The night in 1888 that Robert Burns married his bride, the snow fell so bitterly over the rolling Palouse prairie that the guests stabled their animals and took shelter in the small homestead. Burns was new to eastern Washington, one of thousands of greenhorns who flooded into the newly opened territory to plant wheat and apples. More than a century later, the old apple trees were the clue “apple detective” David Benscoter needed to rediscover some apple cultivars America forgot and the story of the people who grew them.
Historical Heirlooms Resurface
“This is a place to make money with less effort and worry than in other occupations. … An apple orchard provides as sure an income as government bonds, and more than 25 percent on the investment,” promised an advertorial brochure from the era.
Burns knew that apples were a homesteading staple — brochures at the time rationed 100 trees per family for eating fresh, canning, drying, fermenting into cider, or storing in the cellar. With the newly laid train tracks, Burns figured he could make some money, too, by shipping apples to Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. Apples were booming in Washington, increasing 9-fold between 1880 and 1900 to about 5 million trees.
Most likely with the help of Edwin Hanford, a successful local orchardist and nurseryman, Burns is believed to have selected as many as 145 cultivars. He planted glossy, carmine-red ‘Nero’ and red-striped ‘Mcafee;’ green-gold ‘Shackleford’ and juicy ‘Yellow Transparent.’ Some were to feed his family, some to feed his hogs, and some to ship for what he hoped would be a comfortable profit.
But around 1900, Burns packed his wife and seven children into a wagon and became one of the thousands of homesteaders who left. Their farmhouse rotted away; woodlands grew over their fields. The property was eventually incorporated into Steptoe Butte State Park, which is where David Benscoter discovered the orchard more than 100 years later.
“The picnic area is where I saw all those early apples on the ground,” he says. The thin-skinned, speckled yellow fruits bruising between the tables were so unusual that Benscoter knew he’d stumbled onto a clue worth investigating.
“Most of the magazines or newspapers kind of grab onto that I’m an ex-FBI agent,” he chuckles.
Benscoter has been nicknamed “The Apple Detective,” a nod to both his former career and his methodical methods for tracking down what he calls “lost apples:” the hundreds of heirloom cultivars popular in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries that haven’t been eaten for decades.
Looking for the Lost
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 1905 publication, Nomenclature of the Apple, lists 17,000 kinds of apples growing in America. In just the last 100 years, 80 percent may have been lost — but that doesn’t mean they can’t be found. Apple trees live a long time. One of the oldest alive in the Northwest today is believed to have been planted from seed nearly 200 years ago by the Hudson Bay Company in Vancouver.
Benscoter realized that the gnarled, 30-foot-tall trees in the picnic area represented an old cultivar, maybe even a lost one. To start identifying them, he first needed to figure out who had planted them.
It wasn’t his first apple manhunt. His detective work started four years earlier, in 2010, when Benscoter helped an elderly neighbor pick apples on her family’s 19th-century property. The apples weren’t ‘Red Delicious’ or ‘Gala’ or ‘Fuji,’ some of Washington’s most important apple cultivars. They were something different, and they tasted delightful.
“That winter — you know we get a lot of snow in this part of Washington — I guess I was just around the house, and got curious what they were, so I called her up,” Benscoter explains.
The neighbor thought some were ‘Yellow Transparent’ and some were ‘Wealthy,’ both popular in the 19th century, but she couldn’t remember the others. Benscoter started an online search of apple cultivars. He discovered that ‘Yellow Transparent’ is a sweet, fragile dessert apple that ripens in June or July, just when a homesteader eking out a long, harsh winter and spring would be desperate for fresh fruit. ‘Wealthy,’ a gorgeous spring-green apple blushed by sun and often streaked red to the core, was cold-hardy, fully ripe in September, and could be stored through much of the winter.
Clicking one link led to another through the snowy months. Benscoter found heirloom apple tracker John Bunker’s colorful online photo gallery of apples that are purple, green, yellow, orange-ish, or red; striped, spotted or speckled. He read the stories of Bunker’s apple rediscoveries, such as ‘Fall Jeneting,’ a russeted yellow-green apple first described about 1827 but lost by the 1920s; and ‘Fletcher Sweet,’ an unusually juicy green apple that Bunker discovered half-dead in an intersection in Lincolnville, Maine. The tree perished the following year, but not before Bunker grafted it and saved the cultivar.
Benscoter’s reading led him to the book Old Southern Apples by Creighton Lee Calhoun Jr., which chronicles the history of more than 1,600 heirloom apples. The book also includes many watercolor paintings of extinct apples (pictured in this article) from the USDA’s database of more than 3,500 apple paintings.
