Lee Calhoun in his garden, gathering peas in his shirt. His apple trees are trained to grow along wires in his back yard.
Lee Calhoun isn't a biology nerd. He's not a cider fanatic or a crazed apple collector. He's a polite man who loves Japanese art, American history and gardening. Right now, he's got so many whippoorwill peas that it takes a couple shirt-loads to carry them all inside. He eats what he can and freezes the rest. Every Sunday morning, he makes biscuits from scratch and eats them with country ham.
It's the history buff in him that provoked him on a 35-year quest for southern apple trees. He retired from the army in 1976, and he and his wife, Edith, built a house near Pittsboro, North Carolina, with their own two hands. They cleared some of the woods in their back yard for a garden. And around that time, they met an elderly man who started telling them stories of all the old apple trees that used to grow where they lived, in Chatham County.
Calhoun was intrigued. He had wanted to grow some apples, so why not plant the old varieties? He started looking for these old apple trees in the county, driving around on country roads and spotting trees from the car. He found all sorts of apples in peoples yards and pastures and old farms. He and Edith planted everything they could find in their back yard.
Lee still grafts apple trees. These are some he grafted last year. You can still see the masking tape on a few of them.
After they drove all the roads in Chatham County, they started looking in neighboring counties, and eventually in neighboring states. They'd often get a call from someone in Georgia or Virginia who remembered an old apple tree in their granny's back yard, and the Calhouns would drive hundreds of miles, just to get a cutting from a single tree. Lee has a great story about visiting a man who was skinning a muskrat on his porch when he drove up and who kept his hogs fed on doughnuts (Calhoun says they were the size of Volkswagen beetles, the biggest hogs he'd ever seen). He also met a man on his apple-hunt who drove a steam-powered tractor. This was in the 90s.
Edith and Lee researched every single apple they found. They went up to Beltsville, Maryland to the National Agriculture Library, 14 floors of old seed catalogs, farming data and paintings of plants commissioned by the USDA from the 1800s through early 1900s. They found so much information there that they moved into a hotel so they could research apples every day. It was a gold mine.
Lee Calhoun is 79 years old now. His wife, Edith, died in 2011.
Eventually, they found around 450 varieties of heirloom apple trees, although they uncovered records of nearly 2000 varieties. They planted everything they could find in their back yard and ran a nursery there for 16 years. They also wrote a book about the history of apples in the south, with detailed descriptions of every apple they found records of. It's called
I visited Calhoun at his home in Pittsboro last week to learn more about his story, and I recorded our conversation and made
What's left of Calhoun's orchard. He used to have 450 varieties. Many, like the two on the left, are gone now. In 1997, he gave his whole collection to a couple other orchards in North Carolina. All the varieties he found are being preserved.
Calhoun told me about all sorts of apples. He said a friend just sent him a package with an apple he found in Mississippi the size of a large grapefruit. It weighed two pounds! He eventually identified it as a Red Cauley.
Calhoun's yard is more sparse these days than it used to be. He's got a lot of labels hanging from his training wires that just mark bare dirt or a knotted old stump. But his Virginia Beauty is still producing. And his crab apples are ready to pick. He makes them into jam...and I'm assuming he might put that on his biscuits.
Lee's crab apple tree is looking good this year. He says he'll make them into jam.
I told him that I wanted to grow apple trees one day. He recommended I grow a Blacktwig. It's one of his favorites. And it's from Tennessee. Or possibly Arkansas. There are two origin stories for that one.