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An apple today

Arkansas should make the “Black” official.


'BLACK' APPLE: Should it be state's official?
  • 'BLACK' APPLE: Should it be state's official?

Fall is upon us, and it is time to think of apples.

In 1919 Arkansas raised five and a half million bushels of apples; now that figure stands at about 67,000 bushels. One way to reverse this decline is to have an official state apple, and one particular apple at that, the Arkansas Black.

The state that ranks eighth in obesity needs a state apple far more than it needs a state fish or a state bacon. Properly done this action could set in motion a brighter future for orchardists, retailers, restaurants, consumers, tourists, agri-tourism, and state pride. Urgency is required. Today China raises 1.4 billion bushels of apples, seven times that of the United States and one-half of the world's supply. While Chinese apples are rated as too toxic to enter America, their apple juice appears in virtually every supermarket brand. American orchardists worry that China apples will drive them out of business, a fate that has already overtaken American garlic producers. Growing and eating our own apples is one response to the Chinese threat to take over America.

Apples are not native to the Americas but formed a major component in what is called the Colombian Exchange — America's plants to Europe, and European plants to the Americas. In 1634 Lord Baltimore, the founder of Maryland, ordered apples, especially “Pipins, Pearmans and Deesons.” George Washington ordered trees from England but by 1800 local nurseries began to fill the void.

In early 20th century Arkansas some 75 percent of the apples in Washington and Benton counties were the Ben Davis or its near cousins. (The popular but tasteless Ben Davis inspired jokes. In one story, a blindfolded expert identified correctly every apple he was given. Finally, his challenger supplied a piece of cork. The export thought it must be a Ben Davis, but if it was, “it's the best tasting Ben Davis I've ever eaten.”)

A large number of apples carried the name “Horse,” indicating that other animals shared an interest in the fruit. “I find more old trees of the Horse than any other variety,” Southern apple historian Creighton Lee Calhoun Jr. observed.

Most eating apples have to mature after being picked before reaching full flavor. In an age before refrigerators, apples were preserved for the winter in several ways: by drying (home evaporators were universal), making them into cider, vinegar, and apple butter, or storing them in root cellars for future use. The Arkansas black was a good keeper that could hold its flavor for months. 

In the 19th century apple cross-pollination and genetic mutation resulted in a Darwinian host of varieties. In his 1995 book “Old Southern Apples,” historian Calhoun describes about 1,600 varieties that were grown or originated in the South. Arkansas's 50 varieties included 12 that carried the name “Arkansas,” the most unusual being one named Arkansas Baptist.

John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed,” 1774-1845), who established nurseries in the Midwest, apparently never visited Arkansas.

In Arkansas the first recorded nursery was in 1827 and the first man to describe himself in the census as a nurseryman was Jacob M.J. Smith, who in 1836 located north of Fayetteville. The first large orchard in Benton County was reportedly set out by a Cherokee woman in 1840.

The Shannon Pippin appeared on Granville D. Shannon's orchard near Boonsboro in Washington County between 1833 and 1843. One Shannon exhibited in Fayetteville in 1869 weighed 27 ounces, and the apple won more premiums at the New Orleans Exposition in 1884 than any other Southern apple.

Another early apple was the Stevenson Pippin or the Dwight Apple. Brought to Arkansas by the Cherokees it was recognized for its value by the missionaries at Dwight Mission, near present-day Russellville. The apple was taken up by James G. Stevenson of Crawford County and became common in farm family orchards in the northwest.

The Arkansas Black made its appearance sometime between 1843 and 1870. Calhoun's “Old Southern Apples” claimed it originated on the farm of a Mr. Brattwait. Roy C. Rom, Arkansas's leading pomologist, in his 1986 article in the Arkansas Naturalist located his farm northwest of Bentonville.

The Arkansas Black found a niche. In 1903 a young black man, Arthur “Rabbit” Dickerson, was photographed with a pile Arkansas Black Apples. The next year, Arkansas sent 10 train cars of apples to the World's Fair at St. Louis. Then the local firm of McHenry and Bryan used Dickerson's picture in their produce calendars. Today, some viewers might find the graphic offensive, but Dickerson lived the rest of his life in Bentonville, had his portrait painted by Ralph H. Lawson, and was the town's “Man of the Year” in 1977. 

This one picture appears to be the entire marketing strategy for the Arkansas Black. Unlike Washington State orchardists, Arkansas growers failed to unite and promote. In addition diseases and the coddling moth increasingly became problems, with the result that between 1910 and 1940 eight times as much insecticide was needed: “more sprays, stronger sprays, heavier applications,” as Thomas Rockrock recalled. And Arkansas's climate allowed for three generations of pests instead of only two that Michigan orchards endured.

Arkansas apple growers got no help from the state with their problems. The state's agriculture department (Mines, Manufactures and Agriculture) was abolished in 1935 and the Arkansas Farm Bureau, the voice of corporate interests and row-crop agriculture in Arkansas, frustrated attempts to revive the department.  Hence, while West Coast apple producers organized marketing schemes and state governments provided support, Arkansas government was inactive and the University of Arkansas abandoned apple research as well as work on other fruits such as blueberries and strawberries. The State Horticultural Society withered on the vine, effectively ending its independent existence by merging with the Oklahoma organization.

The official supermarket apple became the Red Delicious. The apple that reaches a majority of consumers in the modern supermarket has been picked green, then shellacked, waxed, and stored indefinitely. But there has been a decline in the production of Red Delicious apples. In 1992, this apple made up more than 61 percent of the State of Washington's apple production; by 2006 it had fallen to 36 percent.

The Arkansas Black apple appears only at a few surviving independent orchards or local roadside stands. Probably 90 percent of Arkansans have never even seen an Arkansas Black. Yet the apple survives. All the major national nurseries carry it. For years this author distributed apples at Arkansas State University. Then, in the fall of 2008, Ann Williams, Jonesboro city councilwoman and proprietor of the Edge coffee shop, tried some. One bushel turned into 10. Not only did they go into quiches, soups and apple butter, but individual apples were for sale at the counter. Customer reaction was encouraging, beginning with interest and then “followed by crunchy euphoria of glee.” Sales were steady, with many repeat customers.

Using local products can give an advertising edge to businesses. Giving the Arkansas Black Apple official state status is the first step. Highway signs reading, “Arkansas, Home of the Arkansas Black Apple” would be friendlier than the “No Tolerance” signs currently in place.

The state Department of Agriculture should create a labeling program. The first “Made in Arkansas” program started in 1938. It's time for another. One day in November ought to be made Arkansas Black Apple Day in the public schools, with each student getting an apple. Although apple trees take work, it is possible for schools with strong 4-H or Future Farmers programs to undertake establishing mini-orchards on school grounds. Re-establishing apple research at Fayetteville is needed. Our apples need to be in school lunchroom programs.

The great faith-healer and revivalist Brother A.A. Allen of Miracle Valley, Ariz., a native of Sulphur Rock, remembered the arrival of the “Big Apple barge” coming down the White River. “It pulled in loaded with ‘Arkansas Blacks.' The friendly skipper, laughing through his yellow teeth, would toss us each a couple of the juicy black apples from his cargo, and we'd munch them all the way home, wishing he would dock at least three times a day every day.” It's time to recapture the spirit of those days and teach the rising generation as well as those now living about the joys of eating and cooking with a really good apple.


Historian Michael B. Dougan is the Integrated Scholar at the J.V. Bell House in Jonesboro.


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