Apples are link to Down East history


BAR HARBOR — Todd Siebold-Little was looking for a way to teach College of the Atlantic students about local history and how to do original historical research when a friend gave him a book about apples.

“The book said that every single seed in every single apple on a tree is genetically distinct,” the COA history professor said. “That got me thinking about all the apple trees around here.” He thought about the sophisticated horticultural tradition that is part of each tree’s backstory.

“In 1850, we had 2,000 named varieties of apples in the United States. Now we have 28,000.” Grocery stores only carry about six varieties of apples; meanwhile, many people have apple trees on their property but don’t know what kind of apples they produce.

As a historian and anthropologist, Siebold-Little’s primary research is on colonial Guatemala. He uses arcane sources like parish records, he said, to tease out information about how colonial people thought about the different kinds of people in their diverse society.

He and his students use the same kinds of historical primary sources in his “History of Agriculture: Apples” class – things like U.S. Department of Agriculture records, historical atlases, census records, diaries and business records from commercial orchards.

“I had a student interview a 91-year-old woman in Orrington, and that led to our being able to identify the Northern Greening apple.”

“It exploded into this massive project” to identify Hancock County apple varieties, he said, and led to the development of a heritage orchard at the Peggy Rockefeller Farm in Bar Harbor. Siebold-Little consulted John Bunker of Super Chilly Farm in Palermo to get up to speed in apple science and history. COA students have worked as interns and apprentices with Bunker and his “Out on a Limb” heirloom apple project.

The research goes both directions on the history of local heirloom apple varieties: either working to identify the apples from a particular tree, or taking a variety named in historical records and looking for living examples of it.

They have worked with local historical societies around Hancock and Washington counties, and with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). Word has spread enough, Siebold-Little said, that he spends most of the three days of the Common Ground Country Fair each fall looking at apples that people bring him to identify. He and others developed “Wanted” posters for the fair with pictures of historical varieties they hoped to find.blake-apple

Apple trees from Europe probably first appeared in Maine in the 17th century, he said. “The French planted apples in Castine and Norridgewock. And in the 1620s, the English would have started planting them in what’s now southern Maine, around Saco.”

In the late 19th century, New England grew millions of apples for export to England as people there moved off their farms and into industrial centers. Ellsworth was home to 12 commercial orchards in 1850 and 84 orchards in 1880. “Cash on the barrelhead” for export apples was the order of the day, and Siebold-Little has several antique metal stencils once used to mark those barrels with the names of the apple varieties.

“The period from 1880 to 1931 was the heyday of diverse and well-documented apple production in New England,” he said. Then, in 1931, a big freeze killed an estimated 330,000 trees.

“That happens when it gets warm too early and the trees start pushing sap, but then gets very cold again and the trees freeze and die.”

Student projects in Siebold-Little’s class have included everything from apple chemistry, to a puppet show based on historical interviews, to botanical drawing.

One student, also studying bioinformatics at the MDI Biological Laboratory, dove into the intersection of apple genetics and history. Some researchers in Europe have sequenced the genes of apple varieties there.

“It would be possible to collect genetic material in leaves from an apple tree on an offshore island, where it has been isolated from bees,” he said, “identify genetic markers, and eventually be able to tell where it came from.”

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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