For the Love of Apple (Jack) – A Little Apple History
Ever heard of Ben Davis, the Northern Spy or Maiden’s Blush? No, these are not the characters of some literary novel of intrigue – they were apple varieties that were likely once grown and harvested in Chester’s great orchards.[i] (Since writing this I have found out that Riamede Farm on Oakdale Rd. in Chester still grows Northern Spy.)
Without a doubt, one of the great gifts of nature is the apple tree. Many people do not realize it, but the apple from which the old farmers derived so many varieties (and that we enjoy in so many forms) did not grow wild in North America. S.A. Beach tells us that, “When early European settlers came to this country, they brought apple seeds and grafted trees from the Old World.” The only apple tree the colonists found growing wild in the New World was the crab.[ii]
It is not known for sure who first cultivated apples in the English- speaking colonies of North America. Some say it may have been Governor Endecott of Massachusetts sometime in the 1630’s,[iii] but a Mr. Smith wrote in 1963, “The first named variety in America; it was introduced by the Reverend William Blaxton around 1640 as Blaxton’s Yellow Sweeting. Blaxton originally planted an orchard in Boston around 1625…”[iv]
Years ago, Chester historian, Ed Collis remarked that the area from Chester to Dover “was one great apple orchard.”[v] Other varieties that were grown here probably included the Orange Pippin, Coddling’s McIntosh, Fall Pippin, Jonathan, and the Twenty Ounce Pound Sweet. Another one, the Baldwin was developed in the 1750’s by a Mrs. Butters of Boston. [vi] [vii]
While no one knows for sure who planted the first apple tree in Chester, it surely must have been one of those hardy, enterprising settlers who came here from Long Island in the 1730’s. Back when this untamed area was called Black River, the best way to start an apple orchard was to arrive with a pouch full of apple seeds. Of course, the land had to be cleared first to make way for an orchard.
When French immigrant Theophile Cazenove visited Black River in 1794 he wrote in his journal that,
“The hollows between the hills make fairly good pasture; especially … many large orchards of apple trees…. An acre of land, planted with from 65 to 70 apple trees, 20 feet apart, produces in good years 250 bushels of apples. This great produce encourages every farmer to enlarge his orchard.”
The apple tree was truly a generous gift from the Creator and Chester’s early settlers made good use of it. One of the most important products they made from apples was cider. This was not the freshly pressed (and now pasteurized) sweet cider we normally think of, but rather, cider that was fermented in barrels, turning the sugars to alcohol. Alcohol content of this bubbly drink probably varied from about five to eight percent. For most of the first two centuries of this country’s existence, it was America’s popular drink.
“Newark, in New Jersey, is reputed one of the most famous places in America for its cider. The cider apple most celebrated there is the Harrison apple, a native fruit…” — William Kenrick, The New American Orchardist, Boston, 1842
Money was scarce and cider was often used in trade to pay for goods and services. “Men, women and children drank it daily with meals because they considered it healthful and safer than water from unprotected sources.”[viii]
Like many Americans of his period, John Lambert (1746-1823), of Hunterdon County preferred to drink cider at his meals. Lambert was a gentleman farmer who grew apples on his plantation near present-day Lambertville. He was also elected to serve one term as a U.S. Senator. Writing home to his brother from his boarding house in Washington City in 1809 he explained,
“I miss my cyder, for I don’t drink beer and that is our table drink. … I [wrote] home for some apples & cyder to be sent.…. have heard from Mrs. Lambert that she sent it on immediately to the ferry to be put on board Pidcock’s boat, but that is the last I have heard, and now that the cold is set in I give up all expectation of hearing any more of it.”[ix]
But from a letter to his granddaughter written less than four months later is revealed the happy outcome,
“Dear Susan, I am obliged to you for your good wishes on account of my apples & cyder. My barrel of apples is almost gone….One barrel of cyder is drank up and Myers hath been drawing on the other….Genl. Cox says it is the very thing; he thinks it some of the best kind, it sparkels when it is poured into the glass, and like old cheese it is sharp to the taste.” [x]
While visiting Black River, Cazenove noted that the farmer “generally distills his cider.”This distilled cider was spirituous liquor variously known as apple brandy, apple jack or Jersey Lightening. Cazenove observed,
“Since Jersey farmers have started to distill their cider, it is impossible to get any of it unless you pay what the distillery pays them…. There is a great export of spirits of cider to New York, and from there to the south; and the excise, instead of stopping the distilleries, has attracted attention to the advantages of this manner of making the best of this poor ground [which is] so good for apple trees.”
Unfortunately, the growing popularity of apple jack took its toll on those who abused it. After attending the gathering of farmers held every Saturday at Drake’s crossroad’s tavern, Cazenove remarked that the “weather was very bad and the night dark, which, with bad roads and heavy drinking, [was] the cause of numerous accidents.” Thus, history tells us that the problem of drinking and driving (or even riding, or walking) is not a modern one.
Dr. Benjamin Rush[xi], a signer of the Declaration of Independence from Philadelphia who had so many ties to New Jersey was one of the original instigators of the Temperance Movement that by the end of the 1820’s had swept across much of the United States. While writing to his friend Jeremy Belknap in 1788 he observed that, “Spirituous liquors give way in every part of the United States to beer and cider.” Although Rush was hopeful he warned, “We must not relax in our publications against them. The perseverance as well as the arm of Hercules will be necessary to expel those monsters from our country.”
Rush even went so far as to consider mild fermented cider as being a patriotic or “Federal” drink. By contrast he likened distilled spirits such as apple jack or apple brandy to being “Antifederal” and “companions of all those vices that are calculated to dishonor and enslave our country.”
End of Part I
[i] Ella W. Mockridge, Our Mendham, 1961.
[ii] S.A. Beach, The Apples of New York, 1905.
[iii] Judy M. Wilson: http://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/pdf/mgtguide/ch07_managing_abandoned_orchards.pdf, April 2015.
[iv] Archibald William Smith, A Gardener’s Book of Plant Names, 1963.
[v] Frances Greenidge, Chester, New Jersey, A Scrapbook of History, 1974.
[vi] Ella W. Mockridge.
[viii] Cornell University: http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/apples/cider.htm, April, 2015.
[ix] John Lambert’s letter to Gershom Lambert, December 18, 1809 – Brian & Cindy Murphy collection.
[x] John Lambert to Susan Hoppock, March 27, 1810 – collection of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania
[xi] Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), a graduate of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton U.) married Julia Stockton, the daughter of Richards Stockton, Esq. of Princeton, who was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence.