Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr.: Orchardist and Apple Historian
by Tessa Thraves
Creighton Lee Calhoun Jr. is an apple historian and retired orchardist who lives in Pittsboro, N.C. At one time he had 450 kinds of heirloom apples growing at his home nursery on Blacktwig Road. There he takes cuttings of old varieties, sent to him in the mail by strangers or apple hunting friends, or gathered himself from the farmyards of North Carolina or most other Southern states you can name, and grafts them onto root stock. He’s been called the Johnny Appleseed of the South. His Old Southern Apples, 1995, has been the definitive work on the topic and was re-released in 2011. Over 100 Southern apple tree varieties that were feared extinct survive today because of this book’s original publication, which catalogs 1,600 old apples by name but more importantly tells the stories of their histories and the people who treasure them. Lee wrote this book by hand, on yellow legal paper, as he still writes today. He and his wife Edith made numerous trips to the National Agricultural Library in Maryland, where they discovered archived and forgotten resources in the rare book room: the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s pomology section between 1886 and 1920. Lee combed everything available, from three-by-five note cards to thousands of boxes of old seed and nursery catalogs. This was a labor of love that he completed with his wife’s help, she typing his long-hand notes into the manuscript that would become our treasured apple trove.
This love-labor originated in Saralyn, a community in Pittsboro started in 1977, when Lee and Edith began clearing land for a garden. Lee writes on his own “Calhoun’s Nursery” stationary, in one of his three-ring binder scrapbooks, of Saralyn history. When Lee asked advice on planting apple trees, a Pittsboro friend said, “Why don’t you plant some old-timey ones like we used to have—Blacktwig, Red June, Nickajack, Fallawater, Horse Apple.” When Lee couldn’t find those varieties at his local nursery, he simply taught himself to graft from a magazine article. By 1982, Lee was scavanging the countyside in search of heritage apple trees. This began the saga of Lee Calhoun and his apple hunting. He knocked on many a door in quest of the name of the apple in a farm’s front yard, sometimes getting the name and sometimes getting a shake of a head and the story of the one’s passed who would have known. He took cuttings from any tree identifiable by a name and grafted it, reviving the variety in his own garden, which by 1988 moved out of garden classification and into full fledged “preservation nursery.” The types of apples seemed endless and so Lee kept traveling, beyond our Chatham County, beyond the piedmont, into the mountains, and even into Tennessee.
Realizing he was going to find much more than a dozen or so varieties, Lee galvanized a whole crew of apple hunters across the south, one in every southern state except Texas and Arkansas. They began hunting and collecting varieties and the stories that accompanied them, sending the twigs to Lee for grafting and sharing the stories with him as well. They wrote letters and talked on the phone. Lee sat at his desk talking to me about the bond these apple hunters formed over the years, sharing stories of old-timers mostly, some stories from younger folks about their elders. He smiles as he talks, eyes lighting up with memories, as numerous as the varieties he records, despite sharing these stories with me in a time of family sadness. The stories take him somewhere else, though, even if only for a moment. Then he mentions the not-too-long-ago distant death of one of these apple hunters and pauses, coming back to the present fully, and says, “He was a good friend for many years. I never met him, though.”
Lee’s book is a wealth of apple lore and Lee himself throws out treasures seemingly casually, but utterly intentionally: he is a teacher and he knows, whether by study or experience or instinct, how we carry knowledge from person to person. When talking about the history of family orchards in the South, he says, “The rule of thumb for Southern farm families was six apple trees per person.” When talking about pest management and controlling bugs, he says, “an old Chinese proverb says ‘the best fertilizer is the farmer’s footsteps.’” He talks about vernacular ways of putting up apples and mentions grannies and midwives and dowsers as if he were either a folklorist or a generation older than he is.
Most Southern trees between 1600 and 1900 were grown from seeds. Because each apple seed is genetically unique, it will always produce a fruit that is unique. Lee is known for explaining that only through cuttings can a tree distinctly true to a variety be propagated. But of all those seeds planted Lee talks of the “the geniuses of apples,” the trees that produced extraordinary apples. But as passionately as he loves the apples, as profoundly important as the saving of over 100 apple varieties has been to the biodiversity of the fruit and hence our Southern ecosystem, Lee Calhoun has given us as rich a treasure by pairing human story and precious fruit. He talks about the stories told and the telling of the stories, of the folks eager to take him into their home and talk about daddy’s hardships during the Civil War, and as eager to send him on down the road to talk to another neighbor or cousin or friend who they assure him will have more stories to share. After all these old-timers and all these stories, he still marvels when he reflects, awed himself to be hearing about mules and meat drippings, cider, and hog killings.
And he just as honorably and enthusiastically passes forward this knowledge as he did receive it. He teaches. He has given me trees for community gardens and my own back yard, as he has a hundred others, I’m sure. David Vernon wanted to preserve the apple trees on his great-grandfather’s 200-acre Caswell County farm, and Lee passed on his knowledge so that David now runs a nursery carrying many of these varieties into the future for others to taste and grow. At Horne Creek, Lee established an heirloom orchard enabling visitors to experience the turn-of-the-century farm life of the North Carolina piedmont. He also teaches a grafting program there called “Grafting for the Future,” passing forward his skills to anyone willing to learn.
“These heirloom varieties are part of our agrarian Southern heritage,” Lee says. The July-August Go No Further, Dixie Red Delight, Sops of Wine, Royal Limbertwig, Summer Banana, Aunt Cora’s Yard Apple, a Nickajack, a Ben Davis, Rattling Core, Rockingham Red, Ben Davis, the Spitzenburg, Red June, Fallawater, Horse Apple, Rockingham Red, Sweetnin’, Yellow June, Mary Reid, the Cathead, the Chenango Strawberry, the Cullasaga, the Duchess of Oldenburg Blacktwig.
And every one has a story: The Baltimore Monstrous Pippin, recorded in 1817 at a foot in diameter and four inches high; the Blacktwig, over which a furious battle was fought in the magazines and newspapers of 1896 (Is it or is it not the same apple as the Paragon?); the Buff, traced in 1853 to a North Carolina seedling tree raised by the Cherokees; Hewes Crab, a cider apple that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson knew; Arkansas Black, a deep scarlet apple started in Arkansas in 1870 that stores well; Magnum Bonum, an aromatic, juicy apple that originated in 1828 in Davidson County and is considered “the king of fall apples in the South”; July-August Go No Further, from West Virginia, as in “that’s the best, you might as well stop looking”; Aunt Cora’s Yard Apple, grown by a midwife in Virginia; the Ben Davis, from 1870 to 1920 the most popular commercial apple in the U.S., the Red Delicious of its day; the Spitzenburg, Thomas Jefferson’s personal favorite, grown at Monticello; the Rattling Core, who’s seeds are loose inside and rattle. And he has documented, shared, and passed forward for eternity many more of these treasured stories, even than varieties of apples. “The number of varieties don’t really matter,” Lee says to me. “It is the stories that matter.”
Tes Thraves works for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems. She has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Hollins University, an M.A. in Folklore from UNC-Chapel Hill, and is currently working on her Ph.D. in Communication Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Thraves, Tessa. “Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr.: Orchardist and Apple Historian.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 58.2 (2011): 4-8.