Ernestine and the Ben Davis Apple

| 11/23/2011 1:26:35 PM


The Ben Davis Apple was one if not the most important commercial apple of the late 1800s. The world’s most famous apple producer of the time, Frederick Wellhouse of Leavenworth, Kansas (they called him “The Apple King”), stated that the Ben Davis was his most profitable apple. This was high praise from the man that dominated the industry for 30 years! Well, the Ben Davis did not win such high regard based on its taste. In fact the taste was usually described as “cotton-like” or taste-less. When it comes right down to it this was an apple that fit a certain need at the time. Fruit lovers needed an apple that would put up with rough handling and be able to be stored without refrigeration until cherry season in June. Who would want to peal and can hundreds of pounds of fruit if they could simply be set inside a barrel in the cellar? In fairness to the Ben, it does get much better in storage. In January the Ben Davis Apple has softened from a rock-like state to something resembling a Jonathan apple. The taste mellows and it makes a decent pie. If you want to try it earlier in the season you may want to try Ernestine’s recipe at the end of this post.     

The Ben Davis Apple has one of the murkiest histories of all apple varieties ever grown. There is much contention over the claim to be the originator or area where the apple came from. In my research I found so many stories of the origin that all seemed feasible that I stopped looking!

Ernestine aka Nana and a Ben Davis appleThe story that stands out and that has been researched the most is about Captain Ben Davis from Berry’s Lick, Kentucky. In the late 1700s Ben’s brother, William Davis, and a John Hills moved from Virginia to Kentucky to settle near Captain Ben Davis’ farm. Hills is rumored to have gone back to Virginia and brought apple seedlings on his return trip. He distributed these little trees to friends and family, some of them being planted at the Captain’s homestead. It was common at this time to plant “standard” trees, ones that would grow to a full size of 30 to 40 feet tall. This was done by taking the shoots that tend to grow up around the base of the trunk of a tree and transplant them. This is a fast method for establishing a large orchard quickly and on the cheap. It is said that many of these shoots or “suckers” were distributed and planted in many southern states as the apple grew in popularity.

Here’s where the murky part comes in. The Hill family moves to Illinois and takes some shoots with them. Most of the other Ben Davis’ origin stories have the story reversed. It was developed in Ohio, Indiana or Illinois and made its way to the south. In Jay County, Indiana, a school teacher named Benjamin Davis, from Columbiana County, Ohio, is said to have planted the trees at his new farm in Camden (around 1836). These were so popular that they quickly spread throughout the Mississippi Valley and the rest of the settled areas.   

A man named Benjamin Barzillia Davis was born on August 19, 1813 to Isaac Van Norman Davis (from Massachusetts) and Mercy Rogers Davis. They first lived in Canada, the family moving to Pike County, Illinois after Mercy’s death in 1818. Benjamin Barzillia Davis is also credited with being the originator of the famous “Ban Davis Apple.”     

11/23/2011 10:38:08 PM

What a great story, Rick. Another apple that is lousy fresh, but phenomenal when cooked is the Astrachan. I had always heard they had great flavor, but the first ones I bought were mealy and cracked open before I got them cooked. But after cooking them up for sauce (peels and all in a blender--no need to peel or strain anymore!) the sauce's flavor was awesome. --Cheryl Long, Editor in Chief, Mother Earth News

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