Hard Cider and the Election of 1840

1840 Campaign Almanac

1840 Campaign Almanac

Over the last decade, the United States has experienced a cider renaissance, with new craft cider makers coming on the scene in virtually every region of the nation. Today’s craft cider makers are making extraordinary efforts to produce fine single variety and blended ciders, and their efforts are paying off. As an American historian, and someone who delights in both eating and drinking apples, the rebirth of American cider is an exciting time. From the early colonial period, throughout the first half of the the 19th century, Americans consumed great quantities of cider. But if the truth be told, American cider in these early years was not always top quality. European visitors often wrote disparagingly of America’s early cider makers, claiming that they often pressed half rotten and worm-eaten apples, and were haphazard in the way they monitored the fermentation process. Quantity, not quality, appeared to be the over-riding value for many American cider makers, and most of the cider was consumed at home or bartered locally.  But cider was cheap and widely available, and had earned a reputation as the common man’s drink. It is perhaps no surprise then, that in an age of rising populism in politics, hard cider would emerge as the symbol of a candidate courting the common man’s vote.

The election campaign of 1840 was a watershed moment in American politics.  Voter turnout among eligible voters reached an all-time high, with nearly 80% of those eligible casting their vote.  It also represented an opportunity for the relatively new William_Henry_Harrison_Presidential_$1_Coin_obverseWhig party to finally gain control of the White House.  Since his election to the Presidency in 1828, Andrew Jackson and his Democratic Party had  dominated American politics by successfully presenting itself as the party of the common man.   But in 1840, the nation was still plunged in the depression brought on by the financial Panic of 1837 and voters were discontent. The dangers of a unpredictable national market rekindled a bit of nostalgia for the “simpler times” of the frontier, self-provisioning farms, and local trade among many voters, and in 1840 the Whig Party was ready to exploit this nostalgia. After settling on old war hero William Henry Harrison for their presidential candidate, the Whigs were handed an opportunity when a Democratic newspaper, suggesting that Harrison was too old to run for president sneered, “Give him a barrel of hard cider, and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin by the side of his ‘sea coal’ fire, and study moral philosophy.”

Harrison supporters seized on the log cabin and hard cider elements of the insult to suggest that Democratic President Van Buren and his supporters were elitists who disdained the lifestyle of the simple self-provisioning, cider-making and cider-drinking farmer.

Pull the tab and Van Buren is unhappy to find his fancy champagne replaced with common cider.

Pull the tab and Van Buren is unhappy to find his fancy champagne replaced with common cider.

One Harrison campaign souvenir was a paper card with an image which changed when a tab was pulled on the bottom. The first image the viewer encountered was of an aristocratic-looking Van Buren, smiling as he sipped fancy “White House Champagne” from a goblet.  Once the tab was pulled, the goblet was replaced with “an ugly mug of log cabin hard cider,” Van Buren’s eyes rolled up into his head, as he made the familiar “bitter beer face” expression.  The message was clear: this guy thinks he’s too good to drink what you and I drink. Don’t vote for him!

Harrison's log cabin. Sea coal burning in the fireplace, barrels of hard cider stacked outside.

Harrison’s log cabin in 1840 campaign literature. Sea coal burning in the fireplace, barrels of hard cider stacked outside.

Harrison’s supporters declared their man to be the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate, a perverse political twist on many levels. Far from being born in a log cabin, Harrison was born on a James River plantation, a descendant of one of Virginia’s elite, slaveholding families. Even most of his days as a military officer in the West were spent at Grouseland, a magnificent estate, surrounded by grafted fruit trees and gardens, which he had built in Vincennes during his time as governor of the Indiana territory.  In a more transparently ironical way, Harrison supporters built old fashioned log cabins on the decks of modern steamboats and powered from town to town to win votes for their hard cider drinking hero.

Berkeley Plantation, Harrison's actual birthplace.

Berkeley Plantation, Harrison’s actual birthplace. No cider barrels evident.

While the “hard cider” meme went over quite well with ordinary voters, it threatened to alienate one of the Whig Party’s most loyal interests: the temperance movement. Temperance reformers had been working to eradicate cider orchards since the late 1820s, and they threatened to abandon the party for promoting alcohol consumption.

