When my great-grandmother, Susan Bishop, was fourteen years old, her parents traded her to a man named Henry C. Hazelwood: a marriage for an apple orchard. He was seventy-four.
There are nearly 8,000 different kinds of apples grown around the world, and 2,500 of them can be found in America. Kentucky is one of the best climates in the eastern United States to grow these fruits; yes, there are cold snaps in the mountains, but not so frosty as to be inhospitable to plant life, certainly not to hardy apple plants. In June and July, you can find Early Gold varieties ready to be plucked from their trees and eaten raw or made into pies. Mid-season brings Golden Delicious and the ever-popular Honeycrisp, which will typically cost about a dollar more per apple than a regular ol’ Macintosh or Red Delicious because their stems have to be removed before shipping or they’ll damage the fruit’s skin. Late in the season, shiny red Rome Beauties will hang heavy on the branches1.
To live in eastern Kentucky is to be surrounded by wild things. Itty bitty towns with names like Lost Creek, Hazard, Quicksand, and Wolf Coal circle the place where my great-grandmother married twice.
We are a family of nines. Susan Bishop bore a total of nine children. Her elderly first husband, Henry C. Hazelwood, was the oldest of nine siblings. Susan’s oldest daughter from her second marriage, Mary Elizabeth, my Grandma Mary, had ten children. Nine survived to adulthood, my father being the last.
While most of my father’s siblings were born in Keavy, Kentucky, the youngest were born in northern Indiana, after the family had immigrated away from the dried-up coal mines in search of factory work. It’s just like that Dolly Parton song “Smoky Mountain Memories” but written in a minor key. They settled in Riverhaven, a poverty-stricken flood zone, and I get the impression that my alcoholic grandfather didn’t look too terribly hard for the work that was supposed to give his family half a chance.
Although no one is quite sure how, considering how poor they were, my grandparents continued to own some land back in Kentucky. On their patch of wooded mountainside was an abandoned schoolhouse with no electricity or running water, which wasn’t terribly different from their house up in Indiana; an outhouse; and a wood-burning stove that would heat the small railcar home and sear any child’s skin when they got too close.
During the family’s frequent visits to Kentucky to see relatives like Granny Bishop—the one who traded Susan for an apple orchard—my dad and his siblings would camp out in that schoolhouse, running wild through muddy creeks before hunkering down in the dim, empty classroom for the night. It wasn’t one of those stately brick structures that line country highways or get converted into salons. This had been built with wood planks, weathered and gray with age—nothing more than a hollow shell, without any desks or long-forgotten school supplies—by the time my dad stepped inside. A small amount of light seeped in the gaping windows, long since relieved of their glass panes. The road leading up to it was lined with pine trees and stained red from iron oxide.
None in the family could say when the last teacher had stood at the front of the room. Would she have been a frontier school marm with a gingham skirt twisting around as she walked to the green chalkboard, pointing to spelling words with a yard stick? Perhaps one of her students, a brown-noser to be sure, had plucked a ripe, weighty apple from a tree branch in the early morning hours. Maybe he cupped that shiny piece of fruit between his icy fingers as he made his way to that building nestled beside the creek where my uncles and father would fish out crawdads decades later. He must’ve carried that apple—an Empire or an Enterprise?—with care, cradled between his hands, a light grasp so as not to bruise through the skin. Could it have come from the orchard that cost my great-grandmother the remainder of her girlhood? She must’ve sat in that two-room schoolhouse when she was a child, learning “i” before “e” except after “c,” and her past participles and prepositions. In the before. Before Henry C. Hazelwood came for her.
One of the Latin names for an apple is Malus Domestica. To my untrained ear, Malus Domestica sounds like “Bad Family,” or perhaps, “Bad Home.”
My hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, is the final resting place of Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman, who is known for traveling around parts of the United States and Canada, starting and cultivating apple nurseries. Every fall, my town celebrates him with the Johnny Appleseed Festival where people dress in Little House on the Prairie garb and churn butter for an audience. Our minor league baseball team is called the Tin Caps, after the cooking pot he supposedly wore on his head.
