Reviving An American Symbol
Story by Erika Janik
Photography by Erika Kent
A century ago, Milwaukee had its own apple. The seedling found growing beneath a Duchess apple tree and developed by George Jeffrey in the 1890s yielded a yellowish-green apple with a tart flavor that was a local specialty, one of thousands of varieties of apples known, grown, and beloved in North America.
Apples are one of the most widely grown and eaten fruits in the world. In North America alone, some 14,000 varieties have been named and nurtured over the last four centuries.
The industrialization of agriculture changed that world. By the mid-20th century, the Milwaukee apple along with many other Wisconsin apples had largely disappeared. The apple industry settled on a handful of varieties to promote and distribute worldwide, transforming the fruit from a local specialty into a global commodity. Today’s industrial food system has left us with only a meager sampling of the richness and diversity of the bygone apple world.
“We’ve lost an astounding degree of biodiversity in the last century,” says Jennifer Casey, biodiversity leader with Slow Food Wisconsin Southeast. “The apple itself is such a potent symbol of America that to lose so many of our native varieties seems like we’ve lost a part of who we are.”
All apples trace their origins to the wild apples that evolved in the Tian Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan. A member of the Rosaceae family of flowering plants (that includes everything from roses to pears), apples were among the first flowering plants on earth, evolving in Central Asia over 4.5 million years ago. Kazakhstan is such an apple-y land that even the name of its largest city, Almaty, translates as the “Father of apples.”
Apples aren’t all of Kazakhstan’s edible bounty, however. At least 150 other plant species are either direct descendants or close wild relatives of common domestic food crops, including raspberries, blackberries, plums, and peaches, creating a veritable fruit forest.
Humans and animals passing through the mountains of Central Asia helped apples spread east and west. As humans and animals traveled, seeds were dropped, seedlings grew, and millions of unique apple types sprang up throughout Asia and Europe. Apples traveled to nearly every corner of the globe.
Creating apples of the same variety is not easy. Apples do not come true from seed so you won’t find the “original” Red Delicious or Granny Smith growing in Kazakhstan. Like humans, apples create offspring that differ, sometimes dramatically, from their parents. Every seed in an apple contains a unique combination of genes from the mother tree and those of a father carried in grains of pollen by bees. Each generation looks and tastes different.
The only way to make more of one kind of tree is to clone it through grafting, the ancient technique of inserting the shoot or bud of one plant into the stem and trunk of another. This is how apple varieties are created. Every Granny Smith is a graft of the original tree found by a real granny, Maria Ann Smith, near a creek outside Sydney, Australia, in the late 1860s. If not for grafting, every apple in the world would be its own distinct variety.
Heterozygous is the botanical term for this genetic variability. This more than any other factor accounts for the apple’s ability to make itself at home in places as different from each other as New Zealand, California, England, Kazakhstan, and well, Wisconsin. Wherever the apple tree travels, its offspring produce so many variations – several thousand per tree – that at least one is bound to have the qualities it needs to thrive in its new home.
Most of these novel trees produce bitter, unpalatable fruit. This is true, in part, because apple trees and apple eaters have different agendas. For an apple tree, small apples are more efficient at making more apples than big fleshy apples. Many wild apples consist primarily of core, the part of the apple responsible for reproduction, and less of the edible flesh. We humans, on the other hand, want big apples with a lot of sweet flesh for eating (or tart for baking). The only way to guarantee these particular traits is through grafting.
Humans loved apples so much they took them everywhere they went. Apples came to North America with European explorers and colonists who couldn’t bear to leave home without their favorite varieties. Everyone had an orchard and used apples for eating, drinking, and preserving. These settlers also planted millions of seeds as they moved west. Folk legend and real life apple proselytizer Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman helped lead the way. He planted thousands of seeds in frontier nurseries ahead of the settlers who were often required to plant orchards as part of the terms of their land claims.
Apples came to Wisconsin as early as 1800. Nearly every farm had its own orchard growing many different types of apples, including some found only in that orchard. The alkaline soil of Milwaukee and Waukesha counties made for tarter apples than those of Door and Bayfield counties, where colder nights brought out the sweetness of the fruit.
