labor was exempted from most of the labor regulations passed in the 1930s New Deal legislation, and the grower’s preferred method of payment–by the pound, bushel or barrel, rather than by the hour–has long made this kind of work especially vulnerable to exploitation.

Trader Joe's resisted the demands of the Campaign for Fair Food, but bowing to customer pressure, eventually signed on.

Trader Joe’s resisted the demands of the Campaign for Fair Food, but bowing to customer pressure, eventually signed on.

That has certainly been the case in central Florida’s tomato fields, where workers are paid by the pail. Growers have long insisted that workers make better than minimum wage, but make those calculations are based upon often unrealistic estimates of how many pails of tomatoes a worker can pick in an hour, and also by ignoring the time workers spend at the field waiting for the morning dew to dry before they can begin to pick. The wages and conditions in Florida’s tomato fields have improved dramatically in the last decade by the inspired creation of a “Penny Per Pound” campaign launched by the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW). Growers had long responded to worker’s requests for higher wages by claiming, not unfairly, that they, too, were victims of a global marketplace, and anything that raised their cost made it harder for them to compete against tomatoes grown in Mexico and elsewhere. The CIW’s solution was to go directly to the major purchasers of Florida’s fresh tomatoes–fast food chains and grocery stores–and ask them if they would be willing to pay one penny more per pound if they were assured that the additional penny would go to improving the working conditions and wages of the pickers. The CIW did not initially receive a warm reception, but through

Ohio-based Wendy's is the last major fast food chain holdout against the Penny Per Pound Campaign.

Ohio-based Wendy’s is the last major fast food chain holdout against the Penny Per Pound Campaign.

strategic boycotts, they have managed to bring many of the biggest buyers on board. Among fast food giants, the biggest player still refusing to pay an extra penny a pound is Ohio-based Wendy’s; among grocery chains, Kroger’s is one of the last holdouts. Even Walmart has signed on for the Penny Per Pound campaign, and gone one step farther–promising to see if they can institute a similar program with their suppliers of apples and strawberries.

The Penny For Pound program–now called the Campaign for Fair Food–has already dramatically improved conditions and wages for central Florida’s tomato growers, and is on the eve of a complete victory.  Please visit their website to see a full list of the supporters and hold outs.  Consider printing out information about the campaign from their website and stopping in to talk to the manager of your local Kroger’s and Wendy’s and letting them know how important it is to you, as a consumer, that the people who work to provide your food are treated humanely and paid fairly.

For a historical perspective on the persistence of slavery and labor exploitation, visit the Historians Against Slavery website.

These companies have all signed on to pay a penny more per pound to improve the wages and conditions of Florida's tomato pickers.

These companies have all signed on to pay a penny more per pound to improve the wages and conditions of Florida’s tomato pickers.

My Father’s Shoes, by Marcia Aldrich


This lovely little story and loss and moving on from loss, set in an apple orchard, popped up in my facebook feed this morning. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.  It comes from River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative .

Photo "Old Brown Shoes" provided by Khánh Hmoong, via Flickr creative commons license.

Photo “Old Brown Shoes” provided by Khánh Hmoong, via Flickr creative commons license.

The day my father died, my husband and I drove in the bright, tilted light of autumn, past farms, pastures, and ponds, finally arriving at the orchard. We parked the car, picked up two half-bushel bags to fill, and walked up the trail of powdered dust, fine as confectioner’s sugar, that led to the grove. That’s when I noticed them—my father’s shoes on my husband’s feet.

They’re old man’s shoes, beige like the walls in retirement homes that take in widows and widowers when they have nowhere else to go. That’s where my father moved after my mother died, where by each identical door, on a little ledge, the resident displayed plastic flowers and stuffed animals.

I was disconcerted when Richard wore his shoes. I didn’t want him to put his feet where my father’s feet had rested. On the trail up the hill, Richard was shuffling like my father did the last time I saw him.

