Vanishing Texana Museum

Last week we explored the mysteries of apple peelers. But, what of the apple itself? Fall might soon be in the air and apples are one of winter’s most treasured fruits.

Yes, there is a famous Jacksonville apple, it just happens to be Jacksonville, North Carolina’s claim to fame. There are apple orchards here in Texas, but mostly in the western part of the state, so if you’re planning on going, the eastern Carolinas’ might actually be closer.

According to the 1905 edition of Ragan’s Nomenclature there were over 17,000 apple names, although some are just southern corruptions of a Yankee brand that seemed to be sweeter when grown south of the Mason-Dixon line (remember, this was in 1905). Some others are just nicknames for the same apple. A New York Pippin, a Kentucky Red Streak, Illinois Red, and Ben Davis are all the same apple with different local identifiers.

Fresh! in Tyler hosts about a dozen different types of apples, but in the 19th century, apples came in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some had rough skins that were almost like sandpaper. Others were in the shape and size of a cherry tomato while others looked more like a potato than an apple. There was an array of colors and patterns on the skin. Since most apples were destined to be used for fermenting, appearance wasn’t important. There was an apple for every taste, purpose, and season. Besides making cider, apples were used for baking, drying, eating, and even for livestock feed. Today, there are only about 90 commercially grown types of apples. That’s a big drop off from 17,000 in just 100 years!

The apple is from the Rosaceae family which has over 4800 known species. Besides apples, pears, peaches, plums, and strawberries along with many other fruits come from this family. The family Rosaceae has includes herbs, shrubs, and trees. Most species are deciduous, but some are evergreen. When Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” he probably wasn’t thinking about an apple pie baking in the oven. The apple and the rose come from the same Rosaceae family!

Ben Franklin is believed to have coined the expression, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” He was hijacking an 1850’s English expression that, “An apple at bed keeps the doctor from earning his bread.”

Of course, the most famous apple person has to be Johnny Appleseed. When kids visit the museum and we demonstrate the antique apple peelers, I often ask if they recall the story of Johnny Appleseed. This has always resulted in a blank stare. “You know,” I say, “the guy who befriended a wolf, slept in a hollow log, and wore his dinner pot as a hat.” Most just shake their heads and are probably thinking, “Mister, you’ve been spending too much time in this museum.”

The true story of Johnny Appleseed is really the story of John Chapman. Initially, Mr. Chapman was a traveling preacher who gave away apple seeds as he tried to sow his take on the kingdom of heaven while trekking through the upper Midwest in the early 1800’s. Initially, Chapman started a nursery near the cider mills located in northern Pennsylvania, using discarded seeds to start his tree farm. As the country moved westward, Chapman is said to have given his farm to a poor woman and headed down the Ohio River in a homemade boat. He tried to decipher the routes westward-bound settlers would take, purchased some acreage along those routes, and planted the apple seeds he had brought with him. He then sold, or sometimes gave, the apple tree seedlings to the arriving settlers. By the 1830’s Chapman had a string of apple nurseries that ran from western Pennsylvania, through Ohio, and into Indiana. He died in 1845 and left 1,200 acres of apple trees to his relatives.

The rapid expansion of apple varieties came to an abrupt end in the early 1900’s Much like the farmers here in Jacksonville were able to ship their tomatoes to the east coast, so apple farmers were able to ship apples across the country. With the advent of mechanical refrigeration, apples could be stored and shipped throughout the year. Large apple farms in the west forced the smaller concerns in the east out of business. As still happens today, the large farms began to pare down the varieties of apples to the most popular ones. Red Delicious and Golden Delicious varieties took over the market in the 1920’s. Further tinkering with the apple’s breeding was done to assure the apples we see in the market have a bright, shiny, and uniform appearance without any bruising. Many articles written about apple history say this has adversely affected the flavor.

Today there are about 7500 apple producers across 36 states. This year’s harvest is estimated to be 48,000 tons. The average American consumes about 16 pounds of apples a year, making it the most popular fruit after the banana.

We invite you to visit your Vanishing Texana Museum on any Thursday, Friday or Saturday from 11-4. If your kids or grandkids don’t know the story of Johnny Appleseed, we’ll be happy to tell them the tale. Admission and parking are free at our 300 South Bolton location.

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