Professor Apple: How Tom Burford sowed the seeds of the Virginia hard cider revival

Hewes Crab and Roanes White Crab apples as illustrated in Henry Coxe's. Image courtesy of Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Hewes Crab and Roanes White Crab apples as illustrated in Henry Coxe’s. Image courtesy of Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This story ran as a cover story in C-VILLE Weekly on October 4, 2011. We’re re-running it here in honor of the first day of Virginia Cider Week.

It is tempting to imagine that the resurgence of Virginia hard cider had its genesis in a single moment: Monticello’s Director of Gardens and Grounds Peter Hatch and Virginia gentleman Tom Burford kneeling together with their grafting knives to re-propagate the Virginia Hewe’s Crab apple tree in Thomas Jefferson’s north orchard.

While the image isn’t quite true to life, it represents the way Burford has used the return of Thomas Jefferson’s fruit trees to Monticello to spread his own message: People should be making cider out of obscure apple varieties, because a long time ago they were worth their weight in gold. Newtown Pippin, Harrison, Hewe’s Crab, Roxbury Russett, Ashmead’s Kernel, Esopus Spitzenburg, Red Limbertwig. The names evoke a world of abundance, specificity, and sophistication that characterized the apple trade when cider was king. Today, there are only three commercial cider producers in Virginia.

A modern day Johnny Appleseed, part philosopher and part planter, Burford wants to put hard cider back on the dinner table, and he thinks teaching people to grow the right kind of apples is the way to do it. “The barriers are access to cider making varieties. Demand is greater than supply. And here is another pitfall. If we begin to use less than appropriate varieties we are going to produce inferior ciders,” Burford said.

The beginning
Hatch came to Monticello in 1978 to help execute the vision of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation to restore the estate’s gardens and fruit orchards. The plan was to recreate Monticello’s missing landscape features within the second roundabout, about 200 yards from the house. Between 1979 and 1981, an archeological crew directed by William “Wild Bill” Kelso found 59 original tree stains in a grid pattern in the south orchard that matched Jefferson’s meticulous base drawings. Hatch used Jefferson’s orchard lists to set about obtaining original varieties and re-planting Jefferson’s experimental fruit orchard.

Tom Burford

“We bragged about it at the time, that we could make this the most accurate garden restoration that had ever taken place in this country. And in some ways, in terms of the bones and structure of the garden we were successful,” Hatch said.

A Michigan native who came to Monticello after starting the horticulture program at Old Salem, Massachusetts, Hatch realized that one of the challenges of restoring Jefferson’s orchards was keeping them healthy. Another was finding authentic versions of commercially extinct varieties, ones that hadn’t been corrupted, mislabeled or misrepresented in some way.

In the process he reached out to various local apple experts, like Dr. Ellwood Fisher at James Madison University and Tom Burford. Hatch doesn’t remember his first encounter with Burford.

“Tom just showed up one day in 1982 or 1983. We had actually gone to other people to initially find the historic varieties for the orchard. I had done a study, a historical study, of varieties that Jefferson documented in his orchards. We bought stuff and we grafted stuff and we collected stuff,” Hatch said.

Burford recalls their history more broadly, saying he was summoned to Monticello on the understanding that Hatch was having trouble locating authentic versions of some varieties Jefferson had cultivated.

“Thirty-one years ago, Peter Hatch, young punk, had come to Monticello. He’d been at Old Salem and did a lot of the garden design there. He called me and said, ‘Someone said the Burfords have many of the Jeffersonia varieties, do you have them?’ and I said ‘Yes, Peter, I believe I have most of them,’” Burford said.

Burford, whom Hatch has since dubbed “Professor Apple,” occupies a singular place in the apple world as a source of knowledge, an evangelist, and a raconteur of America’s first fruit.
“The consummate Virginia gentleman, font of traditional knowledge and the dean of American apples. I don’t know how else you’d describe him. He’s one of the most gracious guys I’ve ever met in my life,” Ben Watson, New England-based author of Cider, Hard and Sweet: History, Traditions and Making Your Own, said.

Burford and Hatch like to butt heads about things—like the origin of the Father Abraham apple, and Jefferson’s legacy with the land—but they are good friends and collaborators. Hatch values Burford’s ability both to appreciate the proper balance between sugar, acid, and tannin in a fine cider while grasping the practicalities of growing fruit. His old Virginia accent is a bonus.

“He’s a storyteller. He has real vernacular roots in this part of the world. He combines the elegance and cosmopolitan tastes he learned at the University of Virginia and through extensive world traveling with the down home roots coming from a tradition of farmers and apple growers. You don’t find many of those people anymore,” Hatch said.

Hatch thinks the Father Abraham was one of many varieties to be developed in Virginia in the early 18th century, a period he calls the dawn of American agricultural trade. Burford identifies Father Abraham, in his 1991 book Apples: A Catalogue of International Varieties, as an alternative name for the Danziger Kantapfel, a German variety.

Not lost in the argument is the point that nurseries were big business when cider was the drink of choice at American dinner tables and their catalogues were filled with hundreds of varieties of apples. How many grocery store varieties can you name? Ten? As part of his effort to understand Jefferson’s orchard, Hatch has documented the emergence of cultivated local varieties from the massive seedling orchards that sprung up along the James River in the early colonial years.

“If you look at the nursery lists in American newspapers before 1830, you see that in the big nurseries on the East Coast they’re importing English apples,” Hatch said. “But if you go to Pittsburgh or Fredericksburg or Lynchburg, you see in the advertisements these local varieties are emerging and that was the beginning of Virginia agriculture in many ways, this emergence of these accidental varieties that were suited to the climate here.”

The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello, his book, offers an inside look at Jefferson’s life as an experimental horticulturist, but the restoration of the cider orchard has created a point of departure for the resurgence of heritage apple varieties in Virginia.

Hatch, the scientist, and Burford, the messenger, planted the north orchard with Hewes Crab apples in 1992. Burford provided grafting stock and consulted on the layout. He would walk side by side with fruit gardener Kerry Gilmer telling him how to care for the trees. The Hewes Crab was Jefferson’s premier cider apple (though the lost Taliaferro variety produced his favorite stuff). It was a Virginia apple, partial to Virginia soil and climate, that had emerged near Williamsburg around 1700.

“It was by far the most popular apple variety in Virginia in the 18th century, the most important variety of plant other than maybe some tobacco varieties for economic purposes,” Hatch said.

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