When we entered the lane of Mutsu trees under clear blue skies with fast moving clouds and the grass growing tall between the trees, the light went very pale. I no longer knew exactly who I was: was I a daughter following the footsteps of my father or a wife following my husband? Was my father dead or resurrected in my husband? Richard moved down the lane and disappeared inside the canopy of a tree. I could only see his shoes, my father’s shoes, glistening in the wet grass.

Marcia Aldrich

Mutsu Apples. Wikimedia Commons.

Mutsu Apples. Wikimedia Commons.

The Urban Orchard Movement


Over the last decade, an urban orchard movement has emerged in cities all across America.  In Los Angeles an organization called Fallen Fruit, taking advantage of an old law that declares fruit hanging from branches that overhang public sidewalks and roadways is free to the passerby, publishes maps of the greater Los Angeles area, directing gleaners to such fruit.  The Philadelphia Orchard Project has been planting fruit trees across the city since 2007, enhancing green spaces and food security for the city’s residents.  Similar organizations have emerged in other cities, including The Portland Fruit Tree Project, Seattle’s City Fruit, and The Boston Tree Party.  All of these organizations share an “apple idealism” which links them to the tradition of the nation’s moat legendary tree planter, John “Appleseed” Chapman.  Lisa Gross, the founder of the Boston Tree Party, is evangelical in her belief that apple trees can improve the experience of urban living.  “Imagine our cities filled with fruit trees,” Gross exclaims, “planted in civic spaces, at schools and hospitals, parks and businesses, houses of worship and more.  Imagine these communities coming together to care for these trees, to harvest and share their fruit.  Imagine these trees as tools of environmental restoration, helping to restore the health of our soil, to improve air quality and to absorb rainwater runoff. Imagine these trees as community focal points, opportunities for participation, learning and connection.  This is the vision of the Boston Tree Party.”   For a longer discussion of the place the urban orchard movement has in the larger history of the American orchard, pick up a copy of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) from your local bookstore or favorite internet retailer.

The most dangerous tree in the suburbs


The Sweet Gum Tree

A classic suburban Sweet Gum tree in the Fall.

A classic suburban Sweet Gum tree in the Fall.

A forty foot tall Sweet Gum tree rises from the northeast corner of my back yard. On this early spring day, the tree is still a skeleton, although leaf buds are just beginning to emerge and dozens of Sweet Gum balls dangle from its naked branches like shriveled Christmas tree ornaments. Hundreds more lie scattered throughout the grass, and spill out onto the alleyway asphalt, where most are flattened by car wheels. In a few weeks, the Sweet Gum’s glossy green leaves–five pointed stars–will emerge. Then a new crop of gumballs, green throughout the summer, but gradually drying out to become spiky brown seed-carrying hulls. The finches, nuthatches and chickadees will then begin pressing their small beaks into the Sweet Gum balls’ many chambers, extracting the two edible seeds that each chamber contains. Larger bird species with beaks too large to get to the seeds leave these to their smaller competitors. In the fall the Sweet Gum’s leaves will turn yellow, then purple, then red, and will be among the last of the leaves in my yard to drop. One by one, from late fall steadily through the winter, most of the dried out gum balls, long since deprived of their seeds, will drop from the Sweet Gum’s branches.

The bark of the Sweet Gum, sometimes called Alligator Wood.

The bark of the Sweet Gum, sometimes called Alligator Wood.

Liquidambar styraciflua gets its name from the resin the tree produces. It was used to add a distinctive balsamic flavoring to the first pipe of tobacco Aztec Emperor Moctezuma shared with Conquistador Hernando Cortez. Spanish physician and New World explorer Francisco Hernandez became an early convert to its value, claiming it had a range of healing properties. He claimed it was effective in treating gonorrhea and diptheria, was a pain reliever and a sleep aid, and that it “relieve[d] wind in the stomach.” In some parts of the American South, where the tree is abundant, locals call it Alligator Wood because its furrowed and scaly bark resembles the skin of that southern reptile.

