Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Springtime in Worcester, Massachusetts


Spring has arrived officially, and while Taiwan does display an increase in blossoms, I particularly miss the dramatic changeover typical of more temperate zones. Starting with the maple sugaring season, the winter woods and scenery come back to life with delicate spring flowers and new green leaves. 

In my collection of nineteenth-century photographs is this idyllic spring scene of an early American farm house in Worcester, Massachusetts. We see the small wooden house located close to the road or drive, with a large barn visible farther on. The house seems to be painted white, but the corner boards and sills appear to be a darker, contrasting color.


There is a wing of the house to the viewer's left, and on the right a white picket fence enclosing a side yard. Dimly seen is an elaborate front door with architrave and sidelights, but one wonders how much that classical entrance was used, for there is no path to the door, and the grass seems undisturbed.



Perhaps the most appealing element of the picture, and what establishes the Spring season, is the row of blossoming apple trees in front of the house. While we can't know for sure what kind they are, Baldwin, Roxbury Russet, and Westfield Seek-No-Further are all famous varieties that originated in Massachusetts, and that were well established by the time this photo was taken. 

Baldwin, discovered in Wilmington, Massachusetts around 1740, was one of the most important American apples in its day. As late as 1915, according to the book North American Apples, Baldwin was the leading commercial variety, with 13.4% of the crop. Southmeadow Fruit Gardens more recently sold “this variety for those with childhood memories of this large, red winter apple with its hard, crisp, juicy flesh so long cherished for eating out of hand, and apple pie.”


The Baldwin apple from Beach’s Apples of New York (1905)


Baldwin was so important that the location of the original tree was commemorated with this granite marker. (Photo from Wikipedia)


Roxbury Russet was one of those connoisseur's apples that was grown for its consummate flavor, not for perfection of appearance. Roxbury apples, often with patches of brown russeting over green-yellow skin, illustrate the axiom that the worse fruit looks, the better it often tastes. 

The Roxbury Russet, also from Apples of New York.



Westfield Seek-No-Further was another old-time favorite with a high eating quality. It also has the best name of any variety, taking you back to an era when the art of naming apples was honed to a high skill.

Westfield Seek-No-Further, from Apples of New York.
  
There also exists an old apple variety called Worcester Pearmain, but it refers to the Worcester in England, not Massachusetts, and so is not a real candidate for the trees in this photograph. However, these color plates of Worcester Pearmain were so beautiful that I can't resist adding them:


Worcester Pearmain from Taylor’s Apples of England.

Worcester Pearmain from Morgan and Richard's beautiful, The Book of Apples.


This old cabinet photo of a Massachusetts farm vividly brings to life a favorite daydream of having a house in the country with some acreage. In the picture, at least, it is a beautiful day, everything on the farm is in good shape and freshly painted, and the carriage is waiting to take us out for a ride to enjoy the beautiful Spring weather.


(Photo of farm from author's collection, all other illustrations as labeled.)

23 comments:

  1. The Westfield Seek-No-Further has to be the best name ever for an apple! I've never seen any of these varieties in our local markets. It would be fun to try one.

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    1. Hello Merry Wife, All of the apples mentioned in this post are still produced, although probably the only reliable way to get them is to grow the trees oneself (California does have some farms that specialize in old varieties).

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  2. I love the fact that the baldwin was so important in the history of apples that the location of the original tree was marked by the granite marker in your photo. Contemporary people knew what was important to them, but they also wanted future generations to know it too.

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    1. Hello Hels, Baldwin was not the only apple honored with a similar marker. Perhaps the greatest monuments to these fruits were the elaborate color-plate books, expensively produced in the days before color photography.

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    2. I think that the photographs in good quality books would also be excellent. Otherwise important events/people//flora and fauna will be lost to history.

      Young people may not know what postage stamps are these days, but stamps used to document history beautifully.

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  3. Wonderful post--I didn't know any apples originated in Massachusetts. Imagine how good those apple blossoms smelled! Gorgeous illustrations.

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    1. Hello Jen, New England was important to apple production, and to producing new American varieties. Many farmers and landowners made a hobby of it.

      Yes, the photo does seem to invoke the sense of smell; that is part of its appeal!

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  4. Dearest Jim,
    Oh, that brings back fond childhood memories of my Dad's orchard in The Netherlands. Sad that all those old fashioned apple varieties have vanished as they did not yield enough or were not suited for transport. For whatever reason, selections have been chosen for commercial values.
    You always manage to put together such interesting posts; a joy for reading the mixture of history and nostalgia.
    Have a great Easter weekend coming soon your way.
    Hugs to you,
    Mariette

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    1. Hello Mariette, You were lucky to have grown up with an entire orchard. The Netherlands is famous for fruit growing; one apple from there that has achieved wider fame is called Belle de Boskoop--did your father grow those?

      Thank you for your kind words. You have expressed exactly how I feel about these objects.

      A happy Holiday Weekend to you, too.

