The noblest of fruit - Glimpses of the past with Karen Webster
What do the words Maitland, Taylor Fish, Early Joe and Rhode Island Greenling mean to you? If you said that the answer is “What are the names of some of the apple varieties grown in Huron County in the 1880s?” you would be correct. Only a few of the varieties grown in that time period, such as Northern Spy, Harvest, and St. Lawrence, are still in existence today.
In 1881, the Provincial government conducted a Royal Commission on the state of Agriculture, drawing on the testimony of representatives of various commodities. It was found that apples were the most popular and most widely grown of any fruit. At that time, 84 apple varieties were named in the categories of summer, fall and winter, although it was felt that some individual varieties were known by more than one name.
Producers of apples grew them for sale in markets in the summer, ,but by winter were shipping them. The supply was exceeding demand at that time, and the producers were looking to the expansion of rail service and a new method of drying the fruit as ways of improving their businesses.
Apples are fine for immediate use, but are perishable after a while, so methods of preserving them were devised before the advent of refrigeration and freezing.
Early pioneers would peel apples and cut them into chunks that would then be threaded onto a string. These strings of apples would be hung from the ceiling, where the heat of the room would eventually dry them. The apples could be later reconstituted with water for use in pies, cobblers and stews called compotes.
It is difficult to imagine the scope of the apple industry in our local area many decades ago. Most every farm would have an orchard, not only of apples, but other fruits as well. Marketing of apples and apple products was big business at one time, employing many people. Many tons of fall and winter apples were packed in barrels destined for Great Britain and other countries in Europe. Some old photos show large crews of men, and the barrels they had packed, in front of the large apple trees. Picking would have been done using long ladders. In Brussels, in 1909, Alf Baeker was one person who advertised for boys to pick apples. All of those apples were shipped in barrels and thus the cooperages of the area were kept busy.
The drying of apples opened up new markets for apples. Most of our area towns and villages had evaporator plants. In Brussels, the Mahler plant had processed 2,000 bushels of apples by Sept. 16, 1898 and they were willing to purchase “all that were offered”. Later, John Cunningham was in the same business. Auburn apple evaporation was done by Alfred Asquith and in Clinton, in 1896, by Mr. Case who, at one time, processed 300 bushels of apples a day and employed 30 workers. In Blyth, Isaac Brown ran an evaporator plant on the northeast corner of Queen and Hamilton Streets. By 1894, another plant, operated by Jackson and Allen, and later Allen and Stothers, was built further south in the village.
At an evaporator plant, a machine operator would attach the apple to a mechanical devise that would peel and core the apples. They would be passed down a trough to the trimmers, which sliced the fruit crosswise. If there were six peeling machines, then 18 people would be employed in this phase. The apple slices would then go through a chemical bleaching bath to prevent discolouration.
Following this, the slices would be spread on wooden slats above hot furnaces. The furnaces used coke rather than coal so that the apples would not be discoloured. Firemen stoked the furnaces and also used large flat shovels to turn the apples for uniform drying.
It took almost 24 hours to dry the apples. The dried apples were sold locally or would be packed for shipping to dealers who sent the apples to European markets. Evaporator plants ran through the fall and winter until the supply of apples was processed.
Unfortunately, many apple evaporator plants succumbed to fires as a result of the flammable materials and constant fires needed to run those businesses.
Lower quality apples and windfalls were used to make apple cider, apple butter and apple jelly. Alexander McCreight ran such a business in Blyth.
For several decades, the production of apples and their products provided much work and revenue for not only Huron County, but much of southern Ontario as well. However, a particularly hard winter in 1934 changed that. The low temperatures on Friday, Feb. 9, 1934 were recorded as -44˚F in Wingham, -53˚F in Lucknow and -52˚F (-46.7˚C) in Gorrie. The sap in the fruit trees froze and expanded, causing the bark to burst. In Andrew Sloan’s 10-acre orchard, just north of Blyth, only 46 trees, sheltered by a windbreak of Austrian pine trees, were saved. Among the trees destroyed were those bearing “Sloan’s Spy”, a variety developed by Sloan himself.
The local apple industry declined because of many factors: plant diseases, shortages of labour, pressure from other apple producing areas and weather. Today, Canada ranks 31st in the world in apple production.
It is felt that monoculture of only a few select varieties of apples that are found in our stores these days is not wise, and there are some organizations, notably at the University of Guelph, that are trying to find and grow some of the older varieties of apples. Perhaps some day, people can again enjoy the taste of a Cayuga Red Streak or a Golden Sweet apple.