The diversity of the American orchard is starting to make a comeback. People are searching out new disease resistant fruit and old, hardy apple trees to plant in their backyards. Every serious collector of fruit has a “most wanted” list. Many times these are apples that are presumed to be extinct. We scour the countryside, jump fences, and interview locals for a nugget of information that can help us find abandoned orchards and solitary ancient trees hidden amongst hedge rows.
The top trees on my list are Fulton County (Illinois), Fulton County Strawberry and Exquisite. These all came from the same original orchard in Fulton County, Illinois. So why am I so hung up on this particular place in the world? My ancestor, Isaac Bowen Essex, planted these trees in the spring of 1827.
Growing up in Albermarle County, Virgina and being extremely opposed to slavery, Isaac and his wife Isabelle began moving his young family further west towards the free states. The Essex family set out in the fall of 1826 from a rented farm near the village of Columbus Ohio and stopped by a cider mill in North Bend, Ohio a few days into their journey. This mill was owned by a retired military man, General Harrison. In 1840 he would run for President using images of cider and log cabins in his campaign materials. He would also have the shortest presidency as President William Henry Harrison died from pneumonia 30 days after taking office. Isaac purchased an entire bushel of apples seeds with the intention of starting a nursery that would sell seedlings to settlers going west.
In the spring of 1827 Isaac rented some land near what would become Princeville, Illinois and planted his bushel of apple seeds. The nursery was laid out for the purpose of digging up young seedlings. I imagine the orchard would have been planted very densely with a few walking paths through for weeding around the 10,000 young trees. A few years later several of these trees were sold to A. G. Downing of Canton, Fulton County, Illinois. From these seedlings a few were noted to have superior qualities over the rest.
Exquisite was the least popular of the three and is most likely extinct. Adding to the confusion around Exquisite is that it was a synonym used a few times at various nurseries.
Fulton County and Fulton County Strawberry could be the same apple. Fulton was planted widely and was so popular that in 1876 Joseph Cochrane wrote in The Centennial History of Mason County that “Among the trees of this orchard, which bear early fruit, is the Fulton Strawberry, an apple which has become too well known to be described here, and as favorably as widely known.” I wish he had described it! The only thing we gain from his statement is that it was an early season apple.
It’s a strange coincidence that in 1898 the most useful information would come from a man that if he were still alive today would be on a nearby farm to our orchard in Eastern Kansas. William Barnes compiled the notes from the Kansas State Horticultural Society and published The Apple. In this book Fulton Strawberry is described as “Tree vigorous, stout, spreading grower, hardy; does not come early into bearing. Young wood grayish brown, slightly downy. Fruit medium, oblate, whitish, mostly overspread, striped, splashed and mottled with shades of red. Flesh whitish, tinged with pink, juicy, pleasant subacid. Good. Core small. September.”
Since I learned about the origin of this fruit and how it is tied together with my own family history I have sought it out. A few times I thought I was getting close just to find the apple was from New York — where they also have a “Fulton County.”
If you have any knowledge of an old Fulton tree or if a family member has a Fulton Strawberry story, please don’t be shy and pass on any information.