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OPINION | REX NELSON: An apple-growing state

by Rex Nelson | September 29, 2021 at 3:00 a.m.

A.utumn has arrived, and that has me thinking about apples.

When I was the Arkansas Democrat's Washington correspondent in the late 1980s, my Saturday routine in the fall consisted of driving west out of the nation's capital on Interstate 66 to Front Royal, Va. I hiked trails along Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Park in the morning and then spent the afternoon at apple orchards. I returned to Washington with everything from fresh apples to apple cider to apple butter.

Fall Saturdays are taken up with college football these days, and Arkansas doesn't have many apple orchards. At the start of the 20th century, though, the two leading apple-growing counties in the country were Benton and Washington counties in northwest Arkansas.

Early white settlers to Arkansas brought apple seeds with them. The Arkansas Gazette reported in 1822 that apples were being grown on the farm of James Sevier Conway west of Little Rock.

"The influx of settlers into Washington County was of such magnitude that the U.S. government was forced to abrogate the Lovely Treaty of 1817, which gave this land to the Cherokee," Roy Curt Rom wrote for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Most homesteads had kitchen orchards for family use. Nurseries were established at Cane Hill in 1835 and Bentonville in 1836 to meet the need for apple trees. Others followed.

"Excess production from expansion of kitchen orchards was sold to freighters, who hauled apples to distant markets in open wagons. In 1852, a wagon train to Van Buren delivered apples to be sent by boat to Little Rock."

Railroad construction in the late 1800s made it far easier to ship apples, and large commercial orchards were planted across northwest Arkansas from 1880-1920. Looking for additional shipping business, railroad officials promoted the development of orchards.

"Along with the great orchard expansion, supporting industries developed," Rom wrote. "These included barrel making, apple drying, juice distilling, packing sheds and ice-making plants. Barrels, manufactured locally, held 140 pounds of fruit and were packed in the orchards for shipping. As late as 1919, 60 percent of the crop was packed in barrels and shipped as green apples, although switching to boxes had been advocated about 10 years earlier.

"The apple-drying business, utilizing low-grade fruit, became the largest employer in the area by 1901. An estimated 250 evaporators were in existence, with the largest being the Kimmons-Walker plant in Springdale. The 1906 Wiley Pure Food Act seriously curtailed this heretofore unregulated business. By 1920, drying was an almost-extinct business. In 1895, there were 47 distilleries in the area, producing brandy and vinegar."

An ice-making plant was established at Fayetteville in 1895 to provide ice for shipping and a cold storage facility for recently harvested apples. The first agricultural bulletin from what's now the University of Arkansas in 1886 dealt with apples.

"The Arkansas State Horticultural Society, catering primarily to apple growers since 1900, held annual meetings in the area for discussion and dissemination of knowledge in orchard culture," Rom wrote. "Apple varieties played a significant role in the successes and failures of the orchard industry. The Ben Davis variety, introduced from Tennessee, was the leading variety from 1889-1930, though it was not recommended for planting after 1905 because of its poor eating quality and low price return to growers."

Varieties grown in northwest Arkansas included the Shannon Pippin, Red Streak, Ada Red, Gano, Coffelt, Etris, Mammoth Black Twig and Arkansas Black. The Arkansas Black has made a comeback in recent years among apple connoisseurs. It's believed to have been first produced in 1870 in an orchard northwest of Bentonville.

"The fruit, a variety of Winesap, is usually round and of medium size," the late John Ragsdale of El Dorado wrote in an essay on the Arkansas Black. "The flesh is yellow, fine grained, crisp, juicy and aromatic while the skin is dark red to black, hence its name. It ripens in October or November, and the fruit keeps well through the storage season of two to four months.

"There were few large orchards of Arkansas Blacks, but in the late 1800s, the Arkansas Black may have made up 10 to 15 percent of the state's apple production. By 1920, the codling moth infestation required spraying, which made growing the apples more expensive. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration required washing apples to remove spray residue, and this also increased expenses."

The state's first modern cidery, which is on Emma Avenue in downtown Springdale, is named Black Apple Crossing in honor of this apple.

The Legislature declared the apple blossom to be the state flower in 1901. A woman from Searcy named Love Barton presented each legislator with a bright red apple and pleaded with them to support the bill.

"An exhibit of Arkansas apples won first prize at the Centennial Fair in Philadelphia in 1876," Rom wrote. "In 1900, the Arkansas Black won first prize at an exhibition in Paris. Arkansas apples at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1905 won in all major categories."

The 1929 onset of the Great Depression and the Great Drought of 1930-31 helped bring about the demise of Arkansas' apple industry. The state had grown almost 5 million bushels of apples in 1919. That was down to less than 2 million bushels in 1935 and less than 250,000 bushels annually by the 1960s.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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