The harsh Wisconsin climate, though, meant only the hardiest apples could survive so commercial orchards were slow to develop. Discouraged fruit growers organized locally to figure out how to grow apples for market in Wisconsin. In 1853, the Wisconsin Fruit Growers’ Association formed with a primary goal of developing hardier apple varieties.
The Civil War turned attention away from fruit, however, and the Association disbanded, only to be replaced in 1865 by the Wisconsin State Horticultural Society, which established three trial orchards around the state. By the 1870s, grower confidence in Wisconsin apples and consumer demand for fruit led to a burgeoning commercial apple industry. New varieties and new growing techniques helped Wisconsin apples thrive in the 1890s and led to the development of specific fruit growing regions in the Milwaukee, Door County, Bayfield, and Gays Mills areas based on geographic and climatic features.
Advances in sea transport in the 19th century also made it possible for the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa to send barrel after barrel of fresh apples abroad. Competition between these apple-growing regions encouraged American growers to focus on a handful of commercial varieties that could be produced in large quantities and survive overseas travel. Older local varieties with thin or rough skins, irregular crops, tendency to bruising, or other shortcomings were discarded for failing to meet the stringent requirements of a global marketplace that demanded attractive shiny fruit, often at the expense of flavor.
Where before distinct varieties could be found in communities all over the country, today the modern apple industry has grown so large that only 20 or so apples have gained a place at the global table. Conservative estimates suggest that fewer than one in ten apple varieties historically grown remain commercially available. Thousands of distinctive apples have been lost.
Apples came to Wisconsin as early as 1800. Nearly every farm had its own orchard growing many different types of apples, including some found only in that orchard.
Fortunately, consumer rebellion against intensively produced food in recent years has led to efforts to protect the world’s apple heritage. Unique antique or heirloom apples are making a comeback in Wisconsin.
Growers like Ken Weston of Weston’s Antique Apple Orchard in New Berlin are doing everything they can to preserve the varieties that are left. The oldest active orchard in Waukesha, it was planted by Weston’s grandparents during the Depression. Weston says his grandparents didn’t set out to grow heirlooms. His family’s trees just became heirlooms as once-common varieties disappeared.
“This orchard attempts to return those varieties that were commonly found in the 1930s,” says Weston. “Some varieties were here before my family bought the orchard, and we’ve collected others from catalogs and friends.”
Today, the orchard boasts more than 700 trees and 100 different apple varieties, many quite rare, on 16 acres. More than 95% are heirloom varieties not grown commercially. The farm’s historic importance was recognized with its listing on the National Register of Rural Historic Landscapes.
“The range of flavors of these apples is enormous. Some don’t even taste like apples but are nutty like cashews or sweet like strawberries,” says Weston.
His own cultivar, Weston’s Winter Delight, is a yellow apple that tastes strongly of vanilla. Weston also grows several apples with Wisconsin roots, including Wolf River, the Northwestern Greening, and Old Church, the latter of which is found only at Weston’s.
In Milwaukee, Slow Food Wisconsin Southeast has adopted the Milwaukee apple as the headliner of its campaign to bring back antique apples. Jennifer Casey first heard about the variety at an antique apple workshop put on by RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) that identified the Milwaukee apple as an endangered fruit worth saving.
“Biodiversity and regional foods are at the heart of Slow Food so when I heard about the plight of the apple, I became so passionate about this project,” says Casey of her interest in starting the Milwaukee Heritage Apple Project.
Casey located trees at Maple Valley Orchards and Nursery near Green Bay, and in 2010, Slow Food planted four Milwaukee apple trees along with Pewaukee and Oneida heritage varieties at the Stahl-Conrad Homestead in Hale’s Corners. The historic homestead originally had its own thriving orchard and the historic site’s board expressed interest in repatriating some of these original Wisconsin apples.
