Apples and honeybees, those frontier necessities

I read some time ago that kindergarten teachers have been using apples to teach their students about a variety of things from math to health. And, of course, one of the fellows they learn about at the same time is Johnny Appleseed.

In the 1950s, Walt Disney produced an animated film and a Golden Book about Johnny Appleseed that depicted him as a simple fellow who traveled the American frontier of the late 1700s and early 1800s barefoot and with a saucepan for a hat planting apple trees for the enjoyment of the settlers.

But like many historical subjects, Johnny Appleseed’s activities were both more complicated and arguably more important than the Disney folks and popular mythology suggest.

When the earliest Europeans arrived in North America, they found a lack of two important staples: Apple trees and honeybees. While there were plenty of native bees, none of them were the variety that Europeans depended on to produce honey, which was a main source of sweetening and for fine candle wax. While some native apple trees existed here, they weren’t the varieties Europeans needed that provided enough juice to make cider. Cider was both a staple beverage and the source of vinegar needed to preserve meat, fruits, and vegetables.

So honeybees and apple seedlings were among the first things the earliest colonists imported to North America from their former homes in England, France, and Holland. The bees quickly made their escape from hives in settlements along the East Coast and soon spread west well in advance of European settlement. Native Americans quickly found the industrious insects—which they called the “white man’s bird”—manufactured some very useful things, one of which tasted really good. But apple trees could not spread on their own. Instead, seedlings and cuttings were first carried to western forts and fur trade posts by the French military as a scurvy preventative as well as a source of cider and vinegar. Later, fur traders and British settlers further spread apple culture. But in general, as settlers pushed ever farther west, they found no apple trees, which was a big problem when food needed to be preserved by pickling. Along with drying and salting, pickling was the safest way for our ancestors to preserve food.

John Chapman would become the legendary Johnny Appleseed.

One of several historical markers in the state of Ohio honoring John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman, who spread apple trees all the way west to Indiana.

One of Kendall County's few remaining Minkler Apple trees is shown in this April 2010 photo. Minkler trees are still available from a few heirloom orchardists.

One of Kendall County’s few remaining Minkler Apple trees is shown in this April 2010 photo taken at the old Ament farm in Kendall Township. Minkler trees are still available from a few heirloom orchardists.

Enter John Chapman.

Born about 1774 in Massachusetts, Chapman became convinced his mission in life was to plant apple trees. He collected seeds—thus his nickname, “Johnny Appleseed”—from cider presses in Pennsylvania and used them to plant apple orchards as he slowly made his way west through Ohio. He eventually reached as far west as Indiana, where he died in 1845 near Ft. Wayne, a respected if somewhat eccentric frontier character (he really was a true eccentric and favored saucepan hats, just like the illustrations in that Golden Book). Because of his activities, the settlers that began arriving in ever larger numbers in the Old Northwest Territory (the land lying north and west of the Ohio River) found ready-made apple orchards already growing in Ohio and Indiana when they arrived.

Not that the apple trees growing from Chapman’s seeds were all the best quality, of course. It is unlikely an apple tree grown from the seed of a fruit will turn out to be the same variety as the tree that produced the seed. But once in a while, the seeds did breed true and create a useful tree. And even the unusable saplings were useful as the base for grafts from good varieties. And that was especially true given the number of orchards Chapman planted during his lifetime.

Here in Illinois, though, it was a different story than areas farther east. Chapman didn’t make much of a dent here in the Prairie State, so when settlers started arriving in large numbers in the late 1830s and early 1840s, there were no apple trees available for them to use to produce cider and vinegar. This both taxed the ingenuity of the settlers and provided an opportunity for some of them as well.

Elvirah Walker Shumway and her husband James emigrated from Massachusetts to Kendall County in 1847. They settled near her brothers, Seth and Lauriston Walker, on a farm just east of the intersection of Douglas and Simons Road in Oswego Township. On their arrival, she found there was a serious lack of apple trees with which vinegar could be made. She didn’t let that stop her, though. In a letter written to her sister back in Massachusetts in September of 1847, she reported she had “two three gallon pots of pickles stewing—if you ask what I do for vinegar! Oh I use whiskey and water.” Which may help explain some of those crazy pioneer parties.

A nice selection of Minkler apples from Eastman's Antique Apples, Wheeler, Michigan. Minklers are large, juicy, and crisp, good for both eating and cider.

A nice selection of Minkler apples from Eastman’s Antique Apples, Wheeler, Michigan. Minklers are large, juicy, and crisp, good for both eating and cider.

Not that some apple trees hadn’t already been started here in Kendall County.

Peter Minkler and his extended family, including his grown son, Smith G. Minkler, arrived in Kendall County from Potter’s Hollow, Albany County, New York in 1833. One of the major shortages everyone had to deal with on the frontier was a lack of labor, and the younger Minkler earned money cutting wheat at $1.50 per day (a fair sum in the days when an acre of government land sold for $1.25) for Peter Specie, an early resident of French Canadian extraction who dabbled in farming, land, and furs. Minkler used a dollar of his wages to purchase four apple seedlings from Specie. Where Specie got the seedlings is unknown, but they might have come from Detroit where Specie apparently had both familial and economic connections. Minkler used those four trees as the basis of his first orchard, and thus became the county’s pioneer nurseryman. He went on to establish a renowned fruit orchard and developed the unique Minkler Apple, thanks in large part to Specie.

Later in the 1800s, apples became big business in Kendall County, with every town having at least one cider mill and vinegar making operation. The spread of honeybees, which are vital for pollination, meant that John Chapman and his cohorts successfully spread apple orchards west as the tide of settlement flowed reached the Illinois prairies. Later on, hard-working farmers and nurserymen like Smith Minkler assured that apples, those prosaic but vital fruits, would be available when needed.

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Filed under Environment, Farming, Food, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Science stuff

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