Lost apple project
David Benscoter, a retired FBI and IRS Criminal Division agent, has ties to Pullman, having graduated from Pullman High and WSU. He became interested in apples after a Chattaroy, Washington, neighbor asked for help with the old trees on her property. Since then David has been on the lookout for apple varieties that have become extinct. His investigative nature led him to search for the origin of these heirloom trees throughout the Palouse.
One of his recent searches took him to the lower slopes of Steptoe Butte, on the former homestead property of Robert E. Burns. Burns and his wife Mecie began farming in 1888. It was on this land that the couple farmed, raised their family, and planted a huge orchard of fruit trees. The family hit hard times following the economic crash of 1893 and they finally lost their farm.
Benscoter has found other promising sites for heritage apples. A local legend, James “Cashup” Davis, who built a short lived hotel on top of Steptoe Butte in the late 1800’s, also planted hundreds of apple trees on the butte. In nearby Oakesdale, banker and horticulturist, Edwin H. Hanford built a spacious three-story Victorian home on his 480-acre property in the late 1890s. He was a
pioneer in agricultural experimentation and diversification. By 1901, he had one of the area’s largest producing orchards and nurseries. The Hanford orchards and Hanford nurseries encompassed at least 220 acres. In 1900, the orchards included approximately 50 varieties of prunes, 60 varieties of pears, 4 varieties of cane fruits, 3 species of nut trees, and 145 varieties of apples. Benscoter has sent one of these lost apples, called “Walbridge,” to experts for a vetting process.
Scientists with the WSU Department of Horticulture have collaborated with Benscoter to take cuttings and propagate these heritage apples that have survived 125 years of neglect. One of the many tasks undertaken is to identify the variety of apple as they are found. To date, experts have confirmed one type, called “Nero,” which was popularly grown a century ago and thought to be extinct. Benscoter continues to search for other lost apples and has earmarked eleven varieties based on comparison to paintings and descriptions from the era, but their identity is yet to be confirmed. If these heritage apples can be reproduced, they could add new choices for present-day growers.
Part of the Burns orchard and the entire Davis orchard are included in land recently purchased by two couples who recognized the importance of preserving one of the largest and last known portions of native Palouse prairie. Ray and Joan Folwell, Pullman, together with Kent and Elaine Bassett, Bellevue, teamed their resources to acquire 437 acres surrounding the base of Steptoe Butte when it came up for auction in October, 2016. Most of the original Palouse prairie has been plowed for farming, leaving only small pockets of native vegetation in gullies or steep hillsides. It is the hope of the Folwells and Bassetts to save this land in its native state.