Sweet Gum Balls from my yard.

Sweet Gum Balls from my yard.

My southeastern Ohio yard is near the northern edge of the Sweet Gum’s natural range. This is a southern tree, and in warmer climates, undisturbed, the tree can reach heights of one hundred or more feet high. Mine has probably reached its peak height, and its natural conical symmetry has been compromised by the regular hair cuts it has received from American Electric Power crews determined to keep its east-reaching branches out of the power lines which run along the edge of my property. My house was built in 1962, by Dr. William and Beatrice Fisk, and while this tree might have preceded the house, it fits so nicely into their carefully designed landscape plan I suspect they deliberately planted it there.

A nuthatch among the Sweet Gum balls.

A nuthatch among the Sweet Gum balls.

There was a time not too long ago when the Sweet Gum was a popular choice for suburban yards. It grows relatively fast, has a pleasing symmetrical shape and fabulous fall color. In the mid 1940s, as Dutch Elm disease swept across the midwest, killing off the graceful elms which lined the streets of so many towns, the Sweet Gum was a popular replacement tree.  The Arbor Day Foundation gave out thousands of young Sweet Gum saplings to the children of Springfield, Illinois who eagerly planted them along the sidewalks in front of their homes.

A close up look at a Sweet Gum ball.

A close up look at a Sweet Gum ball.

But today, the Sweet Gum has disappeared from most of the tree nursery catalogs catering to the suburban homeowner, and the Sweet Gum now appears on many top ten lists of the worst trees to plant in your yard. It not only made the list of the “Five Worst Trees for the Lazy Landscaper,” but it was the runaway victor in the website’s “Which of these is your least favorite messy tree?” poll, earning 60% of the votes. The Catalpa came in a distant second place with just 15% of the vote, followed by the Magnolia (13%) Pecan (8%) and Oak (5%).  The Sweet Gum’s primary liability, according to the makers of this list, are the thousands of spiny brown seed balls–gum balls if you will–that it casts upon the ground around it.

Birth control injections for Sweet Gum trees.

Birth control injections for Sweet Gum trees.

According to the Lazy Landscaper, these “hard, brown, spiky balls that can create some serious hazards. Not only can they wound you if you slip and fall into them, they can also roll unexpectedly, causing sprained ankles.” Because of their spiky nature, they are difficult to rake up.  And don’t try to run your lawnmower over them, Lazy Landscaper warns, as “when airborne they are as dangerous as grenades.” As demand has plummeted for the Sweet Gum some national nurseries like Stark Brothers’ Nurseries responded by offering a hybrid Sweet Gum tree, billed as “nearly gumball free.” But even that was not enough to sustain demand for the increasingly despised Sweet Gum, and Stark Brothers has stopped carrying Sweet Gums altogether. Some  Sweet Gum Ball foes have offered another  solution–birth control for Sweet Gum Trees. Apparently by drilling a series of holes around the base of a Sweet Gum tree and injecting hormones into each hole you can keep a Sweet Gum tree from fruiting.

Perhaps I need to place this sign near my Sweet Gum tree.

Perhaps I need to place this sign near my Sweet Gum tree.

The anti-Sweet Gum movement appears to have reached a new stage in the very town that turned to the Sweet Gum as it grieved the loss of its beloved elms. In 2012, Springfield, Illinois launched a Sweet Gum eradication campaign, offering to remove the tree from the tree lawns of residents, and replace them with a variety deemed more suitable, all for a city-subsidized cost of just $250. The Sweet Gums, even one of its quasi-defenders claims, create a “death-defying obstacle course for distracted walkers, runners, and everyone in between.” And while a few of Springfield’s residents have spoken up for the nuthatches, finches, and chickadees, the bulk of the criticism appears to be coming from residents who believe that the city is not removing these menaces fast enough. Very quickly after announcing the program, Springfield had received requests to remove 338 Sweet Gums, and Springfield’s anti Sweet Gum citizenry are just going to have to be patient.

