Remembering Adams’ Apples

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Jill TeunisNelson Kane of Bendersville
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Jill TeunisApple
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Jill TeunisApple
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Jill TeunisPainting in Adams County Fruit Growers Associatio
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Jill TeunisSuperior corn planter
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Jill TeunisA cider press from the 1880's

Photos by Jill Teunis

Thousands of acres of fruit trees covered with delicate pink blossoms, the only sounds heard among the rolling hills are those of gentle breezes and humming bees. The tranquility of the scene is in stark contrast to the echoes of the Civil War fought among these same hills 140 years ago. A springtime tour through the apple orchards of Adams County in southern Pennsylvania is an experience not to be forgotten.

In the rural community of Biglerville, just a few miles from Gettysburg, sits a bank barn built in 1858. Inside it, the Biglerville Historical and Preservation Society has established a small but informative museum on the second floor that follows the history of the local apple industry from its simple beginnings in the 1700s to today’s big name processors. ‘This is a grassroots group dedicated to the preservation of history,’ says Dick Mountfort, the society’s president. ‘I moved here six years ago, after retiring from the Environmental Protection Agency. I have the time and the interest to keep (the) history of one and two hundred years ago alive, so modern generations can see how this industry progressed.’

The museum, established in 1990, features machinery from the early days of the apple processing industry, as well as apple-picking equipment, sprayers and cider presses. There are early deeds printed on sheepskin and old photos taken of local families employed in the fields and on the production line.

According to Dick, 19th century farmers discovered through experience that the area was conducive to fruit growing.

‘The climate, the topography and the soil are all perfect for apples,’ he said. ‘These factors are all central. There’s a cold period for dormancy. The hillsides reduce killing frosts and the soil is well drained. They found all this out by mistake.’               

Dan Ball, Don Horst and Nelson Kane are all area residents whose lives have been closely intertwined with the apple industry. They now give time from their retirement years to spread the word on how apples became such an integral part of Adams County. Don grew up on a fruit farm and worked for the well-known applesauce maker Musselman’s (now a division of Knouse Foods). Nelson was born and raised in the area, worked on a fruit farm and also worked for Musselman’s as a horticulturist. Dan worked 35 years for Rice, Trew and Rice, a local company that made packaging materials for the fruit industry.

‘In the 19th century all the farmers grew apples, vegetables and grains,’ Dan said. ‘The average farm was not more than 100 acres. Fruit and vegetables were sold in farmers markets in every little town round here. People bought them and did their own canning. They still do it today. The farmers also pressed apples to make hard cider.’

To ensure a good apple harvest, a lot of work had to be done in the spring and summer.

‘Scab was the disease to watch for,’ Nelson said. ‘And San Jose scale. They used copper compounds and sulfur for spraying in those days. You spray in March and April when the sap flows and the buds swell – when the leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear. In early times they sprayed only once or twice a year.’

Cross-pollination was encouraged by cutting branches of different varieties of apple blossoms and putting them in tubs of water under the trees. Apples also had to be thinned out by hand to promote larger size.

‘They were pruned out when the fruit was as big as a walnut,’ Don said. ‘Now they spray them with a hormone spray to thin them out. At the turn of the century the biggest trees had the most apples. They propped up the very big ones with saplings cut from the woods. You couldn’t mow after that. Everything had to be done with a scythe.’

Apple growing required hundreds of hours of hard physical labor. Harvest season ran from July to the beginning of November, with 60 percent of the fruit ready for picking in October. Trees were 20 and 30 feet tall with ‘widowmaker’ ladders in common use. Pickers carried specially designed canvas bags on their shoulders. It took a good picker less than two minutes to fill the bag, so trips up and down the ladder were almost continuous.

In the years before World War I, the bags were emptied onto tables and immediately packed tightly into two and a half-bushel barrels to be shipped direct to European markets. In later years other methods were used but the labor intensity was the same.

‘The main variety of apple was York Imperial,’ Don said. ‘Prior to World War I, the markets were good in Europe. When the railroad opened here in 1884 it opened the way to the ports, and the freshly picked apples could be shipped out. The Yorks were popular because they traveled well. Their high sugar content makes them hard.’ Other varieties popular at the time included Ben Davis, Black Twig, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Jonathan, Nonesuch, Hubbardson and Transparent. Nelson recalled apple-picking in the 1930s.

‘They emptied the bags into bushel crates that were on horse-drawn wagons,’ he said. ‘The wagons carried as many bushels as the horses could handle. You had a book of tickets. One ticket stayed with the box and one you kept. You were paid at the end of the season. Sometimes you picked for color or you picked the biggest ones, but in the main season you picked them all.’

Highlights will include free bus tours of the orchards, which are usually in bloom during festival week. Agricultural displays by nurseries, fruit growers and fruit processors will be shown both days in the auditorium. The National Apple Museum will have a display booth, and the 2001 Adams County Apple Queen will be crowned on Sunday afternoon.

Other attractions include free antique tractor-pulled wagon rides, antique hit-and-miss gas engines and hundreds of crafters selling a variety of homemade items. Special activities for children include a magic balloon show, apple bobbing and an apple pie eating contest. Free musical entertainment is planned both days and the Carroll County Cloggers will perform. For more information, call the Adams County Fruit Growers Association at (717) 677-7444 or the Gettysburg Travel Council at (717)334-6274.

The Adams County Fruit Growers Association’s annual National Apple Harvest Festival’s held at South Mountain Fairgrounds, Arendtsville, on Oct. 6-7 and Oct. 13-14. Attractions include antique gas engines, an operating shingle mill, a mini tractor pull, antique autos and farm equipiment.

The apple industry developed in the early years of the 20th century. A Mennonite named C.H. Musselman moved to the area from Lancaster, Pa. After setting up a vegetable-processing plant, he turned his attention to apples.

‘The processors didn’t waste anything,’ Nelson said. ‘They canned apples and made applesauce. They pressed the peel and cores and made vinegar. The debris, called pomace, they used for fertilizer. It could also be used to make pectin, a setting agent for jelly.’

Apples were sorted according to size and condition, with the best ones sent directly to market. Each bushel basket was stamped with the brand name of the apple and the name of the grower. The rest were run through electric-powered peelers, corers and slicers operated and supervised by women from the area.

Today the fruit growers of Adams County produce more than 7 million bushels each year from more than 20,000 acres of orchards that also produce peaches, cherries and pears. The fruit is still processed at plants in the area before being shipped all over the world.

The National Apple Museum is located at 154 W. Hanover Street, Biglerville, Pa. 17307. It is open to visitors from April to October, Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays noon to 5 p.m. Tours can be arranged by appointment. Call 717-677-4556.

Jill Teunis is a regular contributor to Farm Col

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