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The Remnants of Washtenaw's Old Orchards

By Patrick McCauley
(originally printed in Fall 2023 Impressions)

With only a few hundred acres currently growing, the orchards in Washtenaw County are dwarfed by the counties along the coast of Lake Michigan, which grow the vast majority of the state’s apple, pear, cherry, and peach crops.  This was not always the case. Over 100 years ago, Washtenaw County was one of the leading producers of fruit in the state of Michigan, with Washtenaw fruit being shipped all over the nation. In 1883, Washtenaw County was the second leading producer of apples in Michigan(after neighboring Oakland County), and the leading producer of peaches in the state. The temperate climate of the Huron River Valley was ideal for growing fruit, and the 1874 Washtenaw County Plat Map shows that nearly every farm in the county had an orchard. Most of these orchards were relatively small, with a couple dozen trees that made up one piece of the diversified family farmsteads that dotted the county. Others like that of John C. Bird of Ann Arbor, were large commercial operations


Beyond our favorable climate, another reason Washtenaw County had so many orchards was that a large percentage of early white settlers came from one of the great fruit growing regions of America: the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York. From the late-18th through mid-19th Century, large numbers of new apple and pear varieties emerged from this part of New York, and there were huge advancements in the scientific study of fruit growing that came out of the Finger Lakes. Brothers Ezra and Zina Lay brought 25,000 fruit trees from Western New York in 1833, to establish the largest fruit tree nursery in the Old Northwest Territory. In addition, large numbers of German immigrants from Swabia, one of the leading fruit growing regions of Germany, came to Washtenaw County. One of the earliest Swabian settlers, Daniel Allmandinger, brought 400 fruit trees from Upstate New York to Ann Arbor in 1829. These two groups literally transplanted their fruit growing traditions to their new homes in Washtenaw County. Predating the large influx of immigrants in the 1820s and 30s, French traders, as well as American Indians, planted orchards in the county, some of which could still be found into the 1880s.

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Today, very little remains of this agricultural heritage. A few 19th Century cider mills still make cider every fall, but most of the orchards have either died out, been swallowed up by woodlands, or have been cut down and replaced with commodity crops or subdivisions. If you slow down though, every Spring and Fall, remnants of these old orchards make themselves known. Massive and hollowed out apple and pear trees can still be found in the yards of 19th Century farmsteads, along country roadways, and even in suburban backyards. Seedling/standard-sized apple and pear trees can live for over 200 years, and in the case of the Endicott pear tree in Danvers, Massachusetts, nearly 400 years! Each year, fewer and fewer of these trees remain, with storms, unchecked development, and overzealous chainsaw work erasing these connections to our past, and perhaps even destroying the last remaining survivor of a potentially unique apple or pear variety that was grown here in the 19th Century. It should be noted that peach, plum, and cherry trees do not live anywhere near as long as apple and pear trees, so finding a 19th Century survivor is impossible.


For this reason, myself and few others have been documenting these old trees, attempting to identify what varieties they are, and salvaging them by taking cuttings and grafting them onto new rootstocks. It should be noted that every unique apple or pear variety needs to be propagated from a cutting, and not a seed, if your goal is to propagate that same variety. Every apple or pear seed that is planted will create a new and unique variety. For instance, if you see an apple or pear tree growing in a hedge row, or randomly out in a field, it is likely an unknown and unique seedling variety. Every McIntosh apple tree is a direct descendant of the original McIntosh tree discovered by John McIntosh in Dundela, Ontario, in 1811, and has been spread through cuttings that were grafted onto new rootstocks.


When the white settlers began flooding into Washtenaw County, many came with bags of seeds collected at cider mills (just like Johnny Appleseed) or with cuttings from their favorite trees back east. Seeds were planted out, creating new varieties, or were used as the rootstocks which they would graft their favorite varieties on top of. Prior to the 1820s and 1830s, most apples and pears were grown from seed rather than by grafting, creating thousands of new varieties. Most were not great for eating, and were primarily used for cider. There were thought to be 14,000 unique apple varieties grown throughout the United States in the 19th Century!

Today there are about 14 varieties that make up the bulk of commercially grown apples, and even fewer pears. In 19th Century Washtenaw County, about 10-15 apple varieties were commonly grown here, like Baldwin, Red Canada, Famuese,Tolman Sweet, Rhode Island Greening, Roxbury Russet, King of Tompkins County, and Yellow Bellflower, but hundreds of other varieties were also grown. Many apple varieties that were noted in the county are currently thought to be extinct, like Ox Noble, the J. Austin Scott (Austin) apple, or a variety named “Washtenaw” that originated as a seedling here. By the 1920s, the varieties grown in the county were greatly consolidated into varieties we all recognize like Yellow Delicious, Red Delicious, Northern Spy, Jonathan, and McIntosh. People in Washtenaw may have recognized a variety like Ox Noble, but if the apples were sent to faraway markets, nobody knew what that apple was used for, or if it was any good. Widely known apples like Jonathan or McIntosh were more marketable.


It is this very early generation of apple and pear trees that we have been searching for, with the hopes that we may uncover some long-lost variety, or at least find rare apple and pear varieties that will paint a fuller picture of what was commonly grown here. A pre-1920 apple or pear tree is more likely to be one of the more rare or potentially lost varieties that are mentioned in newspapers or pomological journals. These ancient trees are easy to identify, as they have exceptionally thick trunks, and in general hollowed out apples. Once an old tree is identified, I will go back to the 1940 Washtenaw County aerial photos and the 1874 County Plat Maps to see if there is a fruit orchard on the site. Then there is the art of trying to identify what the variety is, by observing and tasting the fruit. This is a real challenge for us amateurs, but thankfully there is a lot of help on the internet, and in all likelihood, the apple or pear is one of varieties that commonly grown in Washtenaw 100+ years ago, which shortens the list of possibilities. When all else fails, leaves can be sent to the University of Washington for DNA analysis. They have thousands of apple and pear varieties in their database, and can tell us without a doubt what variety the fruit tree is. If we’re lucky, perhaps we will find the Ox Noble, Washtenaw, or Austin apples. Worst case scenario, we’ll find hardy varieties that have grown for 100 or 200 years, with minimal intervention. In the modern era, where we are trying to limit the use of toxic pesticides, these ancient varieties could be the answer to low intervention and organic orcharding in the County.


You Can Help Discover Ancient Roots! If you know of any ancient apple or pear trees in the county, please reach out to me at It’s especially helpful if you know what variety of apple or pear the trees are, but if not, I would love to help you identify them, and perhaps even propagate them for future generations.


About the Author - Patrick McCauley is a lifelong resident of the Ann Arbor area, having grown up in Salem and Superior Townships,  He maintains a young apple and pear orchard of 200 trees and is an award winning amateur cider maker. Patrickcurrently serves on the executive committee of the Ann Arbor Historical Foundation and co-authored Historic Ann Arbor: An Architectural Guide, with Susan Wineberg. It features profiles of 375 of Ann Arbor’s most significant historic buildings and can be found at local books stores and Amazon. Signed copies are also available at The Museum on Main Street Gift Shop.

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