Apples and apple orchards have a long history here going back to the earliest Dutch settlement era. The Van Rensselaers urged their tenant farmers to plant orchards of apples, pears, and other fruits. Think about that for a minute. In the 1600s, to European eyes, the land here in what is now Bethlehem was very much wilderness. To plant an apple seed in anticipation of the tree growing and bearing fruit, something that could take 10 years, was an act of faith in the future of the settlement.
In 1682, Albert Bratt, the Norwegian for whom the Norman’s Kill is named, subleased his orchard along the creek to his future son-in-law Teunis Cornelissen Slingerland. The rent was 150 “schepels” a year. If this was the usual ten percent, then that orchard was producing 1500 “schepels” of apples a year. That’s about 1100 bushels in modern terms, and likely over 250 mature trees.
65+ years later, during his stay in the Albany area in June 1749, Peter Kalm noted that each farm had a large orchard. Some of the apples were “very large and palatable” and were “sent to New York, and other places as a rarity.” He also wrote “they make excellent cider, in autumn, in the country round Albany.”
An important word about that cider. We are not talking about the delicious cider we pick up at the store today. We are talking about hard, that is alcoholic, cider. Also delicious, but not the benign cider of today. Orchards in those early days were dedicated to cider apples and the reason is interesting. Apple trees grown from seed do not produce the kind of apple the seed came from. For example, if you plant the seeds from a Golden Delicious apple, watch the tree grow and harvest its fruit, the resulting apple is not a Golden Delicious. It is likely to be sour and look nothing like its parent apple. Sour, inedible apples however, are excellent for pressing into cider. That cider can then be easily fermented back on the farmstead into a drink that, especially on the frontier, is more easily obtained than beer or wine, or even fresh water.
While seedlings and grafted trees did come from Europe early on, apple seeds were also planted in abundance. You might remember the tale of Johnny Appleseed?
To get a true Golden Delicious, one needs to purchase a grafted tree. And this is interesting too. Apples, in the wild genetic mixing of their seeds, sometimes produce very yummy varieties. Every Golden Delicious goes back to a single apple tree, one found in an orchard on the Mullin’s family farm in West Virginia in 1904. Anderson Mullins sold the tree and propagation rights to Stark Brothers Nursery who first marketed it in 1914. Another example is the Granny Smith. That apple literally goes back to a single tree discovered by Maria Ann Smith in Australia in 1868. And yes, Maria did become a Granny.
The Temperance movement of the late 1800s (which eventually led to Prohibition in 1919) caused farmers and orchardists to wonder what they were going to do with all their apples if they couldn’t make hard cider from them. The answer was to market them for their healthy wholesomeness with the classic “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” This in turn led to something of an apple gold rush where farmers scoured their orchards for the tree that distinguished itself with extra special fruit. Shoots of that special tree could then be grafted onto root stock and the saplings marketed and sold.
Apples, and other orchard produce, continued to be a cash crop for Bethlehem farmers well into the 1900s. For example, in the 1940s, Sunnybrook Farm, run by Charles and Virginia Waldenmaier, included a 500-tree orchard with Alexander, Wolf River, Greening, Delicious and Macintosh apple trees. While Bethlehem does not currently boast a large commercial orchard, remnant trees from the old orchards can be found. Recently while walking in the woods near my home, I noticed large apples on the ground, and looking up saw the gnarled old tree they came from. Could this tree have been part of the orchards of the Van Allen family farm that was here before my housing subdivision? You bet!
This article was inspired in three ways. First and foremost, by the iconic Indian Ladder Farms. Second by the book Botany of Desire A Plant’s Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan. Pollan’s article on apples and the real Johnny Appleseed is fascinating. And finally, the collection of the Bethlehem Historical Association has several brass stencils that illustrate the wonderful variety of fruit produced by Bethlehem farmers. Romantic sounding names like Blue Gage, Green Gage, Baldwin, Magnum Bonum, Cranberry Pippin, Louie Honne, Sutton Beauty, and Hubbardston were stenciled onto boxes and barrels in preparation for shipment to market.
While in my mind Indian Ladder Farm is synonymous with apples, the only pictures I have are set among the pumpkins. Here is my daughter Emma circa 1998.