Immigrant Apples – Revisited

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about heirloom apples, and mentioned that Vilhelm Moberg had used Astrachan apples in his classic novels to symbolize a Swedish-American woman’s longing for home.  I was not familiar with that variety.  A friend who grew up in Minnesota (setting for Moberg’s novels) said she’d heard of them, but never tasted one.

Then another blog reader told me that when she was growing up in New England, her family always used Astrachans for applesauce.  Since moving to the Midwest she’s been unable to find them.  “I have yet to find an apple that makes applesauce as sweet and pink as the applesauce from Astrachan apples,” she wrote.

Now I really want to track them down.

As I thought more about this, I remembered an article I’d come across while doing research for The Runaway Friend:  A Kirsten Mystery, which is set in 1854 Minnesota.  In 1972, Carlton C. Qualey published “Diary of a Swedish Immigrant Horticulturist, 1855-1898” in Minnesota History.   Tonight I dug that out of my files, wondering if I’d find mention of the Astrachans.

Andrew Peterson kept a daily diary for forty-three years.  The volumes, written in Swedish, now reside in the Minnesota Historical Society archives.  In the ’72 article, Qualey notes that Moberg acknowledged the use of Peterson’s diary while writing his novels about Swedish immigrants.  “In fact,” Qualey notes, “the character Karl Oskar in the Moberg novels is said to have been modeled after Peterson.”

Who knew?

Peterson began planting apple grafts in 1856, and tried over a hundred varieties.  In 1884, he wrote of planting “Russian apple trees.”  (Yes! I thought.  Historians believe Astrachans originated in Russia, and came to the US with Swedish immigrants.)

In 1885, Peterson wrote that he had received scions of 200 apples he’d requested from Sweden.  Out of sixty varieties only one, he noted,  survived the harsh Minnesota winter.  In 1886, Peterson wrote that “The Russian White Astrakhan is hardier than the Duchess and is a good bearer.”

Very cool.

One more immigrant apple story.   This afternoon, while working on a completely different project (the Swiss settlement at New Glarus, Wisconsin), I found this gem:  “In January, 1853, thirty-one people…went to Monroe on foot to get their citizenship papers.  Each was given an apple, and each Swiss preserved the seeds to plant later, thus the first apple trees were called ‘citizenship apple trees.'”  (The Swiss Endure:  1845-1995, by  Elda Schiesser and Linda Schiesser.)

I don’t know what variety the new American citizens were given.  But I’d like to think that somewhere in the hills around New Glarus is a gnarled old apple tree or two, descended from those first ‘citizenship apple trees.’

PS:  I put this post up at about 3 AM (once I remembered the article about Andrew Peterson, I couldn’t sleep until I’d excavated it).  By the time I got back to the computer this morning, another blog reader had pointed me to Weston’s Antique Apples, in New Berlin, Wisconsin.  (Thanks!)  On their list of varieties is “Red Astrachan (Russia),” which they list as “Rather tart, juicy summer apple good for eating and cooking.”  The Astrachans are harvested in August.

Weston’s is listed on the National Register of Rural Historic Landscapes.  The owners grow over 100 varieties.  The oldest has been documented back to 1598.  One variety, the Old Church apple, is grown only Weston’s.

Come August, I’m headed that way.  In the meantime, check out their website.  We need to support the people working hard to preserve varieties that could so easily disappear.

www.westonapples.com

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2 Responses to “Immigrant Apples – Revisited”

  1. Margaret Vetare Says:

    Hi Kathleen,

    I just stumbled on your blog and noted your interest in the red astrachan. It looks like Weston Orchards in New Berlin grows them:

    http://www.westonapples.com/ripe.htm

    After I left OWW for NY I had a lovely gift of antique apples from Weston sent to me by an OWW friend, though astrachans were not among them (according to a Virginia producer, they have zero keeping ability so wouldn’t have been good for shipping).

    Best regards,

    Margaret Vetare

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