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    2. Dear Jim,
      No we at home did not have the Belle de Boskoop. My Dad had cherries, plums, pears and one apple tree so it was a mixed orchard. In the neighborhood there were Belle de Boscoop and I later did earn some pocket money at a big mansion where I cleaned. They were commercial apple growers and had several of the good old time apples. As a child, I remember the smell of some big wooden crates full of apples being stored for winter consumption. Those were the vitamins that we got in those days. No citrus, except for Saint Nicholas we got some mandarins from Spain. From the weekly local market Mom would buy bananas to make banana pancakes, combined with apple pancakes. That was very special!
      I recall one favorite apple from that time: Lombard Calville...
      The traditional Dutch Apple Pie called for Goudreinetten, a huge apple. Good old days...
      Have a great day and happy Easter Weekend!
      Mariette

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  5. A delightful and imformative post. How nice to see both the images of the house, and those from the Apples of New York. Interesting to see that even in "the day" some did not use their front doors. We live in an old house (ca. 1817) on a main road, and -- like the owners of the house you show -- no longer use the front door for its intended purpose, prefering instead to enter from a door originally intended for the family to use when entering and exiting their private quarters. That is because the driveway for our house brings one to the rear of it instead of the front. I had always assumed that it was only in the days of the automobile that the use of one's front door (at least for older houses) fell out of favor. Your photograph indicates that this trend began earlier than that. RD

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    1. Hello Reggie, I love relating different objects and resources that are available to me--the apples add interest to the house, and the farm puts the apple books into context.

      It's funny, but now that I think of it, I never had a front door key for any of the houses I lived in--as you mention, we always entered from the driveway. My last house in Ohio was even more-so than the Worcester one. Not only was there no path to the front door, but the steps had even been removed from the front parch, and bushes planted in front of it.

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  6. I too am very taken with the monument to the apple tree. I've never seen anything like it, but I think it's an idea that should be emulated in gardens far and wide. Actually any elegant or artistic monuments, such a this are very desirable. Sadly there are far too many which are not!

    We juice apples every day, (together with carrots, celery and ginger), but we use "Granny Smiths" for their slightly tart flavour. The ones you describe sound delicious.

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    1. Hello Columnist, It is indeed nice that the commercial importance of the Baldwin was commemorated by that attractive monument at its point of origin, as a measure of local pride.

      I also like a degree of tartness in apples--the favorite word of apple experts is "sub-acid". Your apple drinks sound great--they remind me of the fresh fruit drink stands here, with an array of Western and tropical fruits, and even bitter melons, all waiting to go into the blender.

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  7. GOsh, the prints are just so lovely in themselves! I would love to frame those. Such great illustrations...

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    1. Hello Coulda shoulda, Thanks, those old fruit prints are beautiful and fascinating. All the ones here are bound in books, but are enjoyable to view as a collection, and also the related information about the varieties (history, season, growing characteristics, etc.) is right there for study.

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  8. Hello, Jim,

    What a delightful post! I am very taken with the granite monument to the Baldwin Apple, and I note that it's also a monument to Colonel Baldwin, though the apple predominates.

    I can imagine that the front door opened into a tidy parlor that was used only for company. God forbid that mud should be tracked into the parlor! Wouldn't it be interesting to see what this site looks like now? Perhaps it is a busy commercial street.

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    1. Hello Mark, Apparently, the marker shown above was one of a set. Its twin credits one Samuel Thompson with the actual discovery in 1796.

      I'll bet you are right about that parlor. Unfortunately, the back of the farm photo only mentions Worcester, Mass., with no name or location. Maybe I'll have some 'collector's luck', and come across another photo, or someone who is familiar with the location.

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  9. Hello Jim,
    Thank you for this delightful post-- I'm always amazed by the inspiration we can derive from closely observing the details of old photographs! You're lucky to have those beautiful spring photos, and your tour of Massachusetts apple varieties of the period was such fun. I think that there is some movement, culturally, away from the ubiquitous Red Delicious to more interesting, less "picture perfect" varieties. Our local fruit/veg market hosts seasonal tastings of little-known Michigan apples, and with the growing popularity of buying local, perhaps some of the heirloom varieties will take hold-- I hope so!
    With warm spring regards,
    Erika

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    1. Hello Erika, You are right about the inspiration in old photographs, and it is amazing off often the most interesting details are incidental ones, not the main purpose of the picture, as with the apple trees above.

      Michigan is certainly in the thick of things, apple-wise. The above-mentioned book, North American Apples was published by Michigan State University Press, and many growers specializing in old varieties are there, as is the specialty nursery, Southmeadow Fruit Gardens, in Baroda, MI.

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  10. What a coincidence! Yes, MSU is known for its agricultural program... I shall have to add this title to my list of books to search for in the used book shops and at ABE online... This list is expanding at a dangerous rate!

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  11. Dear Jim,
    Welcome back! Thanks for this delightful spring post. After college, I spent quite some time in Worcester, Massachusetts. But I was never there in spring.

    When we purchased our old home about 6 years ago, there were two mature and very productive apple trees. Our neighbors would pick the apples and bake pies for the autumn block party. Sadly, both trees had to be removed due to disease and neglect. We all miss the trees and apples, and they are still a fond topic of conversation at the block parties.

    Happy spring!
    Cheers,
    Loi

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    1. Hello Loi, How interesting that you lived in Worcester. The person I most associate with the city is Robert Benchley, perhaps my favorite writer, who was born there.

      Those are great memories of your apple trees--too bad they couldn't be saved. Did you ever find out what kind they were? Yard trees around older houses can be a good place to search out uncommon varieties.

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