Ever Dream of Your Own Apple Orchard? I Do.

Our family heirloom is an apple.  No, not a carefully curated first generation iPod, but an actual, grown-on-a-tree apple.  The kind you eat and it supposedly keeps the doctor away.

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As the story goes, my great-great-great grandfather, H.J. Ludlow, a horticulturalist, grafted this special, hearty apple.  It grew on the shores of Lake Okabena in Worthington, Minnesota, and took the name “The Okabena Apple.”

The apple makes, literally, THE best apple pies and applesauce.  It’s a small apple and not the best to eat-off-the tree, but that wasn’t its purpose.  It was intended to be a baking apple.  And, in its day (the early 1900s), the Okabena apple was a king.  Eventually, larger, heartier apples took over and conquered the grocery store.  My great-great-great grandfather’s orchard was later developed as the family moved.

When I was young, we had an Okabena Apple tree in our backyard.  It was my tree and one of the few remaining.  When we moved, we had the tree replanted in a local park on the land where the orchard used to lie.  There, it could stand as a majestic symbol of the city’s pioneering past.  The following year a snowplow ran it over.

Somehow having this apple tree at an early age instilled a deep sense of kinship to the apple.  Most people might not care much and could do without it, but I dreamed of an orchard full of trees once again.

I resonate with a scene in Gladiator where Marcus Arelius dreams of home instead of his life on the battlefield.  In those dreams, he would walk through wheat fields on his country farm with his hands brushing through the wheat.  I want to walk through an apple orchard with my hands out touching the apples.

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After the snowplow incident, we had four trees left in the family planted across a few properties.  On a good year, we might get a basket or two of apples in total.  This year, the harvest was barely enough for two pies.

If we wanted to make more than a pie or two, we knew of one orchard in Wisconsin that acquired and still had Okabena Apple trees.  This past fall, my family called the orchard to place an order.  We received distressing news: The orchard was bulldozed.  A new housing development took its place.  The Okabena Apple tree numbered only four.

I had a new mission: Save the Okabena Apple.  Immediately, I contacted the apple department at the University of Minnesota (yes, there’s an apple department—who knew!) and talked to some apple professors.  They affirmed that the Okabena was an old apple and very rare today.  They knew of only one orchard that might have the Okabena Apple, and that was in Washington State.

I Googled, then called.  An old man named Nick answered the phone.  He owned and operated the orchard in Washington.  Nick collects apple trees.  He had one tree of every variety he could find.  His orchard boasted 3,000 trees—and almost all of different varieties.  Once every couple years he receives a call about the Okabena Apple tree.  As we spoke about it, he seemed to know this one tree—even amongst the thousands.  Although Nick couldn’t sell us boxes of apples like we hoped, it comforted us to know we didn’t hold the very last of the Okabena Apple.

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So, how do you save a tree?  Through a procedure called “grafting.”  You take “scion” wood from target tree—in this case, the still-growing tips of the Okabena Apple tree—then carefully insert those tips into a root stock of another variety of apple tree (essentially the bottom stem and roots of baby tree).   The target tree then grows forth from the host’s base.

We found an expert grafter in the area and sixty newly grafted Okabena Apple trees wintered in his greenhouse.  The trees are now with a landscaper growing to the size where they can be planted and survive outside.  It may be another year or two before the trees will be planted, but we will soon have an orchard along the outskirts of our Bedford Industries manufacturing facility.

The Okabena Apple will be saved.

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6 Responses to Ever Dream of Your Own Apple Orchard? I Do.

  1. Catherine Whittinghill September 8, 2011 at 8:12 am #

    Jay this is my favorite post of yours so far! I love this story. I really love it. I’ve, oddly, always dreamed of having an apple orchard, but I certainly don’t have the deep family connection. I feel like praying for your six baby trees! Keep us posted on their progress.

    • Jay Milbrandt September 8, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

      Thanks, Catherine!! That means a lot to me coming from a Yale Lit graduate student like yourself!!! You’ll have to come plant a tree with us when they’re ready!

  2. Lauralee DL Watkins January 2, 2013 at 11:35 am #

    I found this blog by accident looking up family history. I didn’t know they still existed!!! Amazing job!!! Keep it up!!!

    -Elizabeth (Ludlow) Geyerman’s Great Granddaughter

  3. Dave November 16, 2014 at 12:34 am #

    I gotta tell you. When I was growing up in west central Wisconsin we lived on a small farm. Neighbors had an orchard so I’m sure that is where we got our start of a few of our own trees. One of those was an Okabena. You are right. The apple was perfect for baking. I researched quite awhile to find this site and happy the Okabena still survives today

  4. Margaret Thorson December 28, 2014 at 9:48 pm #

    We have an old apple tree that was planted on our farm as pat of an orchard in the first decade of the 20th century. We’ve never known what it was but just today we read an article in the Heritage Farm magazine about the Okabena apple and are thinking that maybe that’s what our “apple pie” apple might be. You mention an orchard in Washington State that has a tree. We are in the San Juan Islands of WA state. Can you give me contact information for this orchard.

    Margaret Thorson
    Thousand Flower Farm
    Waldron WA

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