Apples have been a part of the East Flamborough Township scene from the time of pioneer settlement. Almost every farm and garden contained some apple trees, the most popular varieties being Baldwins, Ben Davis and Northern Spys, but over 60 varieties could be counted within the area. Orchards of only a few acres often had several varieties, unlike today’s commercial orchards where only one or two are grown.
Many of these very early varieties have now completely disappeared, mainly as a result of changes in taste, improvements in nursery stock and from an enormous winter kill of apple trees experienced in the winter of 1917-18. Between December 1917 and February 1918, exceptionally low temperatures were recorded; for over a month the mercury did not climb above zero, and hundreds of trees, especially Baldwins, failed to survive the terrible freeze.
1917 December average temperature – 19.6oF
1918 January average temperature – 13.3oF
Temperatures during these two months were 10oF below the average, and this area has never experienced such cold December and January temperatures since.
Wild and cultivated apples were a staple in the diet of the pioneer and helped to balance, to some extent, the steady intake of salt meat. Apples were dried for use in pies, tarts and cakes; cooked with ham (which helped cut the saltiness); boiled in maple syrup and turned into “sass” which was used as a sweet or spiced to a condiment (information from old reports leads us to believe that this dish was served at every meal); cooked with cider and sugar to a butter consistency and eaten as a butter substitute; and turned into cider, an important drink when milk was scarce, coffee expensive, and water doubtful.
Any early settler in the area with a shilling or two to spare could easily obtain apple trees. Several American nurserymen had agents in Canadian towns and orders could be quickly filled since daily shipments were made across Lake Ontario during the season. The Prince Nursery on Long Island, which was opened in 1730, was for many years a source of fruit trees, and was still advertising in 1835 in the Brockville area. The Rochester Nurseries were favoured as suppliers to the Niagara and Toronto districts, and William Custead of York, who had an orchard nursery from 1811, issued a wonderful catalogue in 1827 listing “fruit and ornamental trees”. In the “Illustrated Wentworth County Atlas of 1875”, John Freed of Wentworth Street South, Hamilton, originally from England, advertised himself as a “Nurseryman and Gardiner”, and a Main Street East, W. Holton was listed as Nurseryman.
Apples grown commercially were carefully graded at harvest, the higher ones going for export, shipped out from Brown’s Wharf, mainly to Great Britain, or by boxcar to the western provinces. Picking and packing was done by work parties that went from orchard to orchard. The picked apples were laid on straw, where they could be sorted and placed in wooden barrels ready for transportation. Winter storage of apples before refrigeration was varied. Many farmers’ wives buried them in sand-filled barrels to retain their freshness; large quantities were sometimes placed in long pits dug into the ground, vented to the atmosphere, but protected by straw or leaves and layers of earth; and cold storage houses using air cooled by ice were all used in the Township.
The apple-preserving utensils, apart from the boiling kettles, were for the most part treen, and these included barrels, drying racks (although many homes simply strung pared apple slices on a string), rakes, cutters, shovels, scoops, cider presses and apple parers. Anything that touched apples, according to the old way of thinking, had to be made of wood. Even a nail would “risk spoiling the flavour” or “quicken a souring”. So heavy treen-ware (appliances and tools made from wood) were necessary in the apple industry. The earliest tools such as parers were wooden, using the minimum of metal, a cutting blade to pare and a fork to hold the fruit.
However, from the first quarter of the 19th Century on, patents were taken out for metal parers, and commercially manufactured gadgets eventually took over from the homemade treen –hence the value of such woodenware today with antique collectors. Many of these unique tools are even difficult to understand now, for they are lost to the times when cider was almost the national drink and apple butter the national spread.
© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 1981, 2020