The Temperance movement's take on the Hard Cider Campaign

The Temperance movement’s take on the Hard Cider Campaign

Intemperance has become the badge of a political party!” harrumphed the New York Evangelist. “Yes, intelligent men–men who have enjoyed the benefits of Christian teachings–and who live in a land of gospel light–are called upon to exhibit their enthusiasm for political strife, by drinking hard cider, made harder by hard brandy, for the Glory of General Harrison!” The Evangelist predicted that “more than ten thousand men will be made drunkards in one year by this hard cider enthusiasm.” A writer in another New York paper, declaring it “a burning shame that the flag of my country waves over such mockery and abomination, as though her stars and stripes were not insulted by being associated with such iniquity,” issued a warning to the Harrison campaign. Should these grog-dispensing log cabins be opened on “Sunday, either day or night,” the Whigs would lose the votes of so many temperance men that it would negate the effect of this pandering.

Harrison-log-cabin-campaignBut however much the log cabin and hard cider campaign exasperated temperance Whigs, the strategy worked. Americans, troubled by the economic malaise that had fallen upon the country in 1837, embraced a nostalgia for a simpler time when their fates were not tied to mysterious market forces beyond their control. Log cabins and hard cider were a perfect symbol of that lost past. Hard apple cider represented not just a celebration of the disappearing self-provisioning lifestyle, but it was also a protest against do-gooder moral reformers bent on telling ordinary people how to live and what to drink. It did not seem to matter that the Whig Party’s soft money, pro-development economic policy promised to accelerate the market revolution, or that those moral do-gooders were most commonly associated with the Whig party. This was political triangulation at its finest. Voters were won over by the celebration of the seedling apple orchard and its homegrown product. And it worked. Harrison defeated Van Buren handily.

Van Buren being chased by a flying barrel of hard cider.

Van Buren being chased by a flying barrel of hard cider.

The campaign may well have proved to be a curse for hard cider, however.  As the economy improved after 1843, nostalgia for “the olden days” quickly faded, and the 1840 campaign had pretty thoroughly linked cider with those old, primitive ways.  As German immigrants flooded into North America, many established breweries, and beer, not associated with those unrefined frontier days, began to replace cider as the beverage of choice. Today’s craft cideries may finally be undoing the damage done by the Whig Party and their “hard cider campaign.”

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.

A Theology of Wild Apples

Ralph Austen's Spiritual Use of an Orchard, first published in 1653

Ralph Austen’s Spiritual Use of an Orchard, first published in 1653

In 1653 Oxford horticulturist Ralph Austen published The Spiritual Use of An Orchard or Garden of Fruit Trees: Set Forth in Divers Similitudes Between Natural and Spiritual Fruit Trees, According to Scripture and Experience. “Fruit Trees . . . do truly . . . preach the attributes and perfections of God to us,” Austen insisted, “and we may read divine truthes in them, as in a book consisting of words and sentences.” Austen set out to demonstrate this by offering up “100 observations in nature [from the orchard] with similitudes.”

Unsurprisingly, in this age when the ideas of John Calvin loomed large in theological discussions, many of Austen’s “observations in nature” were devoted to the question of election of grace. For Austen the cultivated apple tree, safe within the walls of the husbandmen’s orchard, was a fitting symbol of those God had elected for grace. The cultivated trees of the orchard had been chosen by

A Puritan Brand Apple surely has most of its wild sinful nature under control.

A Puritan Brand Apple surely has most of its wild sinful nature under control.

God (the Husbandman) from amidst all the wild plants beyond the orchard walls. The wild apple trees left behind were, in Austen’s view, a symbol of the “many wicked men and women in the world which were passed by in his decree, and therefore are not brought into his Church, nor engrafted into Christ.” These wicked persons, like wild apple trees, “bring forth sower, bitter, and posynous fruits.” Some of these wild trees might give the appearance of beauty and character, but when tasted, commonly yielded only bitterness. These visually attractive wild apples were Austen declared, much like the Pharisees, “but painted fruits, faire to a carnall eye, without any good taste or relish.” The good Christian, he warned, must not be fooled by them. Austen further declared that even among those trees included within the orchard’s walls resided a wild and corrupt nature, which could only be subdued by grace (and careful pruning and grafting.)

Wild apples

Wild apples

Many pious Englishmen shared Austen’s moral disdain for the “wild” ungrafted apple tree, and in that peculiarly Calvinist way, they believed that they might find in the condition of a man’s orchard evidence of his spiritual fate. While English Puritans and other devout men of wealth and standing carried these moral assumptions across the sea to English colonies in the Americas, many of the poorer immigrants to England’s American colonies had a different set of priorities. Scratching out a living on frontier farms, these colonists could not afford the expense or the labor required to emulate God in their husbandry. Instead they quickly planted, then neglected, disorderly orchards of seed grown trees, so that they might turn their attention to other labors required for their sustenance. These orchards served their short term needs quite well. Their imperfect fruit fattened their hogs, quenched their thirst when converted to cider, flavored their food as vinegar, and the best fruit provided them with a variety of apple dishes for their table. The orchard’s appearance, and the inconsistent quality of its fruit were low priorities for a family focused primarily on sustaining itself with limited financial resources and limited labor.

