UNREMEMBERED FRUIT: The Rise and Fall of the ‘Woodpecker Apple’
By Ken Zurski
Meet Loammi Baldwin.
He was a colonel in the Revolutionary War.
He commanded several regiments during the battles of Concord and Lexington and accompanied General George Washington when the future president famously crossed the Delaware River to surprise the Hessian’s in Trenton, New Jersey.
But that’s not all. Baldwin was also a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences who like Benjamin Franklin conducted experiments in electricity. He was elected to the Massachusetts General Assembly and as an engineer was instrumental in pioneering a waterway that connected Boston Harbor to the Merrimac River, known as the Middlesex Canal.
Yes, Col. Baldwin is certainly a man who held many distinguished titles and honors. For some, he is considered to be the “Father of Civil Engineering.” But today he is best remembered – or unremembered, if you will – for one thing: an apple.
While building the Middlesex Canal, Baldwin visited the farm of a man named William Butters. It was on a recommendation from a friend that Butters had grown the sweetest apple in all of New England. Butters told Baldwin that the tree was frequented by woodpeckers who in addition to the apples would eat tree grubs and other damaging insects. Butters called the apple a “Woodpecker” after the bird, or ‘Pecker for short. Others had dubbed it “Butters Apple.”
Baldwin was so impressed that he planted a row of ‘Pecker trees near his plantation home in Woburn, Massachusetts.”The tree was a seedling,” a historian wrote of Baldwin’s interest, “but the apple had so fine a flavor that he returned at another season to cut some scions, and these being grafted into his own trees, produced an abundant crop.”
After Baldwin’s death in 1807, the ‘Pecker Apple was officially named in his honor and the Baldwin Apple quickly became the most popular fruit in New England. It’s easy to see why. The Baldwin was smaller than most red apples are today, but its skin was mostly free of blights. Farmers loved the Baldwin because they could harvest large crops and transport them readily with little or no deterioration. The Baldwin’s were also a good apple to make into a rich, sweet cider. The hard texture was perfect for making pies. “What the Concord is to the grapes, what the Bartlett has been among pears, the Baldwin is among apples,” the New England Farmer described in 1885.
Unfortunately, the Baldwin’s dominance wouldn’t last. Too many severe winters took its toll.
In fact, in one particularly harsh year, 1934, nearly two-thirds of all apple trees in the northeast were destroyed. The next year the state of Maine helped growers replenish their decimated orchards, but only Macintosh and Red Delicious seeds were offered. The Baldwins were just too delicate to replant in large numbers. Still some farmers grew small crops to maintain the rich cider.
So Baldwin’s survive today in small numbers.
But there’s one more interesting note about Loammi Baldwin. Besides the name, the “Father of Civil Enginerring,” has another connection to apple folklore. Baldwin it turns out is the second cousin of Johnny Chapman, another Massachusetts man and traveling missionary whose work included the planting of apple trees throughout the expanding frontier.
We know him today not as Johnny Chapman, but Johnny Appleseed.