Eight years ago, I planted a small orchard, a mix of heirloom and so-called improved modern apple cultivars. Six trees total. I’ve taken good care of our trees—or so I thought. I watered the first two years, pruned limbs each winter to improve production, but did not spray. I had apple cider in mind. Two trees died for reasons unknown, and my first harvest last year (one small, scabby apple) made me wonder. The forbidden fruit?

We have a 47-acre farm only 20 minutes away from the beautiful 3,000-acre Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. (My wife, Rose Cooper, is on the Board, and we share a mutual fondness for Shaker Village.) The utopian community of Shakers grew more than 1000 apples, among 50 varieties, in 1853. They also raised cattle, cultivated hemp, and had a thriving seed packet business. Hard work and a communal spirit helped.

The Shakers inspired by Mother Ann Lee were officially known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, but their charismatic dancing gave them the Shaker nickname, and it has stuck. Fleeing persecution in England, they settled near Albany, New York, and eventually established 18 major communities that lasted for over fifty years. They were celibate but welcomed families, widows, and orphans until the late 19th century when the Industrial Revolution arrived and upended the agrarian frontier and the Pleasant Hill community. The property fell into private hands in 1910, but in the early 1960s, restoration of Shaker Village proceeded, including new apple tree plantings.

Meeting House

Erik Reece, in his essay on the Shakers, in Utopia Drive: A Road Trip Through America’s Most Radical Idea, wrote: “The Shakers created what is arguably this country’s most singular and elegant native aesthetic.  With religious restraint and clean lines, they anticipated by over a hundred years, modernist design movements such as Bauhaus and De Stijl. The Trappist Monk Thomas Merton who lived cloistered not far from here at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani once said that the Shakers built a chair as if they literally expected an angel to descend and sit on it.”

Reece goes on: “Many people have puzzled over how the Shakers could be at once so silly and so resourceful. How could they hop around like third graders playing make believe at night, and then produce the finest furniture by day? It’s true, the Shakers were an impossibly unironic people. They believed as uncritically in the spirit world as they believed in a chair.”

Over nearly 100 years the Pleasant Hill Shakers built approximately 260 structures including outbuildings and barns and 40 miles of dry laid limestone fencing.

East Family Brethren Shop

I visited Shaker Village’s farm manager Michael Moore early last September to learn about growing organic apples.

Michael grew up in nearby Cornishville, in a farm family, and has three decades of farming experience He’s accustomed to successes and failures, but he told the Harrodsburg-Herald last December that “Barriers are not a stopping point for me. I just jump over them.” In addition to managing the Shaker Village farm, Michael, a first-generation college student, is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in sustainable agriculture at the University of Kentucky.

Michael has a keen eye. He moved around the orchard—gracefully and purposefully—on a beautiful early September morning. He pointed out bagworms, sapsucker damage, and fireblight that was not so bad on the apples, but hard on pears. They had already harvested 1000 pounds of apples with an estimated 800 pounds to go. All the apples are pressed for cider, pasteurized and sold at The Vault in Harrodsburg. Michael told me King David is a good desert apple. Black Twig stores well, “tastes like cardboard right off” but sweetens with age. Yellow Transparent is a good June apple, he told me. “Well, a good July Apple anyway.”

Michael Moore during the winter pruning season

The Red Stayman Winesap was looking good; Northern Spy was okay, but diseased, and Virginia Winesap was loaded with smaller fruit. Golden Grimes, parent of Golden Delicious, had already been harvested. “Every apple has a purpose,” Moore told me as the resident Indian Runner ducks appeared. The ducks are housed at night but are free each day to feed on diseased apples and insects as well as depositing nutrient rich fertilizer.

The Shakers may have passed Ralph Putnam’s nursery along the Ohio River in Marietta, Ohio, on their way to Kentucky in 1805. Putnam was grafting apple trees in 1801 that were popular with the Puritans in New England—Roxbury Russets, Newtown Pippins, and Early Chandlers—according to Michael Pollan in his apple essay in Botany of Desire.

