The ‘lost’ apples of the Palouse entice a detective to sleuth for their rediscovery
Dave Benscoter’s obsession began innocently—as a favor to a neighbor, Eleanor, a retired missionary. Resettled near Chattaroy, and now beset with complications from childhood polio, she asked Benscoter ’78 to harvest some apples for her from the old orchard above her house.
“Every apple was too high for me to pick,” he says of his initial effort.
“One of the trees was 40 to 50 feet high. The trunk was split, and I couldn’t get my arms around either trunk.”
Determined to deliver Eleanor’s apples at some point, he started pruning to encourage new growth lower down. Meanwhile, the old orchard had infected Benscoter with that most persistent of apple bugs—the need to know the names of apple varieties. And who planted them.
Fortunately, Benscoter had the chops to crack the mystery. Following a career with the FBI and the IRS Criminal Division, those mystery apples whetted his investigative skills.
He started modestly, with a Google search. What first popped up was Arcadia Orchard, the “largest orchard in the world,” located in nearby Deer Park.
Arcadia founders bought thousands of acres of land in the early 1900s and marketed orchard plots nationwide. Promotional materials claimed that by 1916, 7,000 acres were planted to orchard.
Arcadia was only part of the area’s orchards. In his 1905 Washington Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin, “The Wormy Apple,” A.L. Melander introduces his strategy against the codling moth with his observation on the regional industry: “It is asserted that 1,500 carloads of apples, valued at $600,000, were carried last year from the Inland Empire.”
Historian John Fahey writes that by 1914, Whitman County had nearly 240,000 apple trees. Spokane and Stevens counties had nearly a million. Whitman County had three commercial nurseries.
Benscoter was rediscovering what has been repeatedly forgotten—that before it finally coalesced around Wenatchee and Yakima, the apple industry further east was enormous and diverse.
Both orchards and nurseries were charmed by the apple’s diversity. The Hanford Nursery in Oakesdale listed 64 varieties on its advertising flyer. The Inland Empire was a true garden of apple diversity and bounty.
But soon, it all started to disappear. Ultimately, the Inland Empire could not compete with the irrigated orchards to the west.
Although the large orchards are long gone, remnants, and scores of homestead orchards, are scattered throughout the area.
Early in his investigation, Benscoter made some key discoveries. One was that every year the Colfax Gazette would publish a list of the prizewinning apples at the county fair. From 1900 to 1910, over 110 varieties were entered. Though many of the names are familiar, others had disappeared, and Benscoter was determined to find them.
Benscoter tapped the efforts of other apple detectives across the country. He studied Lee Calhoun’s Old Southern Apples, a large part of which is devoted to forgotten apples.
Benscoter combed Calhoun’s descriptions and noted a number of “extinct” apples that appeared in the Gazette. He narrowed his investigation: Arkansas Beauty, Babbitt, Cornel’s Fancy, Dickinson, Isham Sweet, Lankford, Nero, Pyles Red Winter, Scarlett Cranberry, Walbridge, and Whitman.
On an August morning, Benscoter and I plod down a long draw on Steptoe Butte through dry grass and wild roses toward a dense grove that someone told him was an orchard.
Fruit is sparse this year, following last year’s bumper crop, frosts, and intense heat early in the summer. Even so, fruit speckles many of the trees, beckoning explorers in search of lost tastes.
Indeed, when we reach the grove, it is filled with apple trees, maybe 200 of several, as yet unidentified, varieties.
But why seek out these forgotten apples?
Some of it is simply wonder at the diversity of apples. Apple detective Dan Bussey estimates 17,000 named varieties in the United States since Europeans first arrived.
Rediscovered apples could also produce benefits such as genes for disease resistance or flavor. Indeed, Amit Dhingra’s WSU genome lab is intrigued by Benscoter’s efforts and is nurturing tissue culture of one of his “extinct” discoveries, the Nero.
One might hope to restore diversity to a market defined first by the Red Delicious and now by the Honeycrisp-type apple, all mouth-feel and initial burst of sweet-tart, delightful indeed, but with none of many older apples’ subtlety and sophisticated complexity.
But none of this seems to be Benscoter’s primary motivation, which has more to do with his professional drive to identify all the elements of an investigation, to find what was lost.
It is the satisfaction of matching unidentified apples to the USDA’s stunning collection of apple watercolors, of interpreting plat maps, connecting family histories, and recovering human drama—of Robert and “Mecie” Burns, for example, who planted exuberantly on Steptoe, but misjudged their apples’ marketability, thus losing their farm in 1899.
“I got to … walk in the orchard,” says Benscoter, “and see and taste the fruit of the trees Robert Burns planted.”
Watercolor images of heritage apples. View the gallery.