My Aunt Norma—my father’s oldest living sibling—told me about Susan and the apple orchard just as I was getting up to leave what had once been my Grandma Mary’s Kentucky home. Uncle Terry, one of my dad’s two surviving brothers, now lives there full time and has made some upgrades: feral cats no longer rule the backyard porch; the kitchen has been degreased from decades of Grandma Mary’s biscuits and gravy, a Herculean task; tiles now exist where there was previously textured linoleum. The home frequently flooded. My Uncle Larry (yes, Larry and Terry) claims to have been taking a nap on the couch one day, when woke up and rolled over to see his own sandal floating by his face.
My dad brought me to Riverhaven because I’d been wanting to write about his early life, which had been so unlike my own comfortable, suburban childhood. He thought I’d have a better shot asking his siblings for stories, since he remembered so little. Some were adults by the time he was born, so they might remember his life differently, more clearly. At the end of our time together, I’d casually asked Aunt Norma if she had any other family stories to share, knowing that we don’t get together often and that time is a terribly finite thing for her these days. I had already shut my laptop and stood up from the Formica table when she said, “Well, Mom’s ma married an old man for an apple orchard when she was real young.”
“She got an apple orchard for marrying an old guy?” I asked, thinking maybe that wasn’t the worst exchange if she was a girl who loved apples.
“No, Granny Bishop, her mother, got the orchard,” answered Norma.
“How old are we talking?” I asked, knowing that old age meant something different one hundred years ago.
“No!” I yelled before making a gagging sound. At the time, we all laughed a little. Maybe in shock. Maybe because old men marrying young women is a punchline. Maybe we just didn’t know what else to do. Nothing was funny. Not a thing.
As my dad and I walked out to his car, I asked if he’d known about the orchard, about the price paid by his grandmother. Like with most things, he said he might’ve known and forgotten. The trauma of his upbringing—spending his toddlerhood in a tuberculosis sanitarium, his early childhood taking weekly baths in a metal tub (the kind Pinterest people now stuff with ice and La Croix for their cookouts), and his school-age years playing “Ode to Billie Joe” for his drunk dad on the record player again and again—causes almost everything else to float away like it’d never even been there. If the seed of a memory can’t take root, if it’s drowned before it reaches its tendrils down into the black soil, did it ever really happen?
“Better go,” my dad said, looking at neighbors out in the driveways, standing around burn piles the size of their homes. “Nobody knows me here anymore. Wouldn’t want to be here in the dark.”
Apples do not grow “true to seed,” meaning that what you put in the ground isn’t always what comes back out of it. The apple will be from the same family, but you could plant a Granny Smith seed and the tree will yield a French crabapple2.
While the apple, given its abundance in supermarkets, seems like a hardy plant, in reality, the trees require a lot of care and attention to produce edible, attractive fruit. In order for an apple plant to grow into a fruit-producing tree, it must be cross-pollinated with a different variety of apple. Inside of one apple are many seeds, each genetically different from the other, like siblings, a blend of the original plant and whatever type of apple with which it was cross-pollinated3. If each seed from that one apple was planted in a row, every tree that sprouted could produce a different type of fruit. Because of this, most apples are not grown from seeds but are instead cloned by grafting. Wild apples are often called “spitters” due to their bitter taste.
For a working parent of young children, I spend a large amount of my evenings on genealogy websites. I don’t really know what I’m looking for, but I knew exactly who Aunt Norma was talking about when she told me about the orchard because I’d seen Susan Bishop’s picture on Ancestry.com. In the photograph, she’s around the same age I am now and holding my great-uncle JB on her lap. Her features are clustered together beneath a heavy, overhanging brow, and yet, she’s lovely to look at. Even though the picture is that aged sepia tone, I can tell our hair is the same: stick straight, shiny, and regular old brown. Maybe I’m trying to understand how my life is so remarkably different than the lives of those just one generation ago.
After my Aunt Norma told me about the orchard, I went back onto Ancestry and clicked on Susan Bishop’s data. The site lists her children and her second husband, my great-grandfather Phillip Cornett. I could also see pictures of Susan as an old woman at my late Aunt Rosetta’s high school graduation in 1959.