Now I’ve been pushing my gas powered mower over a lawn full of Sweet Gum balls for years, and have escaped unwounded. And while barefoot walks around my raggedly lawn often yield an unwelcome sharp prod or two from one natural hazard or another, I have managed to escape serious injury. Is my lovely Sweet Gum tree really a hazard to people and pets? Am I failing to be a good citizen by not cutting it down? It didn’t seem right to reject the complaints of the growing anti-Sweet Gum movement out of hand. In the interest of science and good neighborliness, I thought I should conduct a test, with myself as the lab rat. I would conduct my own firewalk of sorts. I would walk barefoot under my Sweet Gum Tree.

Two dangers in this picture: Sweet Gum balls and the blinding white glare of my winter foot.

Two dangers in this picture: Sweet Gum balls and the blinding white glare of my winter foot.

I confess to having some trepidation during my first naked-footed pass under the Sweet Gum. I stepped gingerly and with much anticipation, keeping one hand hovering above my backyard fence, ready to grab ahold of it should a quick sharp stab cause me to collapse into a bed of thousands of menacing spiked balls. But on my first pass I experienced just a few mildly unpleasant jabs on the bottom of my winter-softened feet. Passes two and three were equally non-eventful, and I grew bolder in my steps. By the fourth pass I was actively looking for Sweet Gum balls to press my arch down upon, and each time I was disappointed by the mildness of the pain, as the grass underneath gave way, cushioning the impact of the Sweet Gum ball’s spikes. I finally I settled upon a more challenging test–I would walk barefoot across the pavement of the adjacent alley, where several Sweet Gumballs were scattered, not yet crushed by passing car wheels. I spotted an especially large one on the pavement and planted one bare foot firmly down upon it. Yes, it hurt a bit. And had I not been prepared for it, it is possible that my knee might have buckled in response to the surprise pain, and I might have tumbled to the pavement, skinning knees and risking infections. Still, my foot got the better of the encounter. The spiky Sweet Gum ball lay crushed and broken on the pavement, and the tender skin under my winter-softened foot remained unbroken.

I have resolved to become a Sweet Gum defender and steward of my town’s remaining Sweet Gum Trees. The finches, nuthatches and chickadees need an ally. Perhaps I will write a song about the Sweet Gum and play it on my ukulele.

The War On the Cider Apple


johnny appleseed coverJohn “Appleseed” Chapman was a propagator of seedling apple trees–trees whose fruit was of unpredictable quality and often too bitter for fresh-eating.  While early 19th century farmers could find many home uses for seedling apples, among the most common uses was the production of hard cider.  As improved roads and canals began to link more rural Americans into the market economy, the seedling apple tree came under increasing assault, not just from agricultural reformers who disdained it for its lack of commercial value, but also from temperance reformers who viewed it as an important source for alcohol.  The following excerpt from Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard explains how the temperance movement’s war of the poor seedling apple tree emerged:

. . . by the end of the 1820s, the threat to John Chapman’s seedling orchards was not simply economic and scientific but, increasingly, moral. Fruit from a seedling tree had many uses for a family of course, but in a world where more and more farmers grew food to sell rather than consume, the seedling orchard came to be seen as having just one purpose, the production of hard cider and cider brandy. Per capita alcohol consumption rates in the United States were among the highest in the world in the 1820s, and a temperance movement emerged to combat the evil of drink. Whiskey and other distilled spirits were the focus of many of the early temperance advocates, as their extremely high alcohol content made them the greatest threat. Homemade apple 220px-Peter-Cartwrightcider began its life free from alcohol, then gradually fermented to a content of 6 to 8 percent. “New cider” was the term most frequently used for that beverage that had yet to ferment. When the circuit-riding minister Peter Cartwright stopped at an inn for a dinner of hot bread, he and his companion washed it down with “new cider.” It was not until they mounted their horses and renewed their journey that they realized the refreshing beverage they had so eagerly quaffed was not so new, as both men had trouble staying upright on their horses. Because the alcohol content of cider was not enough to ward off the growth of bacteria, cider-makers frequently fortified it with corn whiskey or other distilled spirits to get its alcohol content above 10 or 12 percent. Another common method was to leave the barrels outside on a cold night and scrape off the ice that formed in the top half of the barrel overnight; what was left behind, often called applejack had roughly double the alcohol content.

