By Sarah Syverson
Picture this. It’s 1803. The Louisiana Purchase has just been signed. Pioneers are grabbing up new lands at a feverish pace. As part of the government deal, settlers are planting orchards to stake their claim in the new territories.
Just ahead of the land-hungry masses, a 29-year-old man, barefoot with rag-tag clothing, rows a canoe carrying gunny sacks loaded with apple pulp and seeds. He’s following the Ohio River waterways southwest from Pennsylvania, planting tree nurseries on sand bars as he goes. In a year’s time, he returns along the same route, this time filling his canoe with the apple tree seedlings that have grown from their cozy, cultivated nests.
Under the seat of his canoe, he carries with him Swedenborg’s mystical Christian writings. He hands out spiritual texts with the saplings he sells for a penny a piece. He’s a passionate, sensitive, quirky young fellow, acutely attuned to the natural world. He goes out of his way to save earthworms and other sentient beings he finds along his journeys. He’s an oddball in a world full of straight-laced pioneers. And he’s populating the country with new apple varieties, one tree at a time. Though his real name is John Chapman, everyone knows him as Johnny Appleseed.
The spirit of Johnny’s seedling tree movement creates abundant orchards across the east and Midwestern United States. Most of the apples grown from these seedlings are “spitters” (you take a bite and spit them out) and end up being pressed for cider. But some new apple varieties emerge as blue ribbon keepers. One particular apple tree in an orchard in eastern Tennessee (likely a graft from a seedling orchard tree out of South Carolina) bequeaths something particularly exquisite to its caretakers. The fruits, picked after a hard freeze, are a deep, rich burgundy with spots like a galaxy of stars smattered across them. Their flesh is dense, firm and fine-grained, making them difficult to bite into. The apples are a rare combination of both sweet and tart. In the mouth, they dance on the tongue with juicy, exploding flavor. The apple is dubbed the Thunderbolt. She’s a winter apple – a great keeper – and she only gets better with time.
Fast-forward to 1890, Southwestern Colorado. Johnny Appleseed has been dead for 45 years (having succumbed to pneumonia at the ripe age of 71, by some accounts). Enter Jasper Hall, a young, ambitious 30-year-old homesteader and Tennessee transplant. Jasper spends three years building a homestead down in the lush, red rock lands of McElmo Canyon, just south of Cortez. In January of 1893, he heads back to Tennessee to marry the girl he loves, only to find she has wedded another while he was gone. Pulling himself together, he lays his eyes and hopes on Molly Galloway, whose brothers already live down McElmo. Along with Molly, he brings back apple tree grafts wrapped in moist burlap – among them is the precious Thunderbolt.
Jasper must have brought back a whole hoard of Thunderbolt grafts, because by 1903, the much sought after fruits were listed as a premium apple at the State Fair in Pueblo. Every Coloradan wanted to grow the famous Thunderbolt. Johnny Appleseed was surely looking down from his Big Apple Tree in the sky smiling on Jasper Hall for a job well done, carrying on the tree-growing tradition. (Although, truth be told, Johnny didn’t like to graft as he felt it hurt the tree.)
Things were going well for the mighty Thunderbolt. Her fruits were well known and especially revered. She thrived in the harsh climate of the Southwest, turning an even deeper red (some say almost black) due to the sun’s high-altitude proximity.
So it must have been a troubling time for her when the 1940s rolled around. The invention and broad use of cold storage made her irrelevant. She must have withered a bit beneath her bark and leafed-out plumage. With the advent of supermarkets in the 1950s, the Thunderbolt went the way of the dinosaurs, with only the original orchardists like Jasper Hall understanding her true beauty and irrefutable significance.
Fast-forward to 2010. It’s a cold day in January. A young man and woman stand looking at the last known Thunderbolt tree in Montezuma County. It stands just outside of Cortez at the orchard of Ann and Conrad Hover, descendants of Jasper Hall’s lineage. The tree doesn’t look like much; she’s grafted onto another variety, her nearly hundred-year-old barren winter limbs taking up barely a third of the tree. She is an endangered species. But, to them, she is something exquisite, something rare and precious, something worthy of saving. They see the galaxies in her dormant branches. They taste the vibrant, exquisite flesh of the apples still possible in her future. Taking a small knife, they gently graft from her ancient life force. And from these cuttings, they grow new apple trees.
Since 2010, fewer than 20 Thunderbolts have been grafted and sold or given away by Jude and Addie Schuenemeyer, Montezuma County’s heritage fruit tree experts and self-proclaimed apple nerds. They only have so much time. With many old apple varieties dying out at an alarming rate, Jude and Addie spend their days racing around the county grafting and cataloging old trees, survivors whose variety names are no longer even known. They’ve started the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project to support the behemoth task of preserving the region’s apple heritage for future generations. Their goal is not to simply graft out one or two heritage varieties to sell (though they do that anyway), it’s to teach others to graft and preserve hundreds of unknown varieties. Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Give a woman a grafting lesson, she feeds multiple generations.
Their tireless work is offering a legacy rich in history and unending flavor for the rest of us. Young grafts have been planted at schools, in orchards, and procured by backyard gardeners and fruit enthusiasts, provided and sold to anyone that wants to fall under the spell of a Thunderbolt, to taste her living history, to savor the stars in her galaxy.
(Please visit the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project website at www.montezumaorchard.org for more information.)