When the first settlers loaded their wagons in 1783 to move into what is now Henderson County, they brought along seeds for vegetables and flowers, along with hogs, chickens, cows and seedlings for fruit trees.
These early pioneers were carving homesteads in a wilderness. They felled the trees, built log homes and cleared the fields. And near each homestead, they planted their fruit trees, including apples. Every homestead had apple, plum, peach and cherry trees.
The red and golden apples were eaten fresh in early fall; baked for pies and cakes; cooked into applesauce; fried for breakfast; pressed into cider, cider vinegar and apple brandy; dried in the sun for apple pies and snacks to eat in the winter; and preserved in jellies and apple butter.
Those first pioneers grew apples to feed their families.
Today, these same families are among the full- and part-time apple growers who make Henderson County the No. 1 apple-producing county in the state.
One pioneer family, the Lydas, found an apple tree on the land they settled. The Chickasaw apple was named for a skirmish said to have taken place in the area between the pioneer settlers and a roving band of Chickasaw Indians. (Please note that this is a legend and no documentation or knowledge and facts on early Indian history substantiate such a story).
Early apple years
It is not true that William Mills started the apple industry in Henderson County. He planted no more fruit trees on his homestead than any other early settler. Mills was primarily a land speculator.
Prior to 1860, no fruit shows on the agricultural censuses as a money crop in Henderson County. In 1860, the first mention of fruit as a money crop appears. The fruits are peaches and grapes, and some wine is produced in the county.
From 1870 to 1900, the No. 1 crop was cabbage, followed by other vegetables. Fruits were of lesser importance. The No. 1 fruit crop was peaches, followed by plums, grapes, pears and strawberries. Apples followed strawberries.
The main commercial crops from 1900 to 1920 were vegetables. The No. 1 crop rotated between cabbage and beans, of many varieties. Apples still trailed peaches, grapes, strawberries, pears and other fruits as the major fruit crops.
The early apple varieties the pioneers grew on their self-sustaining farms included: Ben Davis, Arkansas Black, Carolina Red June, Fried Sweet, Green Cheese or Carolina Greening, Grimes Golden, Green Pippin or Southern Golden Pippin, Hoover or Hollow Log, Jonathan, Limbertwig, May Apple, Rome Beauty, Sheepnose, Stayman, Winesap, Wolf River and Yellow Transparent.
“I still grow Sheepnose, Hoover and Arkansas Black,” said Eddie Lyda. “Limbertwig is a real old, old apple. The old-timers would carry the small apple in their coat pockets to nibble on when they went rabbit hunting.”
The settlers would haul their surplus apples by wagon to markets in Greenville and Spartanburg, S.C.
In the early 1900s, some of the apples were being loaded onto rail cars for shipment to nearby cities.
By the 1920s, some farmers were planting more acreage in apple trees. And William Dalton introduced a new apple variety, the King Luscious.
The Lyda family also began planting apples in Edneyville and promoting the planting of apple trees.
The climate and soil in Henderson County make it ideal for growing apples, said Marvin Owings Jr., extension agent.
“The soil is excellent, a deep, loamy soil,” he said.
And red apples need cool nighttime temperatures.
“At this elevation, we have the cool nights,” Owings said.
“Frank Pace had an orchard in the 1920s,” said longtime apple grower J.H. Stepp. “He was in Progressive Farmer showing his apple orchard of five acres. Five acres was a big orchard back then when you had to spray out of a barrel with a hand pump.”
The Spray Calendar for Apples from that time, which Stepp still had in his possession, shows growers were spraying with nicotine sulphate, copper sulphate, lime and lead arsenic.
Today, most growers are using organic pesticides and fungicides, said Harley Blackwell of Hendersonville, an honorary lifetime member of the N.C. Apple Growers Association.
By the 1930s, some farmers were buying pickup trucks to haul apples to Hendersonville and other towns to sell surplus apples. In 1936, early apple growers organized the Blue Ridge Apple Growers Association to promote Henderson County apples. The N.C. Apple Growers Association was formed in 1954.
It was 1942, not too long before the first Apple Festival in 1947 – called the Apple Blossom Festival and held in April – that the first tractors arrived in the county. No longer were horses, mules and oxen seen pulling the sprayers, wagons and other equipment.
The late Melvin Lane formed the Dana Co-op in the 1930s, Stepp said.
Lane left a legacy that lives on in the county’s apple industry. He bought a farm in the Dana community, said neighbor S. Ray Hill.
“Actually, this was only a parcel of the whole 120 acres he was to acquire from 10 different landowners,” said Hill.
Lane began setting out apple trees. He was one of the first apple growers in the county to bring in a government inspector before it was required by law. Lane is also credited with building in the 1940s the first refrigeration unit in the county to store apples.
“Some growers used to haul apples to Asheville to put them at the ice company,” said horticulturist Fritz McCall of Dana.
In the 1940s, apples were packed in round, 48-pound bushel baskets that were ring-packed.
Those early apples included Red Delicious, Stayman and Rome Beauties. Later, growers planted Golden Delicious. Wolf River, Hoover, Early June and Black Ben were also grown.
After World War II, the apple industry grew as truckers from South Carolina, Georgia and Florida began coming to the county and buying apples. Growers began putting apple grading machines into packing houses and selling apples commercially.
H.E. Baxter from Florida and J.R. Thomas bought and sold produce, including apples.
These apples were packed in wooden boxes called nail boxes, with each apple wrapped in paper.
“They individually hand-wrapped each apple in tissue paper,” Blackwell said. “The tissue was in one hand and the apple in the other. I’ve never seen hands move any faster.”
By the 1950s, as the apple business in the county was growing, cardboard boxes began showing up in packing houses.
The height of the county’s apple industry was in the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, Stepp said. There were 28 packing houses. In 2001, there were only five. A packing house buys apples from the growers and sells the apples to large retail outlets and distributors.
Apples that don’t “meet the grade” are sold to juice and processing plants.
Henderson County had 351 orchards in 1971, said Thomas Sobel, agriculture statistician with the N.C. Department of Agriculture. In 2001, there were 117 orchards.
Despite a decrease in the number of orchards, the county still accounted for 80 percent of the state’s acreage in apple orchards in 2001, Sobel said. And the number of trees is increasing, as tree density per acre goes up.
There were 810,784 apple trees in the county in 2001, according to state statistics, and 625,000 in 1971.
As the market for processed and juice apples declines, more growers are selling their apples retail. The growers selling retail formed the Blue Ridge Direct Market Association.
Labor, fuel, material and other costs continue to rise and the price received per bushel has not changed in almost 30 years, Owings said in 2001.
“More growers are using the direct market approach to cut out the middle man, packing costs and the broker,” he said.
And they are growing new varieties of apples, Gala, Ginger Gold, Fuji, Honey Crisp, Pink Lady and Mutsu, along with the traditional Red and Golden Delicious, Rome Beauties, Jonagold and Granny Smith and the heirlooms, Hoover, Wolf River, Sheepnose and Arkansas Black.
Henderson County is also home to the first and only organically certified apple orchard in the Southeast, Windy Ridge, managed by Anthony Owens.
In the more than 60 years of apple production in the county, the only thing that hasn’t changed is the time a grower spends in the orchard, said Geraldine Lamb.
“They still work 15- to 18-hour days during picking time,” she said.
And one hailstorm or late frost can still wipe out an entire crop.