Some early advocates of temperance viewed hard cider as relatively harmless, even as moral thermometera healthful alternative to distilled spirits. Benjamin Rush was among the earliest advocates of moderation in the consumption of alcohol and boasted that a crowd of seventeen thousand who had gathered in Philadelphia on July 4, 1788, celebrated with nothing but beer and cider, “those invaluable federal liquors” in Rush’s construction, in contrast to hard liquor, which he associated with antifederalism. Rush also produced a “moral and physical thermometer” assessing various beverages on their health and moral properties. Water, milk, and “small beer” were at the top and the drinks of the truly temperate, while gin, whiskey, and rum were the beverages of the most dissipated. But Rush placed “Cider and Perry” just below the beverages of the truly temperate and suggested their effects were not all bad–that they produced “Cheerfulness, Strength, and Nourishment, when taken only at meals, and in moderate quantities.” Farm laborers seemed to agree, as farmers who took on hired hands in the harvesting season were expected to provide their workers with a ready supply of hard cider to refresh them and keep up their strength.

In its earliest years, leading advocates of temperance called for moderation in the consumption of alcohol and the avoidance of distilled spirits. But as the movement gained steam in the 1820s, an “ultraist” faction began pressing for total abstention from alcohol. They rejected the view that cider-drinking should be tolerated or seen as a “healthy” alternative to distilled spirits. A man could get drunk on cider as surely as he could on whiskey. “It takes a long time to make a man a drunkard on cider,” one anti-cider crusader declared, “but when made, he is thoroughly made, is lazy, bloated, stupid, cross and ugly, wastes his estate, his character, and the happiness of his family.” Another ultra who campaigned against hard cider claimed its effect on families was often worse than distilled spirits. He cited the wife of a cider-drunkard who had told him that “cider made [the drunkard] more brutal and ferocious in his family. Rum overcame him quicker, laid him prostrate and helpless on the floor, or in the ditch; cider excited him and gave him the rage and the strength of a maniac.”

cider barrelBy the late 1820s, the ascendant ultraist faction in the temperance movement began to point an accusing finger at the farmer’s seedling apple trees. An article republished in religious and agricultural journals across the country in 1827 raised the question “What Shall I Do with My Apples?” Its author was determined to make the cider apple the newest front in the contest between God and Mammon, declaring that this was a question every Christian farmer should be asking himself. “If he gathers his apples, of course he must make them into cider; and if he makes the cider, of course he must sell it; and if he is to sell it, of course he must sell it to the distiller, or procure it distilled and then sell the brandy; and if the brandy is sold, it must be drank, and in this way every barrel will make and circulate liquid fire enough to ruin a soul, if not destroy a life.” The author of the piece rejected the farmer’s argument that to leave apples to rot was to waste God’s bounty and instead cast the farmer as acting in pursuit of profits in the marketplace at the expense of his neighbors. “If no other market can be found for our cider, but at the still, let it be a matter of conscientious inquiry with every farmer, whether it is right for him to make more cider than he wants for reasonable use in his own family” when he knows his surplus will be distilled into cider brandy and sold to the intemperate. The author of the piece concluded that the only righteous path for the Christian farmer to take in regards to his seedling trees was to “burn them.”

