Articles

MISTER McINTOSH'S MARVELOUS APPLE

Every McIntosh Red in the world sprang from one wild tree on a backwoods farm in Ontario. Here’s the romantic story of how John McIntosh, his family and a wandering stranger saved and spread their one-in-a-million find

JAMES BANNERMAN April 15 1954
Articles

MISTER McINTOSH'S MARVELOUS APPLE

Every McIntosh Red in the world sprang from one wild tree on a backwoods farm in Ontario. Here’s the romantic story of how John McIntosh, his family and a wandering stranger saved and spread their one-in-a-million find

JAMES BANNERMAN April 15 1954

MISTER McINTOSH'S MARVELOUS APPLE

Every McIntosh Red in the world sprang from one wild tree on a backwoods farm in Ontario. Here’s the romantic story of how John McIntosh, his family and a wandering stranger saved and spread their one-in-a-million find

JAMES BANNERMAN

THE LITTLE Ontario village of Dundela is tucked away in the upper St. Lawrence Valley, a few miles inland from the river near Prescott. The general store and the handful of houses are grouped together at a crossroads, with a placid air of having wandered there to graze on their own front lawns. Passing motorists drive through the whole place in less than a minute and seldçjrq notice that what appears to he the village war memorial is a monument to a tree.

It was put up more than forty years ago by people who wanted to mark the spot where John McIntosh, clearing land for a farm in 1811, found a young apple tree growing wild, a tree with fruit that was honey-sweet yet delicately sharp, tender but crisp, with a glowing crimson skin and cool white flesh that smelled faintly of blossoms. From that tree, a chance-grown miracle, have come the millions of trees which now bear the annual harvest of McIntosh Reds the best-loved apple in Canada and, with the Delicious, one of the two most famous apples in the world.

Sixty years ago the McIntosh had hardly been heard of beyond Dundela. Now it is the mainstay of Canada’s twenty-million-dollar-a-year apple industry, both for the domestic market and for export. In 1953 it accounted for more than a third of Canada’s entire apple crop of more than eleven million bushels, outdistancing such rivals as the Jonathan, the Snow, the Spy, and even the proud Delicious. It has edged out dozens of other kinds of apples from the Annapolis Valley to the Okanagan, swept triumphantly over the border into the United States and across the Atlantic to Europe, and now is almost as well-known a Canadian product as wheat and bacon.

Nobody knows how this horticultural marvel first came into being, or how it happened to be growing on the land John McIntosh took up in Dundela when Ontario was still Upper Canada and Toronto was Muddy York. Apple trees can be grown from seed, but there’s no way of knowing

how they’ll turn out. To make sure the characteristics of a given tree will be faithfully repeated in its descendants, slips of wood or buds from the original have to be transferred by budding or grafting to little trees whose growth has already started. And there is nothing to suggest that the first McIntosh Red had been cultivated in this deliberate way.

Its superlative qualities astonished John McIntosh and other simple-hearted folk, but the history of apple growing is full of just such discoveries. Ben Davis made one on his farm in South Carolina in the early 1800s, and today the Ben Davis is a great and widespread variety. Thomas Grimes, of Virginia, strolling around his property one day

long ago, came across a little chance-seedling tree that became the direct ancestor of the famous Grimes Golden. A farmer of Newport, Vt., found the first of the Scott’s Winter apples that bear his name. There are Mann apples, Swayzie apples, Wagner apples, and a long roll call of others named for the men who found them. Most are more or less flourishing to this day. But none have ever flourished as amazingly as the McIntosh Red.

Most authorities believe it grew from a seed of the Fameuse, which is also called the Snow—a fine red apple brought to Canada in the 1600s by the early French colonists. That seed may have been planted by some long-forgotten farmer who had moved up the St. Lawrence Valley to settle and gone homesick back again to Quebec. It may have been dropped by a bird, or by someone who was eating a Fameuse as he passed.