And then I found him. Henry C. Hazelwood. Born in 1831, sixty full years before Susan Bishop. There is no mention of the orchard (and there wouldn’t be on the simple family tree accessible to someone like me, who is unwilling to pay a monthly membership fee), but there he was. Henry C. Hazelwood. Not seventy-two but seventy-four years old, in fact, when he married my teenaged great-grandma. There is his first wife, Elizabeth Seaborn, just two years younger than him. I see their sons listed beside her, George and James, respectively thirty-four and twenty-nine years older than my great-grandmother. And then five years after Elizabeth died at the age of sixty-seven, Henry C. Hazelwood—age seventy-fucking-four—married fourteen-year-old Susan Bishop on June 27, 1905.
114 years later and 170 miles to the north, I twist around in my comforter and bedsheets, unable to fall asleep because I’m so furious about something that happened to a relative who died twenty years before I was born. That can’t be healthy, normal. The bedroom I share with my husband—a man I chose to marry at twenty-five and chose to have children with at thirty—is dark and quiet, the white noise machine whirring. All the optimal sleep conditions are there as I curl my spine and clench. Before I went looking online, I’d taken some solace in thinking what little harm a seventy-four-year-old man could do a century before Viagra was patented. But I clicked on “children” beneath Susan’s name on the website, and now I know: enough harm to leave my great-grandmother a widow with a newborn son before she turned sixteen.
Biblical experts aren’t so sure it was an apple that brought ruination to Adam and Eve. Its place as the fruit that brought sin into a perfect world might have just been a pun chosen by the scholar during Pope Damascus’s reign who spent fifteen years translating the Bible from Hebrew into Latin. As a Latin adjective, malus means “bad” or “evil.” As a noun, it means “apple.” Back then, malus could also refer to a fig, a pear, a peach, or any other “fleshy, seed bearing fruit.4“ While the association has stuck, the language has changed: So many years later, the common apple malus pumila, is also known as the “paradise apple.5”
At my evangelical K-12 school, I was taught that the pains of childbirth were the price women had to pay for Eve’s deception. She was the First Woman, and all of us who followed her would suffer a punishment. I didn’t understand what could make an apple so tempting as to go against the commands of God, a terrifying figure that loomed over my childhood. Surely, it couldn’t have been just an apple. Were apples different at the dawn of humanity? Better? It seemed like a lackluster reason for expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
Now that I’m older and approaching the polar opposite of evangelicalism, I think back on how disturbing it was to have been taught this as a child. Twice now, the pains of labor have cracked over me like a whip. Not once when the contractions rippled through did I think of Eve and her apple. There was no room to think, only to suffer. I wonder now what kind of teacher tells a child that she will be punished when she’s grown—while doing the work of childbirth—because some supposed ancestor she’ll never know punctured the skin of an apple with her teeth, sucking in the juice before chewing through the flesh.
I doubt I’ll ever know if any of it—the tree, the Garden, Eve, the Devil, everything I was taught as fact alongside conjugating Spanish verbs and solving for X—was anything more than a story from a long time ago. And honestly, I don’t much care anymore. But I also want to know if Henry C. Hazelwood is the serpent in this scenario. Or is it my great-great-grandparents? Maybe they were a den of vipers, coiling and undulating their scaled bodies around a bucket of Braeburns and Galas.
While an apple is often associated with good health (“an apple a day keeps the doctor away”), it is quite possible for an apple to contain both arsenic and cyanide. The arsenic comes from the soil—it exists there naturally as well as in greater amounts as echoes of the poison that used to be sprayed on orchards before being outlawed—and can spread to the fruit itself as it grows6.
Regardless of the plant’s environment, cyanide, derived from a defensive compound known as amygdalin, is always buried within the apple’s seeds. This cyanide is harmless as long as the seed’s hard coating remains intact. While other fruits, like plums and cherries, also contain this same compound, apple seeds have the highest concentration. Still, a person would have to ingest approximately two hundred ground-up apple seeds to receive a lethal dose of cyanide7.