cider appleOthers began to pile on. A correspondent in Cincinnati’s Western Observer said that farmers who raised fruit for the cider and brandy market would only join the temperance crusade “if ever the dictates of conscience get the ascendancy over the mammon of unrighteousness,” framing the problem in the familiar language of a struggle between market-driven capitalism and Christian values. A letter in The Western Recorder condemned “a certain innkeeper for purchasing two barrels of Hard cider for $1.25 each” and selling it to his customers, one of whom “had a bill of $8 charged to him for his portion of the cider, which, at six pence a quart, would amount to thirty-two gallons!” The innkeeper was “a professor of religion” and therefore should have refused to sell alcohol. Instead, he had made a nice profit at the drunkard’s expense. By putting “the bottle to the mouth of his neighbor, [he] has done the deed, and is now calculating . . . on the wages of his iniquity.” The Western Christian Advocate recounted the story of a good temperance man and churchgoer who was regularly in the habit of turning his surplus apples into cider until the day he encountered a neighbor and fellow church member who got drunk on it. Troubled by his complicity in his friend’s downfall, he destroyed his cider press and never made the beverage again.

But other campaigners against cider, perhaps conceding that in a contest between piety and profit the latter would ultimately win, began to make the case that taking apples to the cider mill was neither in the farmer’s moral nor in his pecuniary interest. The costs of the hired hands required to gather all of the apples, the efforts to get the fruit to the cider mill, and the fees for processing them into cider were greater than the returns, these writers claimed, as cider fetched such low prices on the market. A more profitable strategy was for the farmer to let the hogs have those apples not fit for fresh eating. Self-provisioning farmers had long followed this practice, as it kept orchard floors clean and their small stock of half-wild pigs fat, and it required little of their scarce labor. But now horticultural improvers converted to temperance promoted fattening hogs on cider apples to a class of farmers concerned with maximizing the revenue on their farms. Those seedling apples lying on the orchard floor could be “converted” to pork with little effort. Both religious magazines and the agricultural journals devoted to improvement enthusiastically embraced the strategy of fattening hogs destined for markets on the old orchard’s windfalls.

By 1829, at least a few farmers had taken the advice of “burn them” to heart. One report circulated in several journals told of a New Haven, Connecticut, gentleman who “ordered a fine apple orchard to be cut down, because the fruit may be converted into an article to promote intemperance.” The editor of the New York Enquirer mocked this wasteful action, opining that “in this age of Anti-Societies, we may soon see the worthless of the land in league, to establish an Anti-Apple and Anti-RyeSociety. Every time and age has its mania:–We hope the world will sober down before dooms-day.” The story of the monomaniacal temperance man destroying apple orchards became part of the folklore of New England and the Midwest, and not only missing orchards 230px-Henry_David_Thoreaubut also abandoned ones were attributed to the zeal of the reformers. Years later, Henry David Thoreau bemoaned the loss of seedling apple trees across the New England countryside. He repeated a story he had heard “of an orchard in a distant town on the side of a hill where the apples rolled down and lay four feet deep against a wall on the lower side, and this owner cut down for fear they should be made into cider.” Thoreau was nostalgic for that time “when men both ate and drank apples, when the pomace heap was the only nursery, and trees cost nothing but the trouble of setting them out,” a time long past when he penned these words in 1859.

The number of orchards actually chopped down by temperance ultraists was likely not as great in reality as in local folklore. But the endless moral castigations orchard-owning farmers faced from the temperance crusaders seemed to have an effect. Many a pious farmer was surely troubled by the accusations that by selling apples to cider mills he was serving Mammon instead of God. Many writers attributed the abandonment and neglect of old seedling orchards across New England to the temperance crusade, their owners apparently deciding to forgo the attacks on their moral character by simply neglecting orchards and letting nature swallow them up.

Want to read more? Pick up a copy of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard at your favorite bookstore.  Also available for Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader.

Steven Stoll Reviews Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard


Available in hardcover and paper, as well as Kindle and Nook ebooks.

