Sometimes history gets lost along the way, and things get forgotten.
Seeking to remedy some Texas history, Texas Tech University Professor Bryan Giemza and his students have transformed themselves into detectives, specifically, apple detectives.
“Inspired by my friend Lee Calhoun, an expert in southern heirloom apples, who has pancreatic cancer, I decided to offer a course called ‘In Search of Texas Beauty,’ themed around the lost apples of Texas, one of which was called ‘Texas Beauty,’ Giemza said. “The premise was simple: students would learn how to do research by going on a quest for the apples.
“There are 67 apple cultivars historically attributed to Texas. Only two are still in cultivation, the Jonagold and San Jacinto, in case you were wondering.”
One of the lost heirloom apples comes from Paris Nurseries, he said. In the 19th century, Paris resident Dr. William Wynne Stell, who started Paris Nurseries in 1871, developed an apple called the Cleveland apple, so named after President Grover Cleveland.
Dr. Stell grew the apple on his property in Paris, 27 acres on land that is currently between 22nd Street SE and 24th Street SE, between Clarksville Road and Lamar Avenue. With the help of local lawyer Brad Hutchison, who owns property that once belonged to Dr. Stell, the class may be honing in on a still-living Cleveland apple tree.
“No apples or trees yet, but the Clark property has larger lots than the Stellrose property, and a tree could be hiding in the back yard somewhere,” Hutchison wrote in an email to Giemza. “This will give your students something to chew on, but the nursery most certainly had to be on this Stell(rose) tract or on the Clark tract, or both. My friend who says they had an apple tree lived on Lots 28 and 29 in Block 2 of the Stellrose; and the property where he say were may fruit trees would be Lots 3 and 4 in Block 2 of the Stellrose.”
In 1894, Dr. Stell retired from the nursery business, according to an article on Lamarcountytx.org, and sold his interest in the nursery to his partner, Henry L. Clark. An entry from the 1885 Paris Nurseries catalogue lists the Cleveland apple as “apparently named after Grover Cleveland, originally created by a Dr. William Wynne Stell of Paris Nurseries in Paris, Texas.
It is described as being large, an oval, possessing yellow skin, covered with red and “deeper red” stripes; very juicy flesh, subacid/maybe sweet. Ripe in August.”
During his time at the nursery, he developed several different varietals of different fruit, including the Texas Belle, Tudor and Bonner plums and the Cleveland apple and got into a war of words with the world-famous Texas horticulturist T.V. Munson, who is credited with saving the French wine industry, creating phylloxera-resistant rootstocks for grapes.
The class has found one of the heirloom apples they are seeking, Giemza said.
“We actually have discovered one in Washington state, of all places,” he said. “We are tantalizingly close with the Cleveland.”
Giemza is asking Paris residents, especially older Paris residents, if they know where an old apple tree might be growing.
He said the class is building a website for the lost apples, and is asking for anyone with knowledge to email the class at email@example.com.
“But since all of these apples predate genetic testing, the best chain of provenance is often the human stories that are handed down,” Giemza said.
“We are celebrating the area where human and natural history come together, and our relationship to apples as a source of beauty and wonder, a way of prompting us to look at the world differently.”
And, the search isn’t just academic, Giemza said. Apple trees now are being hammered by a disease called “rapid apple decline” around the nation.
Genetic diversity is one of many ways to combat diseases in the nation’s foodstocks.
“In that sense, our quest is more than academic,” Giemza said.