We've been trying to highlight the qualities of one heirloom apple each month, by providing an old published account. Most of the time I find an old orchardist's description of the fruit itself. This time, I stumbled upon a great article on the history of the Newtown Pippin. The following appeared in the March 1902 issue of Country Life in America.
The far-famed Newtown Pippin, which when perfectly matured is considered to be one of the finest apples ever produced in this country, was the spontaneous production of a seed dropped near a swamp in Newtown, Long Island, nearly two centuries ago. This tree stood on the estate of Gershom Moore, and for a long time went by the name of the "Gershom Moore pippin."
After enduring for more than one hundred years, this tree died about the year 1805 from excessive cuttings and exhaustion. Its cions were in great request by all the principal amateurs and orchardists of the day, and engrafted trees of it are still to be met in neighboring towns, and which have stood beyond the memory of man.
The first fruits known to have crossed the Atlantic went to Benjamin Franklin, then in London, and were of the crop of 1758. It was the sight and taste of these that brought John Bartram an order for cions from Franklin's friend Collinson. Subsequently, a considerable trade must have resulted, for in 1773, when the English apple crop had failed, it was stated by the younger Collinson that the American apples had been found an admirable substitute, but they were too expensive for common eating, being sold as high as four pence an apple. He also added that their flavor was far superior to that of English apples and even better than the apples of Italy.
In 1845 it is stated that Newtown Pippins from the orchards of Robert Pell, Ulster county, New York, sold in London at $21 a barrel. The nobility bought them at a guinea a dozen, or 42 cents an apple. Mr. Pell's orchard of 20,000 trees of Yellow and Green Pippins became famous on account of the high prices received for the fruit, and in consequence the varieties mentioned were planted and grafted throughout the apple regions of the country. They did not prove successful elsewhere, except in the Piedmont and mountain regions of Virginia and North Carolina.
As early as 1768 the Newtown Pippin was cultivated in the Brompton Park Nursery, England, under the name of the "Newtown Pippin of New York." It is probable that the large apple exports of 1773 included large quantities of the Newtown Pippin, for at that time it was quite generally distributed through the apple growing districts of the Atlantic slope.
Thomas Jefferson recorded in his Garden Book that in March, 1778, grafts of Newtown Pippins were received from Mordecai Debnarre, at Sandy Point, and in March, 1778, he noted that grafted trees were set out at Monticello.
After the revolution, 1,100 barrels was the daily shipment from Newtown. Prior to 1803 Forsyth said of the variety in England: "The Newtown Pippin is a fine apple in season, but seldom ripens with us." McMahon in 1806 included Newtown Pippins in his select list of long-keeping apples for the United States, and in the list of "cyder apples."
In the early time there is no record that more than one type of the Newtown was recognized, but Coxe, whose work appeared in 1817, described as distinct varieties the Large Yellow Newtown Pippin and the Green Newtown Pippin, characterizing the latter as a variety of the Yellow Pippin. Since the time of Coxe the two types have been recognized as distinct by most American pomologists, though fruit-growers are by no means unanimous on this point. The Yellow Pippin has for many years been considered the better apple for exportation, and in commercial orchards has almost superseded the Green Newtown, on account of its larger size, brighter color and better keeping quality. Both sorts are exceedingly variable and susceptible to the influence of soil, climate and elevation above sea-level. Newtowns are successfully grown in but few parts of the apple-producing area of the United States at the present time; the principal localities being the lower portion of the Hudson river valley in New York, the Piedmont and mountain regions of Virginia and North Carolina, and portions of California, Oregon and Washington. The excellent quality of the fruit grown in the Potomac counties of Virginia was noted as early as the time of Coxe. In Albemarle county, Virginia, where it reached a high degree of perfection, it became known as the "Albemarle Pippin" at an early date, and was for many years considered to be a distinct variety of local origin.
The following statement has been furnished by Samuel B. Woods, a prominent citizen and fruit-grower of Charlottesville, Virginia: "As far back as 1765 there was a tree noted for its fine fruit standing in a mountain hollow in the North Garden neighborhood. No one knows how the tree came there, but tradition has it that it was a seedling, and from its stock came Albemarle Pippins. Another account, and more authentic, is that which fixes the earliest introduction of the Pippin at the time of Braddock's defeat. Dr. Thomas Walker, of Castle Hill, Albemarle county, was with Braddock when the troops went into winter quarters at Philadelphia. Dr. Walker returned carrying in his saddle bags cuttings of apple trees. These were grafted at Castle Hill, and became the famous Albemarle Pippin. The two accounts are connected in a curious way: The land on which the tree in the North Garden neighborhood stood was entered in the land office in 1741 in the name of Mildred Meriwether. This Mildred Meriwether was a step-daughter of Dr. Thomas Walker, and the old tree on his land was probably one of the Walker grafts. There is little doubt that the first appearance of the Albemarle Pippin was at Castle Hill from the grafts brought home by Dr. Walker in 1755."
P.S: It's curious that The Heirloom Orchardist had planned this post on the Newtown Pippin long before we wrote last week's article on early efforts to plant street trees in NY City (see "Street Trees Save Lives"). It turns out there's now a movement to plant Newtown Pippins throughout the Big Apple. Erik Baard, who was named the "Greenest NYer" by I Love NY, founded the Newtown Pippin Restoration and Celebration. It's a great program designed to plant Newtown Pippins throughout New York City!