Last fall, my husband and I took our two young sons to an apple orchard for the first time. We did everything but pick apples for most of the afternoon: the bounce pad, the burlap sack slides, the barrel ride caterpillaring through the fields, the goat and fly-covered-pig visits, the sharing of one small $4 apple cider slushee.
Once we got around to filling our $15 apple bag, there were only two varietals left to choose from—Jonamac and Macoun. A Jonamac is a cross between a Jonathon and a McIntosh, and the Macoun is named after a Canadian horticulturist8, not a tropical bird. Even though we were tired, I insisted that we walk to the back of the orchard where the Jonamacs grew. I figured if they were harder to get to, they would be less over-picked.
It was between the Jonamac rows where we kept seeing a girl, no older than twelve, joyfully chomping on apple after apple. First on the barrel ride, then twenty minutes later on the hayride, there she was, ignoring her family as she took huge bites, her messy brown hair falling into her face. The girl was so clearly still a child, unbothered by her appearance, content to be out in the sunshine, consuming as many apples as her stomach could hold. I saw her grin in between bites. Some girls get to be children longer than others.
While North America was once home to over 15,000 different apple varieties, now only 3,000 remain. The apple industry has winnowed the biodiversity of the fruit to those that generate the highest crop yield. The varieties found in grocery stores—Red Delicious and Granny Smith—are not the most delicious but the most profitable9.
In an attempt to remedy this, David Benscoter founded the amateur botany group The Lost Apple Project after learning that his neighbor lived on what had once been the world’s largest apple orchard. Benscoter—a former FBI agent and IRS investigator—and his friend EJ Brandt now spend their retirement hunting for extinct apple breeds in the Pacific Northwest.
This pair of apple detectives scour old homesteads on what was once the Oregon Territory, looking for lost breeds. Together, they have rediscovered twenty-three different apple varieties that were thought to have died out. When they think they’ve unearthed a lost variety, they take detailed notes of the location, seal the fruit in a Ziplock baggie, and mail it to the Temperate Orchard Conservatory. If the apple is confirmed “lost,” Benscoter and Brandt return to the tree, taking a cutting to be grafted at the Temperate Orchard Conservatory’s to be “reborn” and preserved10.
Our sons picked maybe ten of the small greenish red Jonamacs before my husband suggested we try one to see if we liked it. We did not. The skin was thick and bitter. The small fruits felt like they had a coating of wax just like they do in the grocery store, even though we’d plucked them straight from the tree.
After the disappointing Jonamacs, we headed to the front of the orchard to try the Macouns, not knowing that, as another McIntosh hybrid, they tasted and looked remarkably similar to the Jonamacs.
As we walked the worn path between the trees, trying not to step on the piles and piles of fruit on the ground, my husband lamented, “Look at all this waste. There are more apples here than in the trees. How can they stay in business with all their apples rotting on the grass like this?”
“Maybe they come through after everyone leaves and use the ground apples to make the cider slushees,” I offered.
At first, we thought that people were throwing their unwanted apples onto the ground. But every time we reached for a fruit, we’d knock at least one other off the tree. The slightest jostle of a branch, a tiny graze from the back on my son’s hand, would cause a small army of Macouns to plummet downward to join the carpet of ruined apples. No amount of effort or care could stop the fall.
“What happens when an apple is set on fire?”
– Question from Quora user, Dawn Bash
“I can’t say that I have ever tried to set an apple on fire, nor have I ever been summoned to extinguish a burning apple… Depending upon how much heat you did apply, it would eventually evaporate all of the liquid and the apple would then burn. Perhaps you’d have to continue to apply the heat, but it would eventually combust and turn into a black carbon mass. I am, however, very curious regarding your reason for asking this unusual question.”
– Answer from Dave Smith, retired fire officer with twenty-nine years of experience11
Susan Bishop was eight years older than my first son—who still cannot tie his shoes or sleep without three nightlights—when her parents took the orchard in her place. She and I were born less than one hundred years apart. Like me, my great-grandmother was the oldest child in her family. Her mother went on to bear three more daughters, but as far as I can tell, records don’t show anything beyond their births, meaning they probably died in infancy. What would my great-great grandmother have done had Susan’s sisters survived? Would they too have been traded for land, maybe livestock? Or would the orchard have been enough for the family that the other three girls could’ve grown all the way up before marrying men their own age?
