Some years back, a young reporter with the Cortez Journal wrote an article about the work we were doing to find and preserve fruit genetics in our area. Her story got picked up by the AP and reprinted in the Durango Herald.
Shortly after that, there was a message on our back-line answering machine. The voice sounded old but bright and determined. Her name was Maxine Welch, she lived in Cedar Hill, N.M., and she had an apple tree, perhaps the last one left alive, a Cedar Hill Black. Though I listened to that message about 40 times, I could barely make out her name; her phone number was crackled and broken.
It is not unusual for people to call us with stories of trees, sometimes planted by their grandparents 20 years ago, sometimes planted by their grandparents 100 years ago. And while the textiles of all of these trees, and orchards, and people, are deeply important to us, our time is limited and we are able to know but few of them.
That spring I tried to find Maxine Welch and her Cedar Hill Black but was unable to, though her insistent voice stayed on my mind. All goose chases begin somewhere but that spot is not always easy to find.
One day someone brought in a photo from a paper. It was a picture of a very oldlooking apple tree, thick trunk, large branches, a Cedar Hill Black owned by Mrs. Maxine Welch. Here was that tree again, but the photo came to us in summer, and again, our time was tight.
A problem that we had with the Cedar Hill Black was that there was no record of it existing anywhere. It may have been a forgotten tree that oddly enough wound up in Cedar Hill, N.M., or it could have been a chance seedling from Cedar Hill that someone decided to name after the town. Once upon a time in America, say by the mid to late 1800s, there were as many as 18,000 different varieties of apple trees in existence. The best guess now puts that number at about 6,000. When the early orchardists started planting fruit here in the Montezuma Valley, they were at the end of the era of great genetic diversity. Many of the earliest 1890 orchards here had 20 to 40 different varieties of apples. Early in the 1900s, the number of varieties in the typical newly planted orchard here dropped to three or four: the Red Delicious, the Jonathan, Rome Beauty, and some Golden Delicious.
Of course, “typical” is a relative term in Montezuma County, and in a place like this, where a lot of people knew how to graft, quite a lot of diversity remained. All of those thousands of apple varieties before 1898 came originally from chance seedlings; Old McDonald had a farm and on that farm he had an apple tree that was grown from seed intentionally for cider or baking or unintentionally from a bird dropping a seed, a skunk pooping a seed, young Billy Bob McDonald throwing his apple core, etc.
Most of those seedling trees produce apples that are known as spitters: take a bite and spit it out, good only for cider and hogs. But occasionally one of those seedling apples will produce a quality fruit, good fresh or a good keeper, a good baker or an early harvest. That tree would then be clonally propagated and passed around the local community or occasionally the greater country.
An apple’s ability to survive depended upon, once discovered, its ability to thrive and maintain its positive characteristics in many places. Of course it had to be of good quality to start. Old McDonald had a seedling tree that he thought produced highquality fruit, so he grafted cuttings from the tree and named it after his beloved wife. The problem was that no one else liked the Mrs. Old McDonald apple, so it died off.
A few years after the first article was written about us, a different reporter wrote another story with similar results. This time we got a call from a retired schoolteacher in Durango that liked history and liked apples. A cousin of hers had in fact written a book, “Old Southern Apples.”
Oh, yes, I know that book, I said, Lee Calhoon’s work is one of the classics in the apple canon. Somehow our conversation turned to the Cedar Hill Black. She knew of it and had mentioned it to Mr. Calhoon. A chance seedling is what he thought, something local to there.
Last year through a series of even-more improbable events, we were able to locate the Colorado Orange apple. Mr. Paul Telck, keeper of the Colorado Orange, sent me a packet of information which included a 1920s survey by the Fremont County Extension office listing all fruit varieties from all orchards in the Cañon City area.
Imagine my surprise when there on the page in front of me was a listing for the Cedar Hill Black.
Jude Schuenemeyer is co-owner of Let It Grow Garden Nursery and Café in Cortez, Colo.