The Patron Saint of Maine Apples
John Bunker has made it his mission to rescue Maine's forgotten fruits.
- By: michael sanders
- Photography by: Russell French
If you see a guy out in the wilds of Maine bumping very slowly along a dirt road on a fall day in his pickup, his head almost out the window as he scans the land of an old farm gone to ruin, you might, if you're a cynic, think him a real estate agent. And you would be wrong, for John Bunker is not at all interested in property. He is looking at the trees, particularly the ancient apple trees, now scraggly, overgrown, their enormous trunks eaten by rot from years of neglect, the plumage overhead meager indeed, with sometimes only a single branch still bearing scarce fruit.What Bunker is looking for are heirloom Maine apple varieties, some first discovered and propagated here more than a hundred and fifty years ago, a few even before that, when much of the southern interior and coastal Maine landscape consisted solely of small farms, each and every one of which had an apple orchard.
Sitting in the garden of Bunker's modest Palermo farmstead one early fall morning, surrounded on all sides by a hundred varieties of apple trees heavy with fruit, Bunker explains how important this fruit was to the self-sufficient farmer, and the role it played until relatively recently in so many aspects of farm life. How recently? "Some of my older neighbors," Bunker tells me, "they remembered the narrow gauge railroad station in Palermo in the fall, teams of horses with wagons filled with apples backed up one or two miles at the depot to go down to Wiscasset to be shipped on to England. That would have been the twenties, the 1920s."
When immigrants and pioneers moved to Maine, "they didn't bring trees, they brought seeds," Bunker says. They needed apples not only as a fruit that would keep over the long winter, "but for hard cider [their only alcohol], for animal feed, and vinegar to preserve vegetables and fruits in pickling and canning." And when they brought their seeds and sowed them, he continues, "it was the greatest plant-breeding project ever undertaken by humans!" because apples planted from seed never grow true to type.
Bunker sees in this tree and its fruit a trove of early Maine history not just neglected, but very nearly lost. Understand a Maine apple, its origin and use, where it grew and why anyone bothered to grow it, and you've added a very important piece to that largely incomplete puzzle of how our ancestors lived, worked, cooked, ate, and made their living.
And that's where the heirlooms come in. As agriculture died and people moved off the land, many, many of these varieties — some unique to the state, a single region, sometimes even to a small group of towns or a single village — were lost. What survived were descriptions and drawings in rare books, the pages of old agriculture bulletins, the seed catalogs, and the written diaries some farmers kept. Or so it was thought. Turns out it's pretty hard to kill an apple tree just by neglect, and rural Mainers had (and still have) an affection for the apple like they have for no other tree. And they propagated their local variety through grafting because they liked its taste, or the beauty of the tree, or simply because it was Great-aunt Mabel's favorite pie fruit. Those trees are still out there, waiting to be recognized.
Bunker, a gray-haired impish fellow with a wide smile and a gentle manner, goes about the business of winkling out rumors of old trees with an approach a criminologist would appreciate. He prints up "Wanted" posters with descriptions, possible locations, and last sightings, distributing them in his frequent travels to events around Maine and New England in his official capacity as chief orchardist for Fedco Seeds in Waterville.
One such event is the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) Common Ground Fair in Unity in late September. There, you can find him at the Fedco tent, sitting behind a card table whose top is covered with a grid of apples with exotic names, sixty-eight varieties in all, each labeled with locations, dates, descriptions, and laconic notes on uses, at the top a sign, "Some Apples Found in Old Maine Orchards." One the size and color of an apricot, the St. Edmund's Russet, had been named in England in 1875. There is the banana-yellow Coles Quince from Cornish, the Monroe Sweet from Aroostook, the Litchfield Pippin, the August Greening from Bangor, on and on, apples the size of grapes to grapefruits, from almost black to orange, gold, all shades of red and green, and not a single variety you would ever have found at the grocery store. (Among all the fanciful monikers — Maiden Blush, Nodhead, Pound Sweet, Yellow Bellflower — my favorite was the Westfield Seek-No-Further, discovered and named in Westfield, Massachusetts, in 1796.)
Of course, you can't actually see Bunker or the table for the line of folks queued up to visit, each and every one clutching a few apples. When their turn comes, they always begin with some variation of, "These apples come from trees my grandfather/father/aunt/cousin planted, and we'd like to know what they are." Bunker will patiently take an apple, hand them a sheet to fill out, then ask a series of questions: how tall is the tree? Where does it grow? Are these apples ripe? If he can't identify the apple on the spot, he will put the fruit into a brown paper bag with the form, promising to get back to them when he's had a chance to take a closer look.