John Chapman, a year later, floated down the Ohio River in 1806 with “a small mountain of seeds that had been covered with moss the keep them from drying out in the sun…A single bushel would have been enough to plant more than three hundred thousand apple trees.” Chapman, according to Pollan was “scraggly and barefoot, he’s wearing a sack cloth cinched at the waist like a dress and tin pot on his head…The man (better known as Johnny Appleseed) looked completely insane.” He also had a knack for business and possessed his own religious fervor.

The two-to-three-year-old seed-grown whips would sell for six and half cents each. Chapman had no interest in grafted trees. Pollan continues: “They can improve the apple in that way,” Chapman is supposed to have said, “but that is only a device of man, and it is wicked to cut up trees that way. The correct method is to select good seeds and plant them in the ground and God only can improve the apple…Johnny Appleseed was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier.” He was the “American Dionysus,” Pollan argued.

“Cider became so indispensable to rural life that even those who railed against the evil of alcohol made an exception for cider and the early prohibitionists succeeded mainly in switching drinkers over from grain to apple spirits…Up until the end of the 19th century cider continued to enjoy the theological exemption the Puritans had contrived for it.”

Virginia Winesap

 

                                                       Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill Summer Orchard Lesson Plan

 

“The Shakers organized their apple orchards to produce through an extended season. Late season fruiting apples stored better than early season apples. Within the ten years of Pleasant Hill’s first organizing, the property is described with “orchards contain[ing] between one & two thousand apple trees old and young. There are also about two hundred cherry trees – not quite a hundred pair trees and some peaches & plumbs.”

Summer apples: Striped June, Early Harvest, Carolina June, Summer Rose, Royal Pearmain, American Summer Pearmain, and Gravenstein.

Autumn varieties: Rambo, Queen, Fall Pippin, Golden Russet, Spitzenberg, and the Belle-fleur.

Winter varieties: Jenneting, Pryor’s Red, and the Limber Twig.

Among these were firm drying apples and cider apples which could range from “mild tartness to nearly inedible.”

Becky Soules, Collections & Education Director, emailed: “Shakers cooked with apples, dried them (the famous Shaker applesauce was made from dried apples), and made cider. ‘Boiled cider,’ a sweetener made from boiling down cider to the thickness of maple syrup, was used frequently by the Shakers.” 

Did the Shakers throw off prohibitions against alcohol, as the Puritans had, and enjoy the American Dionysian pleasure? “The Shakers made and drank hard cider. Pleasant Hill had a ‘cider mill’ for much of its time in the 1800s,” Soules replied.

In May 1863, the Shakers describe the state of Pleasant Hill as a site of splendor: “The apple trees are in full bloom. The forests are closing up very fast. All creation animate and inanimate is fast coming into new life and vigor, fruit of all description both wild and tame is very beautiful.”

Stayman Winesap

“Despite geographic separation all the Shaker communities were unified in their love and cultivation of apples,” Soules said.

I have not lost hope. I am still betting on my Albemarle Pippin, Redfree, Enterprise, and Liberty in our little orchard ten miles from Shaker Village.

“Virtually every homestead in America had an orchard…cider took the place not only of wine and beer but of coffee and tea, juice and even water.” Pollan wrote.

Susan Poizner, an urban orchardist in Toronto has interesting ideas for growing organic apples. I strongly recommend her interview on Episode 22 of Jared Barnes’s Plantastic Podcast. I found it very helpful. My apples need fertilizer.

 Michael Moore, a natural-born farmer and teacher, encouraged me. “I’ve cultivated my agricultural career,” he said. “You learn over time and knowledge is worth sharing.”

 I’m convinced now that I may one day have cider apples. Johnny Appleseed succeeded. So did the Shakers. You can too.

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Visit Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill this month and see Spark! Places of Innovation, an exhibit that explores the unique combination of places, people, and circumstances that spark innovation and invention in rural communities. Inspired by an exhibition by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, this traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program, features stories gathered from diverse communities across the nation. The Shakers, too, were innovators and creators, famous for producing flat brooms, seed packets, and other items that generated revenue for their flourishing communal settlements. Artifacts and stories about the Shakers’ innovations will be integrated into Spark! during this special, month-long exhibition at Shaker Village.

 

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