Flipping through the beautifully detailed paintings, Benscoter wondered if his neighbor’s orchard, or eastern Washington in general, might be hiding lost apples. His detective instincts kicked in, and he began looking for clues in online archives, including results from county fairs and a 1900 catalog from the local Hanford Nursery advertising 145 cultivars, such as the now-lost ‘McAfee,’ ‘Nero,’ and ‘Dickinson.’
“I started just putting down on an Excel spreadsheet apples I recognized, and apples I didn’t recognize,” Benscoter says, “and once I had all the names down, I went and opened up Calhoun’s book, and sure enough, there were apples that were considered lost.”
When he found the yellow apples in the picnic area, Benscoter headed to the county office to find plat maps marking who had owned the property. A pencil scrawl on the 1895 map read, “Robert Burns,” paired with a tiny rectangle that marked where the Washington homestead, long rotted away, may have once hosted guests on a snowy night. However, that same point fell in empty space on a map made in 1910, a nod to the Burns family’s abandonment of the property around 1900.
By the time he identified the Burns homestead, Benscoter knew the closest nursery would have been Edwin Hanford’s, just 9 miles away, so there was a high chance Burns selected his trees from among the 145 cultivars Hanford offered. That narrowed the playing field; but identifying the apples was still challenging.
“I cannot identify apples; I’m terrible at it,” Benscoter admits. “So any apples I collect I have to ship off to experts.”
During the apple season — July to November — Benscoter ships boxes of apples to the Temperate Orchard Conservancy in Molalla, Oregon, where apple detectives Joanie Cooper and Shaun Shepherd have collected more than 4,500 cultivars on Cooper’s 40-acre farm. It’s one of the most diverse apple collections in the world: a home where lost apples, once found, will never be lost again.
Cooper and Shepherd analyze hundreds of apples every year, expanding the collection. Apples are shipped in from around the country, or brought to their identification table during the Home Orchard Society’s All About Fruit Show, an annual public event that offers a tasting of more than 500 fruit cultivars each October, including apples.
“There are so many characteristics that you look at,” Cooper says. “It’s a lot of work. It’s hard.”
This past winter, of the many boxes of apples that Benscoter shipped, Shaun and Joanie identified 136 cultivars; of these, 12 were extremely rare or previously thought lost. These included the ‘Bogdanoff Glass’ (from Russia), ‘Shackleford,’ ‘Saxon Priest,’ ‘McAfee,’ ‘Ewalt,’ and the petite ‘Kittageskee.’ This last cultivar’s sweet, dark-yellow flesh was so highly esteemed in 1860 that it was sent to France as a gift, but was lost after World War II.
“One thing that was more common in the olden days, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, is that there were more sweet apples,” Cooper explains. “They weren’t sweet-tart, they were sweet-sweet. They had a higher concentration of sugars because there wasn’t the availability of sugar for cooking, and they are also higher in calories.”
A Bruised Business Ripens with Age
The cultivars that Hanford may have advised Burns to plant fit a homesteader’s needs, but those same characteristics were a flop for commercial growers shipping on the railroad.
“[Burns] thought it was best to buy a wide variety of fruit, because you just never knew one season to another,” Benscoter explains. “Maybe some apples have a tendency to only produce every other year, or maybe there will be a late frost, and some apples bloom later in the spring, so by planting a wide variety you would avoid problems of not having fruit that year. For a homesteading person, those are all valid points; but for someone planting a commercial orchard, that’s not very good advice.”
Sweet, juicy apples bruised too easily. Summer apples rotted in the hot train cars. Staggering the cultivars so a new cultivar would ripen every two weeks made it difficult to harvest in large quantities. Burns, who planted dozens of cultivars hoping to double dip on homesteading survival and commercial success, lost out on both. Thus, with thousands of formerly ambitious homesteaders like him, he left Washington and its apple business.
“It’s unfortunate for him, but his mistake has just turned into a huge blessing for people who search for lost varieties,” Benscoter says. So far, he’s found three cultivars in the Burns orchard that were believed to be long gone.
Burns never returned to apple farming. He bounced between manual labor jobs for a while before opening a general store in 1909. His biography is available at Find a Grave, which is where Benscoter found it. A few minutes after seeing Burns’ name scrawled on the 1895 plat map, Benscoter was looking at a photo of Burns himself on his online memorial — a mild, respectable-looking man with round, Harry Potter-esque glasses and a wide mustache.
“Originally, I was just looking for the fruit itself, but then it kind of went another way,” Benscoter admits. He’s finding the stories of lost people, too.
Lindsay Gasik is a travel blogger for the durian-obsessive website Year of the Durian and author of The Durian Tourist’s Guide to Penang.