Bunker goes to the fair, and other events like it, every year not just because it's part of his job, but because such venues can yield "good apple gossip," putting him on the trail, perhaps, of one of the varieties detailed in the "Wanted" posters hanging up all around him. That "good gossip" may consist of an unusual name (one heirloom he identified after a woman at a Belfast yard sale mentioned a tree named "Judy"), a specific description of a fruit in a particular place, a grandson's recollection of what grew on the family farm. And that solid clue, together with Bunker's further research, may ultimately lead to a full-fledged search, "a fruiting expedition," Bunker calls it, always in the fall when the trees will have apples — he hopes.
A few days after we met in Palermo, I find myself bumping along a dirt road in an intermittent rainstorm in search of the Winn Russet apple, which Bunker has been on the trail of for more than a decade. As he stowed his apple picker and other tools in the back of my car that morning in Portland, he could hardly contain his excitement. "It will be an awesome score if we can find fruit on the tree!" he says, explaining that most apple trees only fruit every other year. The Winn Russet was rumored to be just a tree or two on an abandoned farm somewhere out past Sweden, about twenty-five miles west of Auburn, though Bunker wouldn't have made the trip if he hadn't already done enough research to ensure he could identify it.
That research usually includes reference to the two bibles of this particular field: a 1911 University of Maine document known as the "Bradford Thesis," which itself partly inspired George Stilphen's The Apples of Maine, published in the early 1990s. "About 1908," Bunker tells me, "a man named Frederick Bradford attempted to track down every apple growing in Maine at that time and to write down a description for his thesis. I was given a copy about twenty-five years ago, and that thesis is what I use to find out what is in these old orchards. Another UMaine professor, W.M. Munson, also used to write annual agricultural reports describing a number of varieties that originated in Maine. He described the Winn Russet, and he also included drawings and sketches of the apples."
Our expedition has been preceded by a series of serendipitous events giving me some idea of how fragile each link in Bunker's tracking efforts can be. He'd been invited to set up his table at a farmer's market near Norway, leading to a chance encounter with an older gentleman who told him of a Winn Russet tree in the same area as a previous informant had mentioned. Bunker managed to turn up a local who knew the area very well, knew in fact that there was an overgrown 1800s-era farm known as the Haskell Homestead, that it was right at the base of Winn's Hill, and that there were in fact old apple trees there.
We walk to the end of what had once been the drive, looking up a gentle slope gone to bramble and brush, then past a towering crab apple to a falling down, one-story farmhouse, a junked car or two and piles of rusting equipment all around, a tumble-down barn farther on. "Now we look around for trees with apples," says Bunker. We move slowly through the brush, heads turning slowly. "There!" He points to the left, then hurries into the undergrowth. "Oh, look at that! Look at them! Darn it, I think we found it!" He is standing next to a very rotten tree trunk about two and a half feet in diameter, out of which grow just two branches, twisting this way and that twenty feet in the air through a mass of more vigorous maple saplings that has grown up around them. Bunker shields his eyes with one hand as he looks upward, the other pointing to the end of a single branch where three small russet-colored orbs rock merrily in the breeze. "We're going to go home today with some apples, not a lot, one or two, but some!"
He points out the ancient scar about chest level where someone long ago had taken the trouble to graft one variety onto another, perhaps more rigorous, rootstock, then follows the branch up with his hand, making sure that the fruit we saw came from the graft and not, as sometimes happens with very old trees, from new branches coming from below it. "Wow!" he continues. "You look at a tree like this, and you know it's a really old tree, maybe a hundred twenty-five, a hundred fifty years old." He ties a wire tag to the correct branch, then, wielding his apple picker, manages to shake loose three specimens, one of which is rotten and another small and deformed. He grins and holds out the third to me, which seems nothing special, though I certainly am not going to bite into it. "One good apple on the whole tree, and it's in almost perfect shape. Beautiful, and not a russet I've ever seen before. It's got those raised white pinpricks, the dark green cavity around the stem, and this faint dripping of pink, not really a blush, and even parts that aren't russetted." All of these elements match existing descriptions, which is why he is so sure he is holding a Winn Russet — and so happy at the successful end to a fifteen-year search.
On the long drive back, I ask him what he will do next. "I'll come back in January," he says thoughtfully, "take some new wood for grafting." In the spring, he will re-graft the Winn Russet onto a young tree in MOFGA's Maine Heritage Orchard in Unity, where it will be preserved for all of us to appreciate. In seven years, maybe, the tree will produce a real crop, enough apples for Bunker to try to figure out why someone had grown this apple — if it was good for eating, or cider, or pies, who knows what?
Another apple, another adventure, another piece of the puzzle of early Maine history rescued from oblivion by one man whose greatest pleasure, it seems, comes from something as simple as a ubiquitous tree and its equally modest fruit.
- By: michael sanders
- Photography by: Russell French