The Appalachian Apple Hunter Who Saved 1200 Lost Varieties

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The apple hunter in the Appalachians who found and saved 1200 different kinds


It’s not easy to save more than 1,200 types of apples that have been lost. It needs careful planning, persistence, and a variety of study methods, from the usual to the unusual.

This is where Tom Brown from Clemmons, North Carolina, comes in, says Southern Living. His interest in pomology has turned into a burning desire to find the lost food history of the Southeastern United States. To do this, he’s looked through orchard catalogs from the antebellum period, walked through a lot of empty woods, and driven tens of thousands of miles.

But every time he finds an old apple tree, these compromises pay off in ways that can’t be measured. Along with the culinary adventure, he gets pleasure from knowing that he is protecting an important part of American culture. Plus, you’ll be able to say that you’ve tasted an apple that no one has eaten in 50 to 100 years!

Read on to find out more about his amazing quest to find lost foodways and a unique part of American past.


It’s easy to think that Brown has always loved Appalachian apples, but he didn’t really start to pursue this interest until 1998. At that point, he happened upon Maurice Marshall and his huge selection of apple types at a nearby market. Brown can still remember the different sizes, colors, textures, and tastes of the fruits that were on the table. He also liked how their bright names stood out.

Marshall’s apple collection looked like a real patchwork quilt of different colors and shapes, ranging from bright pink to bright yellow to black with yellow spots. Along with their bright differences, they had fun names like Bitter Buckingham, Arkansas Black, White Winter Jon, and Billy Sparks Sweetening. He is still thrilled to remember Marshall’s tasting trays and the amazing textures and tastes he had when he first tried these long-forgotten fruits.


Brown was so interested in ancient apples after learning about them for the first time. Marshall’s tasting trays showed a wide range of fruits, from the rosé wine-colored flesh of Jonathans to the honey-like sweetness and pear body of Rusty Coats. Apples that were twenty ounces in size were a sour treat with a sweet finish. Grimes Golden had hints of nutmeg and white pepper, and Etter’s Gold was a semi-firm favorite that smelled like grapes and peony blooms.

Brown began to learn more about the many types of apples that used to grow in the Appalachians when he realized how little he knew about them. What he discovered was both exciting and sad. There used to be tens of thousands of different kinds of apples. As late as 1905, trees were growing more than 14,000 different kinds.


The wide range of apples showed how useful the people who lived in the colonies were. In a place and time where safe and clean water was still hard to come by, cider made more sense. As a result, apples became like wine grapes from the Old World, and East Coast farmers now grow a wide range of apples on their own farms.

Apple orchard circa 1910. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The weather in the Appalachians was perfect for growing apples, and homesteaders tried making new kinds that were better for things like making cider, finishing animals, and making vinegar. A diverse orchard was essential for both life and good eating, as Brown says (via Atlas Obscura). The Appalachian Voice says that apple trees were one of the most outstanding things about the American garden.

What Will Happen to Appalachian Apples?

There used to be tens of thousands of different kinds of apples in the United States, but now most grocery shops only carry a few. There are two main reasons why the most famous apple species today became so popular: 1) they grow quickly, and 2) they preserve well over time.

Most small apple farms had to close by the 1950s. It’s now the late 1990s, which is a few decades later. At this point, there were only about 11,000 heirloom apple kinds left, and only 11 types made up 90% of grocery store sales.

Brown wasn’t willing to let more than 250 years of food culture and custom go away. He chose to do something about it instead. Brown drove thousands of miles to find people who had old trees in their backyards. He did this by using historical seed books as a guide. He kept going because he wanted to keep the past alive before it was too late. He says, “These were foods that people used to care deeply about and that were important to their lives.” It didn’t seem right to let them die.

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