By Marie Muir
Aunt Rachel is a woman of mystery, and her namesake doesn’t fall far from the tree – quite literally – according to Ben Shields, a Pittsboro-based farmer.
Ben and his partner, Patricia Parker, purchased 20 acres – which included 40 apple trees – in 2016 to create their own homestead called In Good Heart Farm. Ben, who grew up in Apple Valley in western Massachusetts, discovered a sweet surprise in his orchard – Aunt Rachel apples – a variety unique to Chatham County. It’s now one of Ben’s favorites thanks to the “Savior of Southern Apples,” Creighton Lee Calhoun, who documented and grew heirloom apples.
In Good Heart Farm was previously stewarded by the late Bill Dow of Ayrshire Farm – the first certified organic farm in North Carolina. “[Bill] planted much of the orchard almost 40 years ago with Lee Calhoun’s help,” Patricia says. “The two were friends.” Lee passed away last year, but he saw the value of heirloom apples and made it his life’s work to see them revived. He wrote the book “Old Southern Apples,” which gives the history of more than 1,600 unique Southern apple varieties. A hardcover edition of this now out-of-print book can cost $300 on Amazon. In the following excerpt, Lee documents his discovery of the enigmatic Rachel apple: “I visited Roy Callum in my county, Chatham County, North Carolina, on Piney Grove Church Road. He gave me scions from a tree he called Aunt Rachel, which I later found growing in other places in the county under the name Rachel. It is a true Chatham County apple not grown elsewhere, but the story of its origin is apparently faded away. I still wonder about the identity of Rachel.”
The fruit of the Aunt Rachel tree ripens over several weeks in late July and early August. The fast-growing trees are disease resistant and produce juicy red apples with dark stripes and white flesh that tastes mildly tart – perfect for eating and cooking.
Lee handed down his life’s work and apple tree knowledge to David C. Vernon to continue cultivating heirloom apple trees in the South. David owns Century Farm Orchards in Reidsville, North Carolina and also educates people about the fruit’s multiple uses and how each native variety contributes to our local ecosystem’s healthy biodiversity.
To qualify as “heirloom,” an apple must date back to the 1920s or earlier. This is when the U.S. transitioned from an agrarian workforce with farm lifestyles to an industrial workforce with urban lifestyles, and commercial- size fruit tree nurseries began mass producing homogeneous varieties of apples. Lee dedicated himself to preserving Southern apples from the period before factory farming.
Local residents were able to reserve their own heirloom apple trees from Century Farm Orchards to commemorate Chatham’s semiquincentennial through the Plant A Tree for Chatham 250 project, and demand was high – the project sold out of its 180 tree bundles in just 10 days. Chatham 250 committee member Hilary Pollan is hopeful that the trees planted this year will still be around for the county’s 300th anniversary.
“Century Farm Orchards is doing far more than propagating trees for Chatham 250,” Hilary says. “David is helping us learn about our county’s history and heritage so that we may carry it forward into the future.”
Although Chatham 250 is no longer selling the apple tree bundles, orders for trees can still be placed directly through centuryfarmorchards.com.