Antique Apples Blossomed In Rim Country

HISTORY

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Soon the fruit trees will be in blossom in the Rim country, and we hope another frost does not end our visions of a summer harvest.

Scattered up and down the streams of the Rim country, where pioneers settled in the late 1800s, are rare and hardy varieties of antique apple trees. These are the kind of apples that sometimes date back centuries to our European heritage or sprang forth in America during the 1800s.

We are not talking about mass marketed Red or Golden Delicious or Granny Smiths, which "often taste like sweetened sawdust, according to one antique apple authority.

We are talking about snappy, richly colorful, multi-purpose apples, complete with warts and knobby skin and odd shapes.

When the first colonists came to America there were no cultivated fruit trees, although the Indians had a few wild plums, crabapples, and cherries.

Many of the colonists brought seeds, cuttings and small plants with them from Europe. Most of their plants did not flourish, but the seeds they planted came forth with haphazard results. It seems that apple seeds carry a crazy mix of inherited characteristics.

A "mother tree" can produce many similar looking apples whose seeds produce apples with completely different shapes, color, and texture.

Every once in awhile, from this phenomenon an apple with unusually desirable characteristics is produced.

America's early settlers took advantage of this and began grafting those cuttings on to other stock.

So it was that by 1930 nearly 1,400 unique apple varieties had been developed in the southern states, and each seemed to have its special use. Some say there were 10,000 varieties throughout the United States.

However, modern technology brought an end to localized antique apples.

Inexpensive railway shipping and refrigeration enabled growers to transport apples the year around. Suburbs spread out across fields and orchards and folks no longer took the time to develop their own apples.

Today only 15 popular varieties account for over 90 percent of our national production. Fortunately nurseries across the land have been rescuing many of these old varieties, and they can be planted again in the Rim country. Try your Internet for listings of places where they can be ordered.

In the 19th century fruit gardens were as common as vegetable or flower gardens are today. Rim country ranchers, as well as town folk, prided themselves in the fruit they grew, and many would make their "pin money" selling to one another.

These orchards flourished along the creeks, Webber, Bray, Chase, East Verde, Dude, Bonita, Ellison, and Tonto. Many of those trees remain today. An old-time apple tree can flourish 75 years or longer, even when it is completely neglected, and many Rim country antique apples have done just that.

In the spring of 1963 we drove the old Rim Trail road for the first time, and beheld the glories of apple blossoms up and down the headwaters of the East Verde River.

That summer we settled on our own piece of acreage cut from the old Belluzzi homestead. On our property were several of the old antique apple trees, still producing wonderful fruit. How they came to be there is a wonderful story.

A young widow named Mercedes Clymer was serving in a Globe boarding house where she met an Italian immigrant working in the mines, and they fell in love. His name was Bartolomeo Belluzzi, called John by his Anglo friends.

John had laid claim to a homestead on the upper East Verde in 1874, but worked in the mines for a living. Mercedes was saving the seeds from the apple pies she baked, and after they were married in the summer of 1879 they spent as much time on the ranch as they could. This was interrupted by scares about Indian raids and by the temporary closing of the mine and they had to go to Tucson, where John drove a stagecoach.

In the meantime Mercedes had planted her apple seeds all up and down the river on their 160-acre claim.

By the time we settled there the trees were peppered with woodpecker holes, were gnarled and huge, but produced an apple that could not be beat for applesauce. We made gallons of it each fall and froze it for giving away and for enjoying all winter.

Finally my curiosity forced me to seek out the variety of this apple. It was a Ben Davis, a favorite in the Mississippi Valley, and one that had apparently been created in Tennessee in 1800.

Whether some early Globe settler had brought that variety with him from the east is not known. It is reported that they could travel long distances on bumpy roads and still be worthy.

In some way Ben Davis apples were being made into pies at a boarding house in Globe soon after that town was established.

A retired professor from Cornell University, Dr. James N. Cummins, recalled that they did make excellent pies and the fruit was often dried and shipped for that purpose.

He said folks once called the Ben Davis apple the "mortgage lifter." That was during the Great Depression when so many farms were paid for by Ben Davis sale money.

"Back before I was born," wrote Professor Cummins in his book, The Orchard Remembered, "they say in my home county in Southern Illinois there had been a million Ben Davis apple trees.

"Back in those day apples had been packed in wooden barrels ... (They) were rolled up planks into wagons, onto rail cars, onto steamers, down cobbled city streets ----barrels and barrels of Ben Davis apples ... The apple barrel is gone now, and apples are shipped in bushel baskets. No more apple press, no more the line of two-horse wagons waiting at the railroad siding.

"New apples now, more gently handled than before; new names to us like Jonathan and Grimes Golden, like Starks Delicious and the Roman Beauty. So now our Ben Davis orchard has to go. It's 1938 (when he wrote) and the day of Ben Davis apples is past ..."

Well, Professor Cummins, not so quick. Perhaps some Rim country folks will go out along the upper East Verde or Bonita and Webber creeks and rescue some of those Ben Davis apples for new trees. Maybe our antique apples can yet be saved. You sure can't beat them for pies and sauce.

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