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1408 Trumansburg Rd, Ithaca NY 14850
Dr. James N. Cummins
STORIES FROM CUMMINS NURSERY
This is a section of Cummins Nursery dedicated to stories (preferably in some way connected to fruit and/or farming). We are open to stories you send in as well!!!
Kicking Leaves in Mr. Gage's Orchard | The Drive from Kinmundy | The Yellow Transparent Orchard | The Spray Crew |Hoodlin' |Loading Reefers | Ben Davis | Thirsty Cider | Backyard Orchards | Dad, Peeling Apples | Little Pearl and the Hot Box
The Yellow Transparent Orchard
Today cousin Bob and I are on the payroll. Cousin Bob and I are cutting suckers, cutting suckers in the Transparent block, cutting the suckers with long wooden-handled loppers. Suckers come up where the disc has cut into a root, and Granddad hates them worse than he hates weeds. Bob and I use regular orchard loppers to cut down the suckers, cut each sucker deep below the soil-line; shove the lopper points down into the dirt and cut deep. Cutting suckers is a good job for 10-year-old boys; we don't have so far to go to get down on our knees. The rows of Yellow Transparent trees seem endless, each one like the last, with only an occasional lonesome toadfrog to entertain us, and once a garter snake. I've brought my old dog Jack, of course, but out here he sleeps too much to be any count.
There's an old old well down in the holler. An old old bricked up spring. The water is always brown and always has a funny flavor. Bob won't taste it even; says probably some ol' Indian had drowned in it a hundert years ago. I won't try that spring water again, even though I don't really think there had even been a brick in this valley a hundert years ago. Bob gets pretty fanciful sometimes.
These big Yellow Transparent trees are hard to climb. All the bottom limbs seem to come out together, and they're so big and so grown together that we can't even get started in a lot of 'em, can't even get up into the first crotch. When we do get up into a tree, though, there usually aren't many limbs for climbing on up, and I never learned to shinny up the trunk. But once in a while, a tree will be set up just right and we climb clear to the very top. It always feels great to get up into the very top of a Yellow Transparent tree, 25 feet up in the air, off the ground. Up in the top you can look all around and see tree-tops going on forever, forty acres of Yellow Transparent apple trees.
Bob and I took two weeks to do it, but we finished cutting suckers in the old Yellow Transparent orchard. We finished the job, and Granddad handed us six silver dollars apiece. Six silver dollars was what a fullgrown man got paid for a week of work, so me and Bob felt pretty high and mighty about our six silver dollars apiece. I gave my six silver dollars to my Daddy, and next Saturday he's going to help me get a new pair of shoes.
(The Yellow Transparent is a tiny yellow apple, minuscle compared to the huge Mutsu and Fortune and Spigold apples of today. But even back then, Yellow Transparents were little apples. We usually packed Yellow Transparent 2-inch and up, with not much up -- 2-inch diameter, that is -- not much of an apple. Sometimes, if the market was hot, we'd even pack inch and 7/8. I used to wonder what people did with an apple that little.)
To give even a 2-inch packout, the crop had to be thinned. Yellow Transparent has the most annoying habit of "biennial bearing" -- a huge crop of little apples one year and no bloom at all the next. In that "on" year, Granddad tried to thin the crop enough to let the remaining apples make decent size, and that's what we're doing today.
Hand-thinning apples is a slow and tedious business in our "pedestrian" orchards of today. But 70 years ago, our old Yellow Transparent apple trees carried most of their crop high -- 18, 20, 25 feet up off the ground. Handling a long ladder in the orchard was the first test of manhood in our apple-growing community in the Ozark foothills of Southern Illinois. Manhandling a 25-foot ladder in an apple tree was a man-sized job, and almost every schoolboy in Dix looked forward to the time he'd be growed up enough to be put on a 25-foot ladder in the apple orchard.
Dad started me out on this tall stepladder, and maybe next week he'll put me onto a long pointed straight ladder. Not likely one like Oscar's 25-footer, but then I'm not 6-foot-2 like Oscar either. I think I could handle a 16-footer all right, though, or maybe even an 18; I've tried a 16-footer enough to make me feel pretty good about actually working off it in the orchard.
Yesterday a fella from Sikeston (that's down in the Missouri bootheel) was working off a ladder like mine, and he climbed up it after lunch and just kept climbing where there wasn't any more ladder. Of course he fell off, but he wasn't hurt a bit. Oscar said the fella was too drunk to get hurt, that he had brought a bottle and was working on it over lunch. Granddad sent him home.
Me and Gene McGhee almost got fired at noon today. We had got to throwing apples at each other, just for fun, and didn't think that would particularly bother anybody. But Grover Brenton -- he's the crew boss -- came over and said that was hard against one of Granddad's rules and if we did any more he'd have to let us go. We decided we didn't need to throw any more apples.Tonight I'm going to practice with an 18-footer that Dad has at home where he was cleaning the gutters last week. I'm going to practice with Dad's 18-footer and maybe I'll get to use one in the orchard soon.