For John McIntosh the discovery of the tree was a boon and a blessing. Pioneers of his day had to build their houses with their own hands; and they often had little more to furnish the kitchen than an iron pot and one or two pans, and a few thick cups and plates for the table. All winter they ate meat that had been salted down in the fall When the winter cabbage was gone their only vegetables were potatoes and carrots and turnips Oranges were unknown, and so indeed was anj fresh fruit except apples, if people were fortunat« enough to have them on their land, or could afford to buy them. Sugar was a great luxury, and an apple was a kind of sweet which took the plací of candy. For McIntosh to have found an applfi tree at all, even a poor one, would have been good luck. To have found one with such wonderful fruit must have been like finding a treasure.

The chain of events that led him to the treö began in 1795, when he was eighteen. That yeai a vague restlessness made him leave his home id the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York and drift north to Canada, where he worked as a farm hand in various places for the next six years. Then h«j married a girl named Continued on page 93

Continued on page 99

Mr. McIntosh's Apple

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 30

Hannah Dorin, bought a small farm of his own by the side of the St. Lavrence near Iroquois, and appeared to flave settled down. Ten years later the old restlessness came over him again, and he exchanged farms with Edmund Dorin, a relative of his wife.

This took him to Dundela, a primitive settlement in the Township of Matilda. The new farm was on the west half of Lot 9. Alan McIntosh, a son of John, wrote of his father years later: “He built a house on said Lot.

Abought the year 1811. he moved his Wi:e and Children in it. The plaice where he built, formerly had been A house or Shanty for their were stones wh.ch indicated the appearance of A fireplaice. Their had been Abought one forth of an Acre cleared. The second groth was Abought 10 or tweleve feet higflt. My Father told me, when cutting the undergroth, he came Across several Apple trees. When he had fenced a plaice for A garden, he planted them in it. The original tree, that is called McIntosh Red, was one of those found their. When my Father moved in this clearing, their was only two other Neighbors on this ridge.”

The rest of Alan’s account is chiefly concerned with other matters, and he doesn’t say anything about the rest of the trees that were found with the unique marvel; but there is a family tradition that they were all of the same kind as The Tree, yet so strikingly inferior that after a while they were allowed to die of neglect. The McIntosh Red itself might have died from the same cause if it had depended on John McIntosh, because, again according to family tradition, he loved eating its wonderful apples but was too busy, and perhaps also not enough interested, to look after it.

Fortunately for him and for posterity his wife Hannah made the tree her special charge. The Dorins were hardworking folk of Irish descent (her French-looking maiden name was evidently an unusual spelling of Doran); no matter how many chores she had, and in spite of cooking and keeping house and bringing up her babies, Hannah carefully tended the astonishing Red. As she and it grew old, it bore fruit so lavishly that there was plenty to spare for the children of the neighborhood. Because they called her Granny they called the apples “Granny apples,” and that name, the first the McIntosh Red had, stuck for half a century. Indeed it stuck longer than that in some parts of Ontario. The writer can remember his great-grandfather talking about Granny apples in 1907, in the town of Dundas near Hamilton.

By that time the apples had been known to most Canadians for at least a generation as McIntosh Reds, and were beginning to be famous. Yet they might well have survived only in memory, and then only in Dundela and the nearby valley country, if it hadn’t been for Alan McIntosh—the earnest, raw-boned son of John and Hannah. Alan inherited his mother’s feeling of responsibility for what was quite literally the family tree, and her pride in it; but he had something deep in his nature that drove him to do more than she had done about it for all her generosity.

Alan was a circuit-riding lay preacher, who traveled for miles around Dundela to hold services wherever there were people to ask for him. The book of sermons he wrote in a shaky hand when he was very old shows that to him the marvelous tree must have seemed a gift

from God, which it would have been wrong and ungrateful to keep to himself. Besides, he had a more than common measure of the delight in the look and taste and smell of apples, and the beauty of their blossoms. He had only to think of his father’s tree to know why it has come to be so widely believed that Eve tempted Adam with an apple. And out of piety, admiration and kindness Alan McIntosh wanted to share this good fortune with his friends and neighbors.

