Taking a crunch at the core of Arkansas apple history


Austin Liu, News Editor, Reporter

Travelling across the fields of Northwest Arkansas farms, people can discern rows of plots of corn, cotton, sorghum, soybean, and a unique crop to the area that carries with it its own fascinating history- the apple. This month of October, the country recognizes the celebration of American history and culture affected by this fruit in National Apple Month. Northwest Arkansas, among many other regions in the state, is celebrating the importance and significance of the apple leaving an impact on its people.

When thinking historically, although the apple today does not hold such high spot in the agriculture of the region, it has been a profitable crop for this region in the past. In fact, Arkansas was known before as a state that yielded one of the highest productions of apples in the country. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas published that the history of the apple in the state began when “settlers arriving in Arkansas from Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Georgia brought apple seeds and scion wood with them”, and some of earliest apples were “being grown on the farm of James Sevier Conway west of Little Rock” in 1822.

However, one region in particular in the state, “ the Ozark Plateau region of northwest Arkansas”, was found to be “particularly suited for their culture. This area became the dominant region for apple production.” At the beginning of the growth of setting aside lands for apple trees, “nurseries were established at Cane Hill (Washington County) in 1835 and at Bentonville (Benton County) in 1836 to meet the need for apple trees; others followed.”

An important milestone for the fruit was achieved with the first commercial apple orchard in the state planted by a Cherokee woman near Maysville in Benton County. Later, “by 1880, apple production exceeded what freighters could haul, and most of the crop was wasted.” Farmers in the region grew so many apples that the region was nicknamed as the “Apple Belt of the Ozarks”. As more railroad lines and other types of transportation linked Northwest Arkansas with markets found far from the region, “acreage grew from a few hundred acres to many thousands, which by 1900 amounted to an estimated 40,000 acres in Benton County, based on tree counts, with only slightly smaller acreage in Washington County”. All these factors, therefore, led to these two counties known as “the two largest apple-producing counties in the United States.”

During the late nineteenth century, Arkansas apples began to win special prizes in contests outside the state, gaining national attention. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas stated, “An exhibit of Arkansas apples won first prize at the Centennial Fair in Philadelphia in 1876. In 1900, the Arkansas Black variety won first prize at an exhibition in Paris, France. Arkansas apples exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1905 won in all major categories.”

One of the largest and prominent industries involving apples in Northwest Arkansas was “the apple-drying business… by 1901. An estimated 250 evaporators were in existence, with the largest being the Kimmons-Walker Plant located in Springdale.” However,  the adoption of “the 1906 Wiley Pure Food Act seriously curtailed this… unregulated business; by 1920, drying was an almost extinct business.” Still, the region continued to maintain high levels of production of the fruit, opening “an ice-making plant…built in Fayetteville in 1895” that stored the large apple harvests that would be shipped by rail to other markets.

Around the beginning of the 1920’s decade, the apple growing industry passed its peak period that saw the popularity decrease as fewer apples were grown in Northwest Arkansas. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas wrote that “from a crop of over three million bushels in 1906 to record production of over five million bushels in 1919, production declined steadily to less than two million bushels in 1935 to crops of less than 250,000 bushels by the 1960s.”

As stated by the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, reasons for the shrinking apple production can be associated with the production of “poor varieties, … shipping poor-quality fruit, …diseases such as fire blight and Cedar Apple and Apple Scab fungal diseases, …failure to adapt to changing market demands, federal regulations, occasional crop failures, disparate shipping rates favoring West Coast apple regions, …and the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.”

Despite the dropping numbers of apples grown in the state, the fruit was able to leave such a large mark on the history of the state that the Arkansas General Assembly declared the apple blossom was the state flower symbol.

Another of the large impacts of this fruit on the history of the state is the breeding of more than 50 new varieties of apples originating from the state. However, the more well-known of all these apple types are the Mammoth Black Twig and the Arkansas Black. The origins, as stated by Century Farm Orchards, is not that clear as it could have been first been grown in Virginia, Tennessee, or Arkansas in the 1800’s. This apple is known for its resistance to many diseases that would otherwise be damaging to other apples, the ability of the tree of this apple to grow well even on poor soils, and the quality of its freshness for consumption. Its taste is tart with its color mainly red with some darker spots that are a mix of both red and green. and Orange Pippin reported that the Arkansas Black, the other of the two apples, was believed to have been introduced to the state in the 1840’s. It can be described as being fairly small and its shape as a round or conical; it would taste tart and crisp and its texture waxy. The famous feature of this apple is its darker coloration in that it blackens very quickly after it is stored.

Within in the state, towns and cities organized festivals and celebrations about the importance of the fruit for the state’s people. “The first Rogers Apple Blossom Festival was held in 1924 and featured a parade with floats from schools, clubs, civic organizations, and businesses. The 1926 festival drew over 30,000 people, many brought to Rogers from adjacent cities by special trains.”

Today, the Northwest Arkansas region town of Lincoln in Washington County hosts the Arkansas Apple Festival each year which has been celebrated since 1976. During this event, the more common activities for visitors participation is taking a trip to the more than 100 vendors in the square, sampling apple slices from different varieties of the fruit grown my different method, and joining in the apple core throwing contest. This year continued the tradition of years before of hosting the annual Arkansas Apple Festival with this year’s 42nd Annual Arkansas Apple Festival in downtown Lincoln. The activities this year occurred from Friday, Oct. 6 to Sunday, Oct. 8. This tradition of remembering the fruit that symbolized a large bulk of Arkansas culture and heritage in the state with its rich and notable history is sure to continue for years far in the future.

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