By Beverly Woody
Andrew Jackson Stedman and his son Malvern Vance Stedman started and published The Enterprise; however, their passion was apple orchards. The Stedman’s legacy led to the largest and most famous apple trees in the world!
The first time one of the celebrity trees seems to show up in print is in the 1900 annual report of the Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture. Commissioner G. W. Kolner reports to the Richmond Dispatch that “about seven miles from Stuart, in the county of Patrick, there grows the world’s largest apple tree known as the Handy apple tree, which measures nine feet five inches around the body. It is fifty-two feet high and seventy-one feet broad. It is a winter apple, not first rate for eating, but excellent for drying, while for making brandy it cannot be surpassed.”
Fifteen years later, the Handy apple tree is alive and well and continues to produce record breaking bounties. The Knoxville Sentinel reports that “Old Handy” an Albemarle Pippin or Bushy Top (depending on who you ask) has a record of producing 162 bushels of apples in a single season and during another, eighty gallons of apple brandy were made from the tree’s yield. The tree has grown over the past fifteen years, now measuring twelve feet in circumference and sixty feet in height. “Old Handy” was named for Jacob Sparrel Handy who owned the land on Rye Cove Creek where the world’s largest apple tree flourished.
Malvern Stedman, publisher of The Enterprise listed his profession in the 1920 census as orchardist. He and his father planted 150,000 apple trees in Patrick County. Stedman claims that his maternal grandfather, William Martin planted “Old Handy” and many others in the southwest part of Patrick County. The Dobyns community was not the only area where Patrick County apples thrived.
Stedman owned a farm about six miles east of Stuart that is now more commonly known as the Beamer Martin farm. It is located on Martin Farm Road in the Patrick Springs area and had a famous tree too! The Knoxville Sentinel reports that in 1915 the “Adams Apple” produced a record breaking 220 bushels of Winesap apples in one season! In fact, the largest Winesap apple ever grown came from this orchard, reports Mr. Stedman. This apple measured thirteen inches in circumference and a wax model was placed on exhibit at the Agriculture Department in Washington, D.C.
Close to the Danville & Western (Dick & Willie) Railroad line, on the east side of Bull Mountain was the Atwood Orchard Company. This business was later purchased by Cabell Tudor and would become known as Tudor Orchard. In 1931, the Danville Bee reported that over 80,000 barrels of apples raised in Patrick County would be moved over the D & W tracks to cold storage in Koehler and Danville. Eighty thousand barrels is equivalent to four hundred boxcar loads piled high. 20,000 barrels were under contract for export purposes to Europe where Patrick County Winesaps were growing in popularity.
Folks in the northern part of the county were busy growing apples too. In Woolwine, apple orchards flourished along Rock Castle creek. George William “Mac” Conner and his sons had a large orchard deep inside what is now known as Rock Castle Gorge. The Conners would haul huge wagon loads of apples to train depots in Bassett, Stuart, and the Draper-Leaksville-Spray area of North Carolina. The men would sleep under the wagons that night and then come back home the next day.
Apple picking season provided local residents an opportunity to earn some cash money. As a newly married man, my grandfather lived off Fairview Church road in Floyd County. He would walk from his home, up over the ridge that would soon become Rocky Knob National Park, and down over what is now known as “The Saddle” all the way to Mac Conner’s orchard. He would pick apples all day and then make the trek home that night!
News of the amazing apple trees of Patrick County had made their way to Vermont by 1923. The Middlebury Register reported that “Good care of an orchard is exhibited in Patrick County, Virginia, which can boast of the oldest apple orchard in the world. Now more than a hundred years old, and many of the Winesap trees doing better than 100 bushels per season.”
Apple trees can be synonymous with love. Susan Handy Taro recalls happy memories of attending Stuart Elementary and Mr. Carl Ayers bringing apples from his orchards to give to the schoolchildren at Christmas time. Susan said those Red Delicious apples were twice as large as ones that you can purchase in the grocery stores now.
Tom Brown of Clemmons, NC is always looking for heritage apples to document and preserve. Some of the old heritage apples that he has identified in Patrick County have such poetic names as the Barrel, Brimstone, Bushy Top (Handy Apple), Finn, Foley Pippin, Green Skin Pippin, Hawaii, Jim Goins, Mountain Pride, Palmer, and Tucker’s Everbearing.
In 1902, a correspondent for the Lynchburg News summed it up best when he said that “the oldest, largest, and most productive apple trees in the world are in Patrick County, Virginia. Nature has been most generous to the Old Dominion.”
Thank you to Ellen Fulcher, Susan Handy Taro, and Joanne Shirley for their contributions to this column.