Yet well-off travelers in the late 17th and throughout the 18th century frequently cast harsh moral judgments on the subsistence-minded farmer and his wild, disorderly orchards. And by the 1820s, many moralists found another reason to condemn the seedling orchard: most of its apples were destined to be converted to demon alcohol.  Temperance societies called for the destruction of wild apple trees as an essential step toward sobering up the nation.

The wild apple had always served the poorest American farmers quite well. But it did not find an articulate defender before Henry David Thoreau. In an essay from his 1850 notebooks, the Concord contrarian celebrated the virtues of New England’s “Wild Apples.” Freed from Calvinistic concern of determining who was and was not among God’s elect, this prophet of individualism celebrated the distinctiveness, and unique potential of every wild apple tree. The wild apple, to Thoreau’s mind, “emulates man’s independence and enterprise,” and was more worthy of attention than its cultivated cousins.

Thoreau had little use for “civilized apple trees,” insisting that he preferred “to go

Henry David Thoreau, champion of the wild apple.

Henry David Thoreau, champion of the wild apple.

through the old orchards of ungrafted apple trees . . . so irregularly planted . . . that you would think that they not only had grown while the owner was sleeping, but had been set out by him in a somnambulic state.” Wherever he spied a ripe apple on some unkempt apple tree tucked in the corner of a cow pasture, Thoreau thrilled at the possibilities it represented. Many of the most highly praised commercial varieties, after all, had first sprung from some chance neglected seedling. As a result, Thoreau offered his own “observation in Nature” underpinned by a philosophy quite different from Ralph Austen’s. Wildness was not a sinful nature which needed to be suppressed, but the place from which true genius arose.  “Every wild-apple shrub excites our expectation thus, somewhat as every wild child. It is, perhaps, a prince in disguise. What lesson to man! So are human beings, referred to the highest standard, the celestial fruit which they suggest and aspire to bear, browsed on by fate; and only the most persistent and strongest genius defends itself and prevails, sends a tender scion upward at last, and drops its perfect fruit on the ungrateful earth. Poets and philosophers and statesmen thus spring up in country pastures  and outlast the hosts of unoriginal men.”

Henry David Thoreau's Wild Fruits, published posthumously, contains his essay "Wild Apples" and other writings on wild fruits.

Henry David Thoreau’s Wild Fruits, published posthumously, contains his essay “Wild Apples” and other writings on wild fruits.

Thoreau’s dissent, never published in his lifetime, did not result in a widespread re-evaluation of cultivated and wild apples. The cultivated apple continued its favored status. But by the middle of the 19th century, that status was not rooted in old Puritan dogmas but in the values of the marketplace. In an age when markets had penetrated into the most isolated regions of the nation, an apple’s virtue became increasingly connected to its commercial value. This did not doom the wild ungrafted apple tree to extinction. It continued to spring defiantly from the earth at the margins of pastures and alongside stone walls and fences. But if not doomed to extinction, it was at least to doomed to invisibility, unseen by all but impractical poets and adventuresome children.

Choice “highly recommends” 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.

“This book takes away the dross of mythology, but replaces it with the realistic humanity of a most fascinating, unique American.”

Kerrigan, William.  Johnny Appleseed and the American orchard: a cultural history.  Johns Hopkins, 2012.  231p index afp; ISBN 9781421407289, $50.00; ISBN 9781421407296 pbk, $25.00.
50-4430  SB63  2012-12916 CIP

The legend of Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman, 1774-1845) is a fundamental component of American folklore. Disney created a cartoon that captured the legend in caricature in 1948. By contrast, Kerrigan (Muskingum Univ.) provides a book that brings reality to the myth(s) and, in doing so, paints a compelling picture of the social dynamics of the period both prior to and during John Chapman’s life. Readers will feel transported back to those days, as Kerrigan describes the religious, geographic, and economic environment. Like quality biography, this is good history, with a well-told story and excellent scholarship. Chapman was dedicated to providing seedling apples for fermented cider for settlers at the front edge of the expanding US territories of the 18th and 19th centuries, the present regions of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. Kerrigan debunks many Chapman myths, including his vegetarianism, unwillingness to hunt or kill animals, or commitment to pacifism. This book takes away the dross of mythology, but replaces it with the realistic humanity of a most fascinating, unique American. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Academic and general audiences, all levels. —G. S. Howell, emeritus, Michigan State University

Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Powell’s Books are currently engaged in a price war, discounting the price of the paperback version .