I’ve heard it’s not right or fair to judge those in the past through the lens of current morality. Maybe it wasn’t such a terrible thing back then, to arrange a marriage between a teenager and a septuagenarian for a few rows of apple trees. Susan Bishop might’ve expected such an occurrence. Perhaps her schoolgirl friends were placed in similar circumstances. Here, old man, take my thirteen-year-old and give me half of your goats. You can have this daughter of ours in exchange for that copper moonshine still I know you’ve got running in your old barn. Millie would be pleased to take your hand in marriage, but first let’s transfer the deed on this patch of land that the creek runs through. It was a different time, as they say. A different place.
I wonder what the great-grandmother I never met would think if she could see the life I have shaped, that my parents took care in cultivating. I’m pretty sure it’d make her sick to see how much we paid for a handful of hours spent in an apple orchard. It might hurt to look at what a woman could do with her life and her body if she were born at the tail end of the next century.
I can’t unlive those two years of Susan Bishop’s first marriage for her, and maybe she wouldn’t want that for herself. Her first son was a product of that marriage, after all. To unlive that short but significant sliver of her life would make him “discappear,” as my youngest likes to say.
The orchard, though. I can’t stop thinking about that damn orchard. The trade that was made. Apple for girl. Girl for apple.
I wish I could go back and burn those rows of apple trees down until nothing is left but a blanket of ash and charred fruit covering bluegrass. I’m not even sure if an apple can burn, being so weighed down with water and juice. But I would light a match and try.
Rumpus original art by Meg Richardson.
1. Barth, Brian. “Apple Varieties in Kentucky.” Living The Bump. The Bump. Accessed November 13, 2019. https://living.thebump.com/apple-varieties-kentucky-13151.html.↩
2. Richins Myers, Vanessa. “Can You Grow Apples from Seeds.” The Spruce. June 26, 2019. https://www.thespruce.com/can-you-grow-apples-from-seeds-3269511↩
3. Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences. “Johnny Appleseed: The Problem with Growing Apples from Seed.” The University of Manitoba. 2020. https://umanitoba.ca/faculties/afs/hort_inquiries/907.html#:~:text=Apple%20seeds%20do%20not%20reproduce,in%20order%20to%20produce%20fruit.&text=Therefore%2C%20a%20seed%20planted%20from,different%20appearance%2C%20colour%20or%20flavour.↩
4. Martyris, Nina. “‘Paradise Lost’: How Apple Became the Forbidden Fruit.” April 20, 2017. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/04/30/526069512/paradise-lost-how-the-apple-became-the-forbidden-fruit↩
5. “Apple Tree.” Shenandoah National Park. February 26, 2015. https://www.nps.gov/shen/learn/nature/apple_tree.htm
6. “Arsenic in Fruits, Juices, and Vegetables.” Dartmouth. February 15, 2017. https://www.dartmouth.edu/~arsenicandyou/food/fruits andvegetables.html↩
7. “Are Apple Seeds Poisonous?” Medical News Today.  “Are Apple Seeds Poisonous?” Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318706.php↩
8. Waiser, W.A. “John Macoun.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. March 4, 2015. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/john-macoun↩
9. Rossi Anastopoulo, Rossi. “Where Have All the Apples Gone?” PIT Journal. 2014. https://pitjournal.unc.edu/article/where-have-all-apples-gone-investigation-disappearance-apple-varieties-and-detectives-who↩
10. CNN Wire. “10 Kinds of Apples That Were Thought to Be Extinct Have Been Rediscovered.” Fox 43. April 25, 2020. https://www.fox43.com/article/news/history/10-kinds-of-apples-thought-extinct-rediscovered/521-97344ca6-94c3-41f8-a0de-63058c22d821
11. “What Happens When an Apple Is Set on Fire?” Quora. April 19, 2019. https://www.quora.com/What-happens-when-an-Apple-is-set-on-fire-1↩