Ernestine and the Ben Davis Apple

Reader Contribution by Rick Godsil Jr.
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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!

The 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.”     

Last month we had an interesting family come and visit the orchard. The Keller family wanted to find Ben Davis apples for Grandma Ernestine (pictured above), who is 99 years old and has frequently talked about the Ben Davis. You see, Ernestine is a direct descendent of Benjamin Barzillia Davis and she has a very interesting old Davis family method for making the tough fall apples into a usable fruit for dumplings. Ernestine is known as “Nana” to her grandkids and this recipe was passed to her by her great grandmother Matilda, aka “Tillie,” whom she would visit as a child on the farm in Illinois. Matilda Ann was born on July 17th, 1842, the fourth child of Ben and his second wife, Catherine Sally Philinda Pettis Davis. 

Ben Davis Apple Dumpling Recipe

1. Make your favorite pie dough, enough for a double crust pie

2. Roll out half of the dough just like you would if you were baking a pie

3. Take the rolled crust and cut it into four equal pieces, do the same with the rest of the crust

4. Peel and slice 6 cups of apples, just like you would for pie

5. Add 1/2 cup of white sugar and 2 tsp of nutmeg to the apples and mix

6. Divide the apples equally among the dough sections 

7. Fold up the corners of the dough over the apples and “mash” them, or squeeze them lightly to help them hold in a ball shape

8. Place the dumpling into a large (9-by-13) baking dish with extra high sides (or two casserole dishes)

9. Mix 2 cups of sugar and 2 cups water with 2 tsp of nutmeg and pour evenly over the dumplings

10. Bake at 350° until it starts to bubble (about 30 minutes) and then reduce temperature to 275 degrees and bake approx. 1 1/2 hours to reduce the liquid (they should appear light brown surrounded by thick, sticky goodness … it should not be liquid)

11. Serve warm or do it the Keller way and serve cold in a bowl with milk poured over it

This year we had five weeks of drought with a very long period of temperatures over one hundred degrees. Our Ben Davis trees still had some fruit on them when the Keller family called and we reserved what we had for Ernestine. We were thrilled to get a photo later of her at the nursing home holding one of our apples. It made us all feel more connected to another great bit of apple history.

If you can’t find a Ben Davis tree in your area please consider planting one of your own. We will be grafting extras at Wagon Wheel Orchard for 2012 after trying this recipe! I’ll be taking custom grafting orders from now until April. This year we will have over 3,500 varieties to choose from!

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