(Courtesy: Vermont Tree Fruit Growers Association)
“How many farmers go to the store or tavern and spend their leisure time talking about their neighbors and cursing the book farming. How much better it would be for them to stay at home and cultivate their apple trees.” Noah W. Hardy, Granite Farmer, 1851.
This column explores the history of wild and domesticated fruits, berries and nuts in New Hampshire and Vermont. It will not deal with garden crops such as potatoes or squash, or field crops such as wheat, oats, and corn.
I draw on the observations of those who have written, on the subject in newspapers and agricultural reports in times past especially prior to 1930.
Both wild and domesticated plants are climate dependent. In New Hampshire, the growing season is longest in the southern section, especially near the Seacoast. Southern Vermont, as well as the Champlain Valley, have more frost-free days and are more likely to see expanded fruit and berry production.
Even within local areas, there are microclimate zones that have somewhat different growing season. As cold air is heavier it tends to settle in the valleys whereas warmer, lighter air rises. Hillside farms were often a better location for fruit crops that required a somewhat longer season.
One of the most important fruit crops in the area has been apples. With only crabapples native to North America, larger apples were brought to North America by European migrants. From the earliest settlement, apple trees and orchards were planted. According to The History of Newbury, apple trees were planted in Newbury and Haverhill in 1763 and, by 1770, “their fruit had become quite plentiful, while as yet there were not trees in bearing elsewhere, nearer than sixty miles.”
Zadock Thompson’s 1842 review of Vermont horticulture reported that apples were the “most important and abundant fruit, and is found to flourish in all parts of the state.” Farmers in both states experimented with different types of apples, often grafting new varieties to old stock. Apples were often grown specifically for eating, cooking, drying or cider-making.
The extensive orchards produced an immense quantity of apples. Most of these were made into cider and cider brandy. Prior to 1840, Daniel Eastman of West Newbury owned an orchard as well as a distillery. He produced up to 1,200 bushels of apples and 30 barrels of cider brandy. In the 1880s, James Hunter of Ryegate operated an apple jelly mill producing over 5 tons of jelly and other products.
The value of apple orchard products in New Hampshire doubled between 1850 and 1860. The New Hampshire Board of Agriculture promoted the planting of apple trees in the belief that the state was just right for them.
Charles E. Hardy of Hollis, NH, is an example of an apple producer who followed their advice. He began to market Baldwin apples, with each individual fruit wrapped in paper and packaged in air-tight barrels. AT the height of his production, he sold 1,150 barrels of apples for $2,500.
By the 1860s, there may have been as many as 600 varieties of apples grown in Vermont. My 2nd great grandfather Clark Harris of Wilmington, VT, won repeated prizes at the Windham County Fair for exhibiting the largest variety. In the 1870s, he entered up to 46 varieties of grafted apples.
Many of those older varieties have disappeared. There are groups in both states actively looking for any remaining heirloom apple trees. Janice Brown’s blog on New Hampshire history has an extensive article on missing New Hampshire heirloom apples. The list includes Granite Beauty, Dinsmore, Jewett’s Red, and Lafayette. The latter was developed in Chester, NH in 1824, to recognize General Lafayette’s triumphant return tour of the nation.
One of the earliest hill town orchards was begun in East Corinth in 1870. By 1920 it belonged to Julian Dimock, who through new plantings and grafting of old ones, had enlarged it to 1,600 trees. His fruit became well known in part because of aggressive advertising. One example: “Dimock Apples: You can eat them in the dark!”
The orchards of Bennington’s Edward Hamlin Everett overshadowed all others. A wealthy entrepreneur, Everett established Southern Vermont Orchards in 1910. The orchards included 75,000 apple trees with 65 varieties, 3,000 plum trees and 2,000 quince trees. It is reported that his orchards were the largest privately owned orchards in the world. Everett died in 1929. A modern Southern Vermont Orchards now has 300 acres of the site.
While apples grew abundantly, there has been questions about the growing of peaches outside of the warmer parts of the region. In 1842, Zadock Thompson, using his Lake Champlain garden as an example, wrote that while little attention had been paid to peaches, “good ones could be raised.”
In 1869, a report in the New England Farmer suggested peaches were an unreliable crop, with New Hampshire coastline growers getting just one good season in three. As hardier varieties were developed it was reported that “peaches are hard to grow as far north as the Green Mountains, but if they will grow at all they are the very best.” Ads for those hearty varieties began to appear in Brattleboro and Burlington newspapers around 1870.
In 1916, future Senator George Aiken of Putney wrote, “It is not generally known that peaches can be grown in Vermont, yet in Windham Country there at several orchards of a few hundred trees each.”
I placed a question online inquiring about growing local peaches. There were a several positive responses and an invitation from Jean Carlan to taste some of the 150 pieces of fruit she had gathered from her two trees on Bradford’s Main Street.
Wild grapes were another fruit that grew in abundance and gathered in late September. Known for their “piquancy of flavor,” they had a low sugar content and a sour taste. Early settlers used them for jellies and preserves.
In 1849, the wild grapes were so prolific, “when the season arrived, it was as common occurrence for boys to take a basket on their arm and go out a graping, as it is to go after blackberries.“ noted one contemporary.