The Return of Hard Cider

David White of Whitewood Cider Co.

David White of Whitewood Cider Co.

If you haven’t noticed the explosion of artisan hard ciders across the United States over the last few years, you haven’t been paying attention. Hard cider was a staple beverage in most rural households until the 1830s, when almost all of it was produced by what would today be called nano-cideries or micro-cideries. Those farmers who did not own a cider press did not have to tote their surplus apples very far to find a neighbor who had one. There are a number of factors which contributed to the decline in hard cider production in the United States beginning in the 1830s. The temperance movement’s campaign against the cider apple was one factor. But perhaps more importantly, German immigration in the middle decades of the 19th century saw a dramatic expansion in the number of beer breweries, and these German brewers quickly established regional, and eventually national markets for their beverage, while cider-making often remained focused on home production or local markets.

Andy Sietsema of Sietsema Orchards in Ada, Michigan.

Andy Sietsema of Sietsema Orchards in Ada, Michigan.

A nice post by Christopher Lehault on Serious Eats highlights “four up-and-coming cider makers to watch in 2013,” and it is well worth a read.  The four featured cider makers also represent the diverse backgrounds and approaches of today’s new cideries.  Andy Sietsema  of Sietsema Orchards is a fourth generation apple farmer from Ada, Michigan, who has recently expanded into cider production. David White and Heather Ringwood of Olympia, Washington launched Whitewood Cider Co. Last year. David has been involved in the cider movement for many years, and keeps and excellent blog, old-timecider.com. Ellen Cavalli and Scott Heath began exploring cider making after

Scott Heath and Ellen Cavalli of Tilted Shed Ciderworks in Forestville, California

Scott Heath and Ellen Cavalli of Tilted Shed Ciderworks in Forestville, California

taking charge of a neglected apple orchard in Northern New Mexico.  They have since relocated to Forestville, California and launched Tilted Shed Ciderworks. And Courtney Mailley, a graduate of the cider school at Cornell University’s Food Science Lab, has launched perhaps the nation’s first “urban cider,” called Blue Bee Cider, in Richmond Virginia. Learn more about each of these up-and-coming cider makers by reading Christopher Lehault’s excellent post on Serious Eats.

Courtney Mailey of Blue Bee Cider in Richmond, Virginia

Courtney Mailey of Blue Bee Cider in Richmond, Virginia

New England’s First Cultivated Apple Variety?

When Puritans landed at present-day Charlestown in Massachusetts Bay they discovered they already had an English neighbor across the Charles River, living on the spit of land which would become Boston. William Blaxton (aka Blackstone) had established himself on Beacon Hill several years before. Blackstone invited the newcomers over across to his side, where he had established a farm and an apple orchard. It was a decision he seems to have eventually regretted, as he soon grew tired of Puritan intolerance, and moved to Rhode Island. The apples Blaxton grew on Beacon Hill were called Yellow Sweeting, and later, after his relocation, became widely known as the Rhode Island Greening. I will step out on an apple-tree limb and declare them to be the oldest apple cultivar to be planted in New England. Please feel free to dissent, and share any information you may have about varieties with a stronger claim to that title. Learn more about the Rhode Island Greening and other varieties on the Orange Pippin blog.  Adam’s Apples also has a nice review of the Greening.  Learn more about how people used it in the past at Susan McLellan Plaisted‘s wonderful Bites of Food History blog.

A Brief History of the Irish Cider Apple

White Moss – cider apple. Photo by Mark Jenkinson

White Moss – cider apple. Photo by Mark Jenkinson

I recently discovered the blog Cider Ireland, which has kept me informed on the past and present story of the cider apple on the Emerald Isle.  Contributor Mark Jenkinson informs us that references to apples go back 5000 years in Ireland, and apple cultivation began more than 1000 years ago.  This tidbit from his essay, “A Brief History of Apples and Cider Making in Ireland,” gives us a clue as to the value of apple trees in Medieval Ireland:

“In the 7th and 8th centuries AD the ancient Irish law tracts or Brehon Laws classed the Apple tree among the ‘seven nobles of the woods’ along with Ash, Oak, Hazel, Holly, Scots pine and Yew and they distinguished between wild and cultivated apple trees indicating that sweeter more palatable apples were already being grown at that time. The fine for cutting down one of these trees was 5 milk cows and double that if the tree belonged to a chieftain……..at that time, a King’s ransom to say the least !”

I plan to make tasting some of the new Irish craft ciders a priority on my next trip to Ireland!