Volunteers planted another Milwaukee apple tree at the Urban Ecology Center’s fruit orchard in Washington Park in 2011. Slow Food also offers carefully grafted and planted Milwaukee apple seedlings for adoption along with four other Wisconsin varietals: Pewaukee, Oneida, Wolf River, and Northwest Greening. More than 70 have been planted in and around Milwaukee backyards, gardens, and farms. The young trees are fragile, though, so Casey stresses the need to protect them until they are stronger.
An educational as well as horticultural project, Casey hopes the Milwaukee Heritage Apple Project will get people thinking and talking about biodiversity and the importance of regional foods.
“These trees tell a story. The Milwaukee apple is our hometown fruit,” says Casey. “When we lose these fruits and the traditions that go along with them, we lose part of our identity.”
Apples Aren’t Just for Eating
As much as people throughout history liked to eat apples, they liked to drink them even more. Apples slaked the thirst of early Americans. Early vineyards and the first plantings of hops and barley failed, and wines and liquors from Europe cost far too much for the average colonist. Fortunately, apples grew in abundance, and turning your apple juice into alcohol was a handy way to use and preserve the crop.
Hard cider and its rough-hewn distilled cousin applejack (a synonym for apple brandy) were Americans’ drinks of choice for centuries. But temperance and Prohibition all but killed off this traditional branch of apple spirits, leaving many Americans unfamiliar with the apple’s alcoholic side.
Charles McGonegal of Aeppeltreow Winery in Burlington is one of many producers fighting to reclaim and reintroduce the apple spirit tradition. A chemist by training, McGonegal made mead beneath his desk in college and later crafted wine in his basement before switching to apples.
“I wanted to use a local product and apples grow better in Wisconsin than grapes,” says McGonegal.
To make a better cider, McGonegal needed better apples, so he teamed up with Brightonwoods Orchard to get the antique cultivars he uses in his ciders. The orchard also grows cider apples, which are generally bitter, tannic varieties that make excellent cider but are poor eating. McGonegal’s business has grown so much that he’s outgrown Brightonwoods and must source apples from other orchards as well, though he’s proud to say that all his apples come from Wisconsin.
“We’re dedicated to conserving historic crops and using local products for a true Wisconsin product,” says McGonegal.
Aeppeltreow uses a mix of cider and eating apples in its ciders, which range from the dry champagne-style Appely Brut, that sparkles in the bottle due to refermentation, and the crisp mellow Barn Swallow to the tannic Kinglet Bitter, made exclusively of bitter apples grown within sight of the winery at Brightonwoods. The winery also makes pear cider, or perry.
“Cider — and we always mean alcoholic cider when we use that word — is our historic American drink. When Almanzo goes down to get a mug of cider in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, he’s not getting juice,” laughs McGonegal.
Two years ago, Aeppeltreow began producing an apple brandy, a modern interpretation of the once popular colonial applejack. Aged in new, charred Wisconsin White Oak barrels, the brandy is spicy with sweet vanilla flavors.
Aeppeltreow is not the only apple brandy distiller in southeast Wisconsin. Great Lakes Distillery also makes an aged apple brandy along with several other fruit brandies.
“Cider is subtle but complex,” says McGonegal. “It’s an expression of the trees and of the land.”
AeppelTreow Winery & Distillery
1072 288th Avenue
Erika Janik is a writer, historian, and the executive producer of “Wisconsin Life” onWisconsin Public Radio. She’s the author of the books “Apple: A Global History”, “Madison: A History of a Model City”, “A Short History of Wisconsin”, and “Odd Wisconsin”, and her work has appeared in Smithsonian, Midwest Living, Salon, the Wisconsin Magazine of History, and Wisconsin Trails, among others.
Erika Kent is a native of Detroit, Erika earned her BFA from the University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design. In 1997, she packed up her Ford Escort, popped in a mix tape, and moved to Milwaukee. After thirteen years as Vice President of, and then consultant to Ten Chimneys (the National Historic Landmark house museum in Genesee Depot, WI), Erika stepped down from her nonprofit arts administration career and leaned into her continuing work as a photographer and arts and culture blogger.