Available in hardcover and paper, as well as Kindle and Nook ebooks.

I was quite pleased to read Steven Stoll’s review of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of American History. Stoll is the author of several pathbreaking works in the fields of environmental and agricultural history, including The Fruits of Natural Advantage, (U. California Press, 2003)  which examines the emergence of the citrus industry in California, and Larding the Lean Earth (Hill & Wang, 2003) which examines the politics of agricultural reform in antebellum America. You can read the full review below:

Folk heroes are an inviting topic for a historian. Take away the falsehoods and exaggerations from the story of the person, and what remains is someone who came to public attention by some novel or eccentric response to the times. Folk heroes seldom represent progress in an economic or technological sense; instead they symbolize values on the decline. Think of John Henry, Billy the Kid, John Brown, and Joe Hill: folk heroes often stand for alternative visions and are celebrated not only because they struggled and lost but also because what they stood for lived on.

William Kerrigan locates John Chapman—better known as Johnny Appleseed—within historical events and reveals his life and times with admirable style and confidence, linking Chapman to Shays’s Rebellion, the improvement literature of the 1820s, and the career of the American apple. Kerrigan does more than run a microhistory of apples alongside a biography of Chapman. He links the two stories in historically important ways, deriving Appleseed’s mission from a self-provisioning culture under threat at the end of the eighteenth century. The alternative vision and the declining values symbolized by Appleseed turn out to be closely tied to Chapman’s childhood near Springfield, Massachusetts, and his father’s ordeal of debt and foreclosure.

Kerrigan implies that the young Chapman saw the vulnerability of the self-provisioning New England settlement culture and that his itinerant planting came, in part, as a response. The essence of Chapman’s conflict with farmers who wanted to sell apples, rather than eat them, is written into his name: Appleseed. As Kerrigan notes in one of the book’s most effective moments, commercial orchards used grafted branches and trunks to grow marketable apple varieties, while Chapman planted unpedigreed fruit for home use. This account makes Chapman the symbol of an eclipsed American economy. Seedling apples came under attack from temperance advocates during Chapman’s lifetime because that fruit had only one use: distilling. Appleseed emerges as something of a philosopher and something of a crank who resisted wealth and comfort for uncertain reasons and continued to give away apple tree seedlings until he died, gaunt and in rags, but who wrote nothing about why he did what he did.

Appleseed.shell.100The book details Chapman’s every known location, movement, and activity, down to items purchased and land owned. It ends with the mythmaking and the sanitized way Appleseed entered the folklore of the twentieth century, stripped of any social cause or alternative vision, as an able salesman for Shell Chemical Corporation in late-1950s advertisements.

The Red Delicious apple makes its appearance in the book and so do the arguments of other historians, some of whom have less sympathy for Chapman than Kerrigan does. Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard lacks argument or commentary, but it tells a richly historical story and ends up a great distance from where it begins. In the end, Kerrigan chooses to link Chapman to urban agrarians who plant fruit trees in abandoned lots for public gleaning, creating a perpetual and public source of food for the poor and dispossessed.

 

What I’m reading: American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree


Picture of Philip Rutter from Minnesota Public Radio.

Picture of Philip Rutter from Minnesota Public Radio.

Philip Rutter lives in a simple log cabin in southeastern Minnesota, where he runs a Christmas tree and apple farm. He uses the fuel of the forest to cook his food and heat his modest home, which has no running water. Rutter loves nut-bearing trees, a perennial plant which he sees as having a vast untapped potential to feed much of the world, at much lower environmental costs than intensive cultivation of annual grain crops. He even penned an essay entitled “Why is the Future of the World Nuts?” He believes this tree obsession runs in his blood, as he is distantly related to Johnny Appleseed.  “I knew this at a young age,” Rutter confesses, “and it probably served to focus my eyes on plants a little more than most people, and probably gave me an exaggerated sense of responsibility.” As a student at Oberlin College, Rutter studied biology, and then enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Minnesota. But he dropped out after finding his colleagues in the academic world to be too narrow in their intellectual outlook, fiercely competitive, and just generally unfriendly people. Rutter is not growing wealthy on the modest income earned from apples and Christmas trees, but he lives simply, with few expenses, and he pours his surplus money into what has become his life’s passion: restoring the American Chestnut tree, once a dominant tree in eastern forests, laid low by an imported fungus in the early years of the twentieth century.

