Americans loved apple orchards in the 19th century (and we still do!). Apple blossoms in the spring, apple picking in the fall, cider making, and apples served every which way have all helped to make the American apple orchard a cultural phenomenon. It’s no wonder that Robert and Maria Bartow had an orchard on their country estate. Now, Bartow-Pell has a new one, reimagined for the 21st century.
“No words can describe the beauty of an American apple-orchard,” wrote the Bartows’ neighbor James Bolton in his delightful 1859 memoir Brook Farm: The Amusing and Memorable of American Country Life. “The trees, some old and gnarled, some young and dandified, stood in rows as straight as a street.” The Bolton family had two orchards: “Each had its share of hill and valley, each its home and distant landscape; the nearest overlooked the farmhouse and buildings, the furthest, the river meadows.”
Bartow-Pell’s new orchard is situated in a woodland clearing between the mansion and Bartow Creek. The neatly planted rows recall the estate’s 19th-century orchard, which bordered the road on the north side and was catty-cornered from the new one. (Long-term changes in the landscape required planting the trees in a different location.)
We can see a snapshot of orchards belonging to the Bartow family and their neighbors in 1885 on a map in the New York Public Library. Twenty years later—after the City of New York had converted the former private estates into parkland—another map shows that the local orchards were starting to disappear. Eventually, none were left.
In spring 2019, landscape architect Mark K. Morrison—who oversaw Bartow-Pell’s formal garden restoration in 2013—planted thirteen apple trees and two pear trees. Heirloom varieties are Malus Stayman and Malus Baldwin apples and Bartlett (or Williams’ Bon Chrétien) pears. Other cultivars were selected for a number of reasons, including availability, flavor, and cost, so that the project would stay within budget. “We chose the Granny Smith (first grown in Australia in 1868) because it’s well known for making pies,” explains Morrison. “The Rome is a great cooking apple, which originated in Rome township, Ohio, in the early 19th century, and the Liberty is a hybrid apple developed in New York State.” Suncrisp, Mutsu, and Honeycrisp apples—which were all introduced in the 20th century—round out the group. “These three varieties are absolutely delicious eating apples and are more readily available if someone wants to purchase a tree for their own property.” Some trees will bear fruit this year.
Apple blossoms transform orchards into a sensory feast. “About the middle of May they [the apple trees] were in full blossom,” James Bolton recalled. “We compared them to a large bridal party promenading whilst the bells rang merry peals; or a crowd of white-dressed girls dancing on the village green. Then every sniff of air was heavy with honied odors.” Naturally, spring orchards were the perfect setting for romance. The blooms also inspired poetry, prose, and songs in the 19th century, when Americans enjoyed works such as Apple Blossoms: A Novel (1886), poems like “Apple-Blossom Time” (1878), and songs like “Down among the Apple Blossoms” (1872).
During fall apple-picking season in October 1884, gossipmongers thrilled when the Bartow orchard apparently played a part in a peculiar episode that involved Mary Grote, a young German servant, “about 20 years of age,” who went missing from a nearby farm and was later found unharmed in a hayloft. The New York Times followed the story:
Yesterday morning she went to the apple orchard, three-quarters of a mile from the farmhouse and across the track of the Harlem River branch of the New-Haven Railroad, with Ben, a son of Mr. May, and a farm hand named George. They all returned to the house at noon with a load of apples. After dinner Mary . . . left, as all supposed, for the orchard. . . . When the boys reached the orchard . . . Mary was not there. It was thought that she had gone for chestnuts, but when the boys returned to the house at dusk, with their fragrant load, she was not there.
Pomologists have recorded that in the 19th century there were thousands of North American apple varieties that came in many sizes, shapes, and colors. However, only a fraction of those are grown today. A favorite 19th-century apple—the Newtown Pippin—has become somewhat hard to find, but in 1845, it was a different story. “The American or Newtown Pippin is now pretty generally admitted to be the finest apple in the world,” wrote Andrew Jackson Downing in The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America. “On the Hudson, thousands of barrels of the fairest and richest Newtown pippins are constantly produced.” This variety was first grown during Colonial times in Newtown—now Elmhurst—in present-day Queens and was highly valued for its delectable flavor. Even Queen Victoria was a big fan. However, as unblemished fruit has become more important to producers and consumers, Pippins—with skin that is prone to russeting—have been largely pushed aside for varieties such as Granny Smith.
New York State has long been known for its hard cider, which was especially popular with the working classes in the 19th century and is now making a resurgence. (Like today, it was also used to make cider vinegar.) Not surprisingly, the temperance movement disapproved. “Intemperance is a dreadful evil, and even wine and cider are dangerous,” warns a character in Hard Cider: A Temperance Sketch (1880). Sweet (non-alcoholic) cider was even considered taboo by some followers of the movement because “it is impossible to tell the exact point when fermentation commences,” cautioned one of the essayists in the Centennial Temperance Volume (1876). They didn’t take any chances, did they?
Apples appeared on the family table in many different forms. For example, dessert apples—such as the Newtown Pippin—were often enjoyed as fresh fruit at the end of a meal. According to Andrew Jackson Downing, “The finest sorts [of apples] are much esteemed for the dessert. . . . As the earliest sorts ripen about the last of June, and the latest can be preserved until that season, it may be considered as a fruit in perfection the whole year.” He went on: “Besides its merits for the dessert, the value of the apple is still greater for the kitchen, and in sauces, pies, tarts, preserves, and jellies, and roasted and boiled, this fruit is the constant and invaluable resource of the kitchen.” Period cookbooks abound with “receipts” for apple dumplings, apple jelly, apple pancakes, apple fool, apple fritters, pork apple pie, apple à la Turque, and on and on.
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” runs the old adage. And, indeed, the health benefits of the apple were highly valued in the 19th century. A. J. Downing got right to the point: “It is exceedingly wholesome, and, medicinally, is considered cooling, and laxative, and useful in all inflammatory diseases.” In December 1860, the Health Department column in Arthur’s Home Magazine encouraged families to eat apples:
If taken freely at breakfast with coarse bread and butter . . . it has an admirable effect on the general system . . . more effectually than the most approved medicines. If families could be induced to substitute the apple, sound, ripe, and luscious, for the pies, cakes, candies, and other sweetmeats with which their children are too often indiscreetly stuffed, there would be a diminution in the sum total of doctors’ bills in a single year, sufficient to lay in a stock of this delicious fruit for a whole season’s use.
The columnist mused, “Why every farmer in the nation has not an apple-orchard where the trees will grow at all, is one of the mysteries.”
People were not the only ones to enjoy eating apples. Downing wrote:
The recent practice of fattening hogs, horses, and other animals upon sweet apples accounts for the much greater number of varieties. . . . In fact, so excellent has the saccharine matter of the apple been found for this purpose, that whole orchards of sweet apples are frequently planted here for the purposes of fattening swine and cattle, which are allowed to run at large in them (1855).
James Bolton paints a vivid picture of a barnyard dash with apples as the trophy. “As the fruit ripens, the pigs are turned in to eat up the windfalls. The geese and turkeys, too, are fond of a peck at them. . . . When an apple drops, ears are pricked, and they race off, pigs, geese and turkeys, pell-mell towards the spot. The first in has the prize—that is, if he can keep it.”
We are very excited about sharing our 21st-century orchard with Bartow-Pell’s visitors. What better way to promote sustainability, healthy eating, history, and the beauty of nature than through the simple pleasures of the orchard?
Margaret Highland, Historian