European settlers brought apples to New World

When I was little, I lived my first seven years of my life with my mother and grandfather, Pop.

Pop was an Italian immigrant, a naturalized citizen of the USA. His sponsor family taught him carpentry as a means of earning a living and supplied him with all the tools he needed when he was ready to go out on his own.

He obviously did well. The house was huge and the back yard was humongous. There was a grassed area for a little girl to play, with a swing set and sand box.

Beyond the fence was a huge garden. Pop had a chicken coop. He grew all types of vegetables, but more importantly he grew plum, peach, pear and apple trees.

Those days with Pop were the best days of my life.

I grew up, married and moved to Fairport, a suburb of Rochester, N.Y. I found myself in another agricultural town. Here, they grew mostly corn, and there was a sheep farm call "Stinky Meadows," if you get my drift.

However, in the next town over, Webster, there was Schutt’s Apple Mill, where they grew 20 varieties of apples. My friend Jeanne Cole and I would go to Schutt’s and buy bushel baskets of Twenty-Ounce (originated in New York in the early 1800s) and McIntosh apples to make applesauce for our families for the year.

Those were great memories, too.

Six moves later, in 2007, I found myself back in a very special agricultural town, Hollis. When I drive through town, I feel as if I am back with Pop working in the garden. Everywhere you can see vegetables and fruits are growing.

But it is the apple trees that get to me. During the winter, you can see the apple trees barren and without any protection from the harsh New Hampshire winters. It amazes me every spring to see their white blossoms appear miraculously. Then they leaf and apples appear.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, it is all about the apples.

Apples were not indigenous to North America. In 1607, the colonists arrived in Jamestown, Va., where North American apple cultivation began. Imagine if you can what it was like to get off a ship and look out over a wild and untamed continent. There were no towns, no stores, very little cleared land on which to grow things – and, except for a few scattered Native American plantings, no cultivated fruit trees, only wild crabapples, mulberries, serviceberries, cherries, plums, paw paws and persimmons.

Eventually, the settlers learned how to use these strange fruits. (Taking a bite of an unripe persimmon, Jamestown’s Capt. John Smith noted, would "draw a man’s mouth awrie with much torment.")

In the meantime, the settlers had to get on with the business of feeding their families. And for this they had came prepared with seeds, cuttings and small plants from the best of Europe.

By 1686, the status of horticulture in Virginia was such that William Fitzhugh, of Westmoreland County, mentioned "a large orchard of about 2,500 apple trees, most grafted, well fenced with a locust fence." By the close of the century, there were few plantations in Virginia without an orchard.

This rather amazing transplantation of European fruits occurred all up and down the Eastern Seaboard. But the transition was not seamless. Many of the grafted fruit trees brought from Europe proved unsuited to the climate of the New World. Harsh winters, late-spring frosts, and summer heat and humidity killed some of the trees outright and kept others from thriving.

Some did take hold, though, and a few of these Old World sorts live on today in the orchards of antique fruit collectors and connoisseurs.

The rest of the story is about a Massachusetts native, John Chapman, otherwise known as Johnny Appleseed. Chapman started his first nursery near Fort Pitt, Pa., with seeds he collected from the cider mills of local farmers.

When the frontier moved west, as the story goes, Chapman pulled up stakes, gave his farm to a poor woman with children and headed down the Ohio River in a kind of catamaran made from two hollowed-out logs that were lashed together, one filled with a cargo of precious seed. He scouted out routes along which pioneers would most likely settle and planted apple seedlings on land along the routes, thus populating the country with apple trees.

We are rapidly approaching fall and apple season here in Hollis. The Hollis Woman’s Club and the Hollis Town Band invite you to celebrate Hollis’ apple agricultural heritage by attending their annual Apple Festival and Band Concert from 2-4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 4, at the Town Common.

The band will perform a free two-hour concert, while the HWC will serve homemade apple crisp or homemade apple pie slices with Doc Davis vanilla ice cream. There will be an apple pie table, cider, vendors displaying their talents, face painting and games for the children.