American Chestnut bookRutter is just one of the many fascinating characters you will meet when you open up the pages of Susan Freinkel’s American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree (University of California Press, 2007). Freinkel recounts the story of this majestic tree in an easy, flowing prose. This is not simply the story of a plant, but a story of the people connected to it. While the book is structured as a historical narrative, it is also great science writing, and non-scientist readers will come away from this work with a clear understanding of the fungus that killed the American Chestnut, and the array of strategies scientists have since employed to try to reverse the devastating blight and return the American Chestnut to the landscape.

The American Chestnut tree dominated large swaths of the forests of eastern North America into the early twentieth century, and the bounteous crop of edible nuts it provided annually were critical to the subsistence of mountain peoples throughout Appalachia. The nuts fed people and fattened hogs, and tree had many other productive uses as well. Rutter’s conviction that the perennial crop of tree nuts has the potential to contribute mightily to the global food supply seems not so unreasonable when you begin to understand the invaluable source of sustenance it was to the humans and other animals that occupied the forests of Appalachia in the 19th century.

chestnut blight

Cryphonectria parasitica, commonly known asChestnut Blight.

In the first decade of the twentieth century the pathogenic fungus Cryphonectria parasitica arrived on the east coast of North America, probably on the trunks of imported Japanese Chestnut nursery stock.  This new blight quickly found a home in the crevices of the American Chestnut tree’s bark, growing at an alarming rate, causing the bark to split and opening so many wounds on each tree that even the mightiest Chestnuts soon succumbed. Over the next several decades this aggressive invader, aided by the saws of well-intentioned humans who cleared vast forests of Chestnuts in a futile attempt to arrest its spread, killed three to four billion American Chestnut trees. Billion. Freinkel tries to put those numbers in perspective for us: “Enough trees to fill nine million acres. Enough trees to cover Yellowstone National Park  eighteen hundred times over. Enough trees to give two to every person on the planet at that time.” It was a stunning loss.  The disappearance of the Chestnut dramatically altered forest ecosystems, and in some places human subsistence strategies, and it occurred in a remarkably short span of time.

Historica range of the American Chestnut

Historica range of the American Chestnut

The American Chestnut was such an important part of the lives of people who lived in its range, that nostalgia for the tree, and the dream of finding a way to restore it have persisted into the twenty-first century.  Even in the rural Ohio community where I live old timers still refer to a hill just south of town as Chestnut Hill, a place they retreated with their dates for a romantic picnic, a little privacy, and the opportunity to gather chestnuts. Ever since the blight struck, people like Philip Rutter have been trying to restore it by employing a variety of strategies, from simple Mendelian cross-breeding to more blight resistant Asian Chestnuts, to efforts to disable the killing power of the fungus, to modern bio-engineering methods.

Susan Freinkel

Susan Freinkel has also more recently authored Plastic, a Toxic Love Story.

Freinkel does a great job explaining these various efforts, the problems that have confounded the advocates of each, and the progress that has been made to date. But she also employs the story of the American Chestnut to shed light on the changing priorities and values of ecological science, while raising an array of important questions about the idea of restoration ecology, the possibilities and perils of bioengineering, and what limits humans should place on their interventions in the ecological landscapes they inhabit. American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of the Perfect Tree is a smart book and a compelling read. I have decided to assign it in my American Environmental History class next spring. I urge you to pick up a copy.