There were trees as far as the eye could see, boughs heavy with apples ripening in the golden October sun–1.6 million trees growing on an estimated 40,000 acres at one count, 2.5 million a decade later. You would be forgiven for thinking this was New York’s Hudson Valley or southeastern Washington, but you would be wrong. In the year 1900 the place with more apple trees than anywhere in the United States was Benton County, Arkansas. In the year 1900 the place with more apple trees than anywhere in the United States was Benton County, Arkansas. Number two was Washington County just to the south. Now known more as the home of the international chain Walmart, Benton County, and it’s capital Bentonville, was once a powerhouse of apple growing and apple drying, as well as cider and apple butter. It was also the birthplace of Arkansas Black.
John Braithwaite (1811-1890) is the man credited with planting the seed that became Arkansas Black according to most of the sources one might trust to get this sort of thing right (Lee Calhoun, author of Old Southern Apples, for one). Just when this Englishman arrived in North America has been lost to history, but by the early 1840s he was in northwestern Arkansas, married to the widow Sarah (aka Sally) Dickson McCurdy (1819-1892), and starting a family. His choice of brides was a good one for the Dicksons were people of note, both in the new state of Arkansas (admitted to the union in 1836) and their home state of Tennessee.
The head of the Dickson family was Joseph Dickson (1745-1825), captain in the Continental Army, rising to general by the Revolution’s end, and Sarah’s grandfather. A good example of the new American self-made man, he rose from obscurity to some prominence with his command of troops in the Battle of Kings Mountain in North Carolina. He went on to become a landowner and an important statesman, member of both the State Senate and the commission that founded the University of North Carolina. Serving as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1799 to 1801, his full-throated support of Thomas Jefferson gave Jefferson the Presidency in the tied election of 1800. Dickson would not have known at the time, or probably cared, but his support of Jefferson set up the circumstances that led Braithwaite to plant the fateful apple seed.
It started with the Louisiana Purchase, the acquisition of lands east of the Mississippi River from the French, which doubled the size of the newly-independent United States. It apparently didn’t concern the colonial powers involved (the Spanish were in on the discussions, too) that the land in question didn’t actually “belong” to the French but to others, the Tsalaguetiyi (Cherokee), Osage, and Kiickapoi (Kickapoo), just a few of the many peoples that had been living there for uncounted years before Europeans arrived. The deal was completed in 1803, the same year that Dickson moved himself, his family, and his 13 or so slaves to Rutherford County, Tennessee and began to accumulate expansive agricultural landholdings there, as well continuing his political career in the state House of Representatives (1807 – 1811).
After the French and Indian War of 1763, the British government had agreed that no new British settlements would be made east of the Appalachian Mountains, though that didn’t really stop people from moving there anyway. Now that there was a new government in charge it was full speed ahead for westward expansion, a key element in Jefferson’s vision of creating a prosperous yeoman-farmer underclass. It took some years to carve this enormous piece of land into more administratively manageable chunks, pushing out the native people by war or treaty along the way. Arkansas Territory was created in 1819. Sarah Dickson moved there with her first husband, Allen McCurdy (1807-1837), in the mid-1830s. (There were some 30,000 settlers and slaves counted in the 1830 territorial census.) Her father Robert and several uncles, brothers, and cousins soon followed suit, as did John Braithwaite.
We don’t know just why they chose Arkansas’ largely undeveloped northwest corner, but it was a common destination for people moving out of Tennessee. Perhaps it was just a longing to start someplace new, out from under the eye of a powerful patriarch. Perhaps it was the availability of virgin land. The Ozark Plateau, with its rough, hilly terrain, was unsuited to large scale cotton plantations, but good for orchards. The altitude kept the nights cool, and there was plenty of water. According to J.B. Lawton in his History of the Fruit Industry of Arkansas (1901), one of the Dicksons planted an orchard just outside of Bentonville (called Osage at the time) in 1836. John Braithwaite planted a nursery nearby in 1843 and was selling grafted trees to new settlers by the following year. This may have been on land owned by his father-in-law, Robert, as Braithwaite was only granted land of his own starting in the 1850s. Tree sales may also have been more of a side business, as he listed his occupation as stone mason in the 1850 census. The area was so cut off from most regular supplies that people were primarily planting to feed their families. The commercial fruit industry did not start up in earnest until the arrival of the railroad in 1881, finally giving the area easy access to nationwide markets.
Lawton writes that Arkansas Black was one of the ungrafted seedlings in Braithwaite’s 1843 nursery. James Alfred Marks, in a thesis paper written in 1911, says he was told by a Mr. Goree that Braithwaite discovered this seedling had fruited in 1865 when he returned home after a four year absence, a date supported by one of the many Dickson cousins (John Alvin) when interviewed around 1886. Braithwaite seems to have chosen to sit out the Civil War elsewhere (there are no Braithwaites listed as Confederate soldiers, though there are several Dicksons). That would seem to have been a very sensible decision since Bentonville was largely destroyed during the conflict as first one side then the other moved through burning buildings as they went.
Not a prolific bearer and prone to scab (though resistant to cedar rust) Arkansas Black was not an immediate hit with every pomologist that wrote about it. It does, however, have two attributes that has kept it in orchards from New York to Oregon. First is its rich, dark red, almost black color. S.A. Beech, in The Apples of New York (1905), describes it as “one of the most beautiful apples”. It also has extraordinary keeping ability, up to three and a half months in ordinary storage. The apple’s portrait appeared as early as 1870 in one of the specimen books created by D.M. Dewey for the nursery trade. It was one of the main varieties grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley by 1919, and though it does not command the acreage that it once did, Arkansas Black continues to be grown to some extent across the U.S.
It may be Arkansas Black’s heirloom status that prompts cidermakers to ferment it. One can most often find it in blends, though there are a handful of single variety ciders out there as well. It was a challenge to find a common theme in the ones I tried, though all were largely devoid of tannin (think crisp white wine here). Some had pronounced aromas and some were quite restrained; some had significant acidity, some not so much. Is this a reflection of terroir or cidermaker choices in the cellar?
Albemarle Ciderworks, North Garden, VA – lime zest, guava, honey, white flowers, peach, and apricot; sparkling; 2016; 7% ABV
Botanist and Barrel, Cedar Grove, NC – pear skin, green plum skin, gooseberry, lime zest, and lemongrass; sparkling; 2019; 7.5% ABV
Pen Druid Fermentation, Sperryville, VA – green pear, pear skin, peach, lime juice, quince, mint, and eucalyptus; sparkling; 2019; 6.3% ABV
Gopher Glen, San Luis Obispo, CA – quince, guava, mandarin orange, tart apple skin, and pear juice; sparkling; 2018; 8% ABV