The trouble was that he had no idea of how to do it. All he knew of growing

apple trees was to plant seeds, and he was well aware that nothing hut blind and improbable chance could give a seedling the exact qualities of the tree from which it had got its life. He could fill one saddle bag with apples when he went riding circuit, to balance the thick Bible and the bundle of tracts in the other, and hand them out to the people of the farmhouses where he stayed for the night. But this was no more than spreading the fame of the Red, and what Alan needed was knowledge of the way to propagate it.

At first there appeared no hope that

he would ever learn, since there was no one among the farmers of the countryside to teach him. Then one day, in a year not recorded but supposed by his descendants to have been soon after old John McIntosh died in 1845, a foot-loose farm hand came to the McIntosh place and asked if there was any work for him. There was, and for a while he sawed wood and milked cows as though he were no different from any other hired help —until Alan gave him one of the wonderful apples. The stranger instantly perceived that the tret1 it came

from was unusual, and announced that he could perpetuate it by budding and grafting.

It’s a pity that the wanderer’s name has been forgotten, because it was what he taught Alan that saved the original McIntosh Red tree from dying barren. Now that Alan had learned how to propagate the tree, he took slips from it with him on circuit and showed the neighboring farmers the way to bud and graft. At last he could share the bounty of providence as he felt he should, so that the orchards of his friends could be enriched. Because of him there were first dozens and later hundreds of McIntosh Reds, all having the superlative merits of the original tree, coming to maturity up and down the valley country.

A Real Healthy Apple

Around the turn of the century the McIntosh began to advance in real earnest. In 1900 Dr. W. T. Macoun, the dominion horticulturist, told the Ontario fruit growers how it was thriving on the experimental farm at Ottawa and said, “I think it is going to be one of our leading dessert apples.” Seven years later it was being planted in half the orchards of the province and Macoun reported to the association that “so great is the popularity of this tree at present that the nurserymen cannot meet the demand.”

In those early years there was some concern over the McIntosh Red’s unusual susceptibility to the apple plague called “spot;” but it was soon found that it could be kept healthy without much trouble by chemical spraying. It was also found to bruise rather easily; but the growers avoided this by packing it in boxes, row upon neat and careful row, instead of in the barrels which were all right for apples with less sensitive flesh.

When these two slight difficulties were surmounted there was no holding the McIntosh Red. Even World War I didn’t slow it down very seriously; and the year after the armistice Macoun,

still the dominion horticulturist, gave an almost awe-stricken account of its progress.

He reported that very large plantings of the McIntosh had been made in most of the eastern United States, in the northwestern states, and in Ontario. It hadn’t replaced the Gravenstein as the great classic apple of Nova Scotia’s old, rich and fertile Annapolis Valley orchards but it was solidly entrenched in the newer apple lands of New Brunswick. It had invaded Quebec, the home of its probable parent and great rival the Fameuse, and was rapidly coming up level with it there. And in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, where commercial apple growing was begun by Lord Aberdeen a year before he became Governor-General of Canada in 1893, and which had once been overwhelmingly dominated by the Delicious and the Jonathan, the McIntosh Red was gaining rapidly.

In 1921 a monster Imperial Fruit Show was held in London and W. L. Hamilton, who went over with the Ontario exhibit, came back to tell of a fresh triumph. “Our McIntosh apples got a great boost,” he said. “Some of the officials of the show took a fancy to this variety and getting several boxes, distributed them among their friends. If we got nothing but the boost to our McIntosh, it paid us well for having gone over.”

It wasn’t only the officials who were captivated. A man named Bussey from the London Daily Mail took a party of friends to the show one night, anxious to see if they would feel as he did about the Canadian wonder, and made a test. He had an equal number of Mclntoshes and a celebrated apple called Cox’s Orange peeled out of sight of his guests so the fruit couldn’t be told apart by the color of the skin and then handed the unidentifiable apples around and asked the people to say which they liked best. Everyone chose the McIntosh.