In 1850, an article in the Granite Farmer stated, “A little attention to our wild grapes may discover some new variety that could prove to be valuable.” Actually, the year before a nurseryman in Concord, MA, had taken a wild grape variety and crossed it with an established grape to produce the Concord grape. This technique helped the delicate variety to evolve into a hardy one, adapted to colder climates.
Growing up in Orford in the 1950s, there were “wild” Concord grapes on our boundary trees. Perhaps a bird had dropped a seed years before. In addition to swinging on the large vines, we enjoyed the fresh fruit and the grape conserve jelly my Mom made.
If space allowed, this column could have described other fruits, including wild red and black cherries and pears, found in warmer sections. Improved varieties of these fruits were later available commercially, as were plums, quince and currants.
The history of strawberries in the area is significant. Wild strawberries are native to the area and both indigenous people and European settlers found them to be a special treat as they are among the first fruits to ripen.
Between 1834 and 1851, nurserymen in New England developed berries that are the ancestors of most modern varieties. About 1875, William Smalley of Bradford experimented with a quarter acre of strawberries on his Lower Plain farm. His experiment was successful and, by 1884, he was producing 1,000 bushes of the fruit annually.
By 1888, the number of growers in Bradford had increased to 11. Maitland Jenkins purchased his father’s farm on the Lower Plain in 1893 and became known as the Strawberry King. Strawberries were shipped by train to the White Mountains, Boston and New York. Even strawberries produced in neighboring towns were often advertised as “Bradford strawberries.”
Those interested in a more complete history of local strawberries can access a 2007 article on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com.
As early settlers cleared the forest, wild berry bushes grew up in thickets and along woodland borders, providing a “plethora of free berries.” These included red and black raspberries, elderberries, gooseberries, thimbleberries, high bush cranberries, blueberries, teaberries or perhaps even the elusive checkerberry.
Picking wild blackberries became a rewarding pastime for many. The bushes were often in the most unexpected and neglected locations. The picker who found these locations while “aberrying” would often keep them a personal secret.
In Corinth’s so-called South America district, there was great blackberry country. The town history mentions that Corinth people went there to pick bushels of blackberries for home use and sale.
“It is ridiculous to be shipping blackberries into Vermont in carload lots,” one 1899 observer wrote, “when they grow well all over the hills and can be raised in the garden almost without effort.”
Wild blueberries have been harvested by indigenous people for centuries. New settlers found these berries in both states. Wild berries were referred to as low blueberries or low bush blueberries.
By 1913, wild blueberries had been over picked. This led the US Department of Agriculture to encourage the cultivation of high bush berries. Around 1916, wild blueberries and wild currants were destroyed in many places as they were thought to be contributors to white pine blister, a disease that endangered the forestry industry.
In 1864, an article in The Vermont Transcript had reported, “Our country farms are the best gooseberry growers.” The berries were used for pies, chutney, jams, and cordials.
By 1878, improved specie were being planted in home gardens. Vermonters were advised that gooseberries were easily grown, required little attention, and produced quantities of fruit “no matter how much they were neglected.”
But by 1907, when gooseberries were thought to contribute to white pine blister, New Hampshire state foresters were given the authority to remove gooseberries and wild currents from private property to avoid the white pine blister. Gooseberries are still illegal in New Hampshire.
While many of the fruits mentioned above are currently grown commercially in New Hampshire and Vermont, nuts are not. These include walnuts, chestnuts, butternuts, beech-nuts, acorns, and hazelnuts. These were found wild in various amounts with acorns being the most plentiful.
Indigenous people relied on these nuts as an important source of protein. Settlers followed their examples, except that they often used wild nuts as feed for pigs. Pigs were often allowed to roam free during the fall to root for the fallen nuts. Nut-finishing gives pork a sweeter taste.
The meat of butternuts is hard to access, but their sweetness compensates for the difficulty of cracking them and the “untidy nature” of the trees. Butternut trees were quite common in the two states. In 1917, The Caledonian reported that the largest butternut tree in Vermont was found at the Doe residence in Bradford village. It was reported to have a circumference of 11 feet and its 76-foot crown reach half way across the adjacent main street.
This “backyard delicacy” was especially tasty when used in maple fudge. In the 1950’s, my Uncle Elroy Coffin of West Brattleboro was a major commercial producer of this delicacy. After 1978, a butternut canker began to infect trees in both states and the trees suffered high mortality rates, especially in Vermont.
All of the trees and plants mentioned above were susceptible to the yearly variations of the weather. Exceptionally cold winters, such as that of 1816, killed them. June frosts in 1859 killed the apple crop with almost one-half of the orchards in Vermont either dead or dying. Hurricanes, such as the one in 1938, caused widespread destruction of fruit trees.
Climatologists and horticulturists are warning of the impact of climate change on traditional fruit growing practices. Warmer winters do not produce the “chill” that is essential for apple production. An extremely hot day can cause burn on sensitive fruit. Extreme variations in rain fall also impact the growth of fruit. Changing climate can also encourage invasive diseases, plants, and pests that can harm orchards and wild plants.
But for now, whether foraging for wild treats, picking in commercial orchards, or gathering that which you have grown in your back yard, the fruit of the harvest is something to treasure. Enjoy.