The Schoolhouse Orchard was still in pretty good shape -- fairly young trees not far past their prime. The Home Place was mixed -- the old striped Romes would never be moneymakers again, no matter how much effort we put into reclaiming the trees -- the market no longer wanted striped Rome Beauty. And up at the White Orchard, on the land Grandmother had inherited from her family's homesteaded farm, here was the block of Yellow Transparents, those 40 acres I'd worked in so often as a boy. Granddad hadn't touched 'em since 1941, and there was no chance of salvaging these trees. Really a jungle now, with half the limbs dead from shading. Really a jungle, not seeming so tall as once it had, but with rather a sinister aura to it that at first had jolted me into near-panicked caution, into fear of ambush waiting.
The Jonathan we saved -- Dad and I each took a crew into the Jonathan, marking limbs to be sawed off: "Cut here", "take this one out", "just above the crotch", we told our sawyers. We slashed through the Jonathan, the Winesaps, the Duchess, the Grimes Golden -- the ground was layered with massive prunings, but the trees were once again ready to translate sunshine into apples.
But our Yellow Transparents? Time for our Yellow Transparents to go -- no market, no production. But how do we get rid of an orchard of huge old trees? Trunks of these trees were 6, 7, 8 feet around, and chain saws were unheard of in Jefferson county, Illinois in 1945.
Granddad decided that if the First Folks, the pioneers, had cleared the land with saw and axe, then we should be able to cut down a few apple trees with a good crosscut saw and some brand new axes. So our pruning crew, Butch and Uncle Burl and Little Pearl and Montie, our pruning crew headed for the Yellow Transparent orchard with two newly sharpened crosscut saws. By noontime there were six big trees laid on the ground -- 6 big trees cut down out of 1500 Yellow Transparent trees. It didn't take Dad long to figure that it would take these four men a good six months to cut down our Yellow Transparents -- six months of pruning not done, a season's pruning gone by the board to get rid of the old Yellow Transparents.
Dad sketched out a solution on a grocery sack, sat by the kitchen stove and sketched out a machine to cut down our Yellow Transparents, and then started bringing his sketch to life in the shop. Dad's tree-cutter wasn't too much for looks, and OSHA would have had a hissy today, but Dad's tree-cutter worked. He rigged a horsedrawn wooden mudboat, pivot in the center, model A Ford engine, 12-foot wooden beam, 20-inch circular saw blade, flat belt drive. Dad took his new rig into the Yellow Transparent block, pulled up by the first tree, started that model A engine, pivotted the whirling circle saw into the tree trunk. In half a minute he had cut almost through that massive trunk, and then the tree collapsed just enough to pinch the blade, the belt flew off, and operations came to a halt. But Dad was elated, of course -- his concept worked -- just details to work out. Next day he was reorganized-- Ol' Yellow Cat with a 30-ft chain to keep pressure off the blade. Ol' Dan and Ol' Rex to drag away the carcass. By nightfall, there were 90 Yellow Transparent trees piled in a great windrow. In a month the Yellow Transparent orchard was firewood.
I've made it home from Korea, and Cindy and I have found this old farm near Alto Pass, high on the Ozark escarpment above the great valley, looking off 25 miles south to the confluence of the Missippi and the Ohio. Right in the middle of the Elberta orchard stand a dozen old Yellow Transparent trees. We know they will never be moneymakers, but they'll be good climbing trees for our kids. I remembered how Bob and I had climbed high in the Yellow Transparents when we were boys so long ago, how we had climbed high and looked out over the treetops; now these Transparent trees were only 50 yards from our little red house.
Later on, we often took our lunch there in the Yellow Transparents, and in the springtimes their cascades of flowers were like great bouquets in our backyard. We ate a lot of those Yellow Transparent apples -- never sold a one, but fresh Yellow Transparents in June made a great treat just after strawberry season. Those gaunt old trees reminded me of the Yellow Transparent orchard back at Dix, reminded me of those long-gone days when I was a freckle-faced, tow-headed boy.
Dave gave me scionwood and I grafted up a hundred trees or so, and now this spring Cindy and Jamie and John and I are planting them down below the packing shed, down where Jamie and John had found and cleaned out the spring. We're planting the little Perrine Giant Transparent trees and with them planting a few of our hopes for our farm here in the Ozark foothills. Here in this springtime we're planting hopes and dreams and apple trees, we're planting hopes and dreams and apple trees here on our land, and Dave Perrine's Giant Transparents are part of our total dream.
Now at last we've loosed our grip on the farm, we've sold our land in the Ozark foothills, the old hailstorm debts paid off; we've sold our precious land, and we're going to New York to begin anew. We're going to New York to an alien world, to a land of strangers whose only link to us is the apple tree. To New York, to Cornell and the Finger Lakes, and to apple trees. We're going to New York to begin anew.
Down by the spring the sumac stands tall, sassafras trees are undergrown with blackberry bushes. The tulip poplar seedlings that we planted the spring Peter was born are forest now, great straight pyramids reaching for the sky. Two whitetails flash, a pair of bucks flush out of cover, startled to find strange people invading their domain. One lone Perrine Transparent spreads its arms, covered now with the white of spring. One Transparent tree alive still on our land.
One lone Yellow Transparent tree, no longer ours, the farm no longer ours, but we've walked the land again, we've touched again the soil, we've freshed our memories, the memories of this land, the trees that once were here, the life we lived here on these hills. These memories are ours and through these memories the land is our land still, in our hearts this land is our land still.
Dr. James N. Cummins,