By 1924 it was so enormously successful that Macoun, who had believed

twenty years earlier that it would he among the leading dessert apples, was a little afraid he had been too right. “The time may come,” he said, “when it will not be so profitable to grow the McIntosh Red as it is today.” He had seen that great numbers of McIntosh trees were being planted in the U. S., anti because he thought the market might soon be glutted he warned growers to hedge by planting more of other varieties. But in 1929 another Canadian apple expert, George Mitchell, observed that the saturation point wasn’t even in sight: in that year

British Columbia had shipped eight hundred thousand dollars’ worth of Melntoshes to Ontario alone.

The great depression of the 1930s came: the McIntosh Red not only rode it out but its sales actually increased. World War II came and still it forged ahead. It had made what was for Canada the ultimate conquest. In the Annapolis Valley conservative Nova Scotian growers were uprooting thousands of Gravenstein and Jonathan and Wealthy trees that had b£*en their pride and chief sustenance for generations, and replacing them with the irresist-

ible and so succulent McIntosh.

In the years just after World War II the Red took the unquestioned lead over all former Canadian favorites. One sign that it had was a curious happening in Ottawa. H. H. Hatfield, MP for the New Brunswick riding of Victoria-Carleton, got a box of Mclntoshes as a present from a constituent. Hatfield filled his pockets with the apples and went around giving them to other members, saying proudly that they were the best apples in the world. This was naturally too much for the local pride of the others, who at once

sent home to their ridings for apples and went around giving them away and claiming that they were the best in the world.

The debate that began then in the corridors and offices was hotter than anything on the floor of the House. It crossed party lines and set Liberal against Liberal, PC against PC, and CCF against CCF. Each member insisted that the apples grown where he came from were paramount and incomparable. The only thing they didn’t argue about was the comparative merits of their respective home varieties. They couldn’t. Every one of the apples was a McIntosh Red.

The old tree from which all today’s uncountable McIntosh trees have come lived to a great age. If it was at least ten or twelve years old when John McIntosh found it, which is probable, it must have been growing for almost half a century when he died in 1845. When the house John built caught fire and burned to the ground in 1894 the tree, serenely rooted a few yards away, was so scorched it didn’t seem possible that it could live. But Alan McIntosh, in his eighties, was still there to look after it. He treated the old tree with such loving skill that it survived him by seven years. In 1906 it died at last, stood like a bleak skeleton for two more years, and finally fell to the ground.

Its formal monument is the stone that was paid for by the people of Dundas, the county of its birthplace (the Ontario Fruit Growers’ Association voted to add fifty dollars to what they gave), and was set up at the edge of a Dundela front lawn in 1912. But the gallant old tree has a warmer memorial than a stone. The lawn goes up from the road to a white frame house, very comfortable and neat, and the house belongs to a great-grandson of John McIntosh.

S. A. McIntosh, a sturdy squarebuilt man on the young side of middle age, lives there with his wife, his two children and his mother, and works the orchard that lies beyond the house and the barn. There are a number of McIntosh Red trees in his orchard, but he grows a good many other kinds of apples too. Although he is proud of the Red in a restrained way, and says with quiet certainty that it’s the best apple in the world, McIntosh is so rigidly honest he won’t even consider trying for an extra profit by advertising that his McIntosh Reds are grown on the very farm that nourished the original tree. He says that doesn’t make them any better than anyone else’s Melntoshes, and a suggestion that it did would be misleading. Reds are his favorite apples, both for eating and for cooking, but neither he nor his wife nor mother has ever heard of any special McIntosh family recipe.

Another great-grandson of old John, Dr. Pember McIntosh, of Spencerville, Ont., is determined not to lei the world forget the gratitude it owes to John McIntosh, his wife Hannah, and their son Alan. The doctor, getting on in I years but still active and happy in his I country practice, has put up monuments to both his great-grandparents; but he won’t consider his duty to the wonderful red apple has been faithfully I done unless and until he has cleared up the only obscure part of the McIntosh Red’s history.

Pember McIntosh is doggedly trying to learn more facts about the humble long-dead wanderer who taught Alan McIntosh to graft and bud the tree I so that it could be shared with others.

It is one of the doctor’s solid Scottish ! characteristics that he won’t feel right ! until he can put up a monument to ! the wanderer too, with name and dates ! and everything in order. -k