In November of 2013, while sitting in my house in a holler in the middle of nowhere Virginia, I decided to take Lee Calhoun’s book, Old Southern Apples, off the shelf. I did this nearly every day, opening it up to a random page and reading the contents- sort of like one would with a daily calendar. On this particular day, I opened it up to a page mentioning the apple variety ‘Granny Neighbors.’ The explanations follows:
In her self-published book, Apples: Collecting Old Southern Varieties, nurserywoman Joyce Neighbors of Gadsden Alabama, writes: “A seedling apple variety found on my Dad’s farm in Clay County about 1975. . . and was growing in a trash dump about 50 feet from a hackworth (apple) tree. . . My dad named the tree after my mother. This apple variety has grown well in Illinois, where it was “one of the hits of this year’s tasting.” Fruit medium size, roundish conical; skin pale yellow splotched with red and some faint stripes; stem almost long in a wide, russetted cavity; dots scattered, large and small, grey; calyx greenish, open; basin corrugated, moderately shallow; flesh yellow, subacid; Ripe August. No catalog listing.
As with all apple books who mention someone’s name, I wondered if Joyce Neighbors was still alive. After posting in NAFEX’s (North American Fruit Explorers) facebook page, I learned that she had corresponded with others in the past year and was, more than likely, still around! I then tried to find her address online and noticed her place was for sale. With that, I vowed to go and see her as soon as I could.
In January of 2014, when driving down to attend the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) Conference in Mobile, Alabama, I stopped and knocked unannounced on Joyce Neighbor’s door. When the door opened, I told her that I was here because of apples, and she let me in without hesitation.
Some older apple people will tell you that they don’t have much to offer when you want to come visit. This is, of course, an exaggeration..but in the case of Joyce it at first seemed as if she had taken on her orchard as a representation of herself. “There’s not much left of the orchard…” she told me when I first visited. “I had a guy working for me who was helping to fight back the brambles and prune the trees, but he stole from me and I had to get rid of him.” When I asked if I could see the orchard, she told me that she wouldn’t let me go by myself, and her legs wouldn’t let her go with me. I honored her request not to go into the orchard that day, knowing I’d be able to see it someday.
Before she became a fruit hunter, Joyce worked for a retired army general for 22 years and that experience taught her organizational skills beyond what most people consider to be proficient. She was an ambitious soul, where after a full day at work, she would stay up until 2 am every night, working on an over-the-mail business management correspondent course. Joyce finished this two year course in 6 months.
She was never married, having chosen to take care of her younger sister instead. The years of stress involved in taking care of her sister had taken a toll on her nervous system and by 2000, she had developed tremors in her hands and neck. Shortly before I had visited, her sister was put into an assisted living facility because Joyce was no longer able to care for her properly. Since then, things seemed to be looking up for Joyce. Her tremors had greatly improved and she was once again able to write her name using a pen and paper. Aside from the phone, her primary method of communication was through email. She was incredibly computer savvy for her age.
When looking at Joyce’s computer, a large desktop, her screen saver flashed apple after apple after apple, all different varieties. I watched for a long while, waiting for the slide show to end, but it kept going. Hundreds of pictures of apples, many of which she had taken. Only a few of them were labeled on the screen saver, yet she knew every one of them by heart. “Buff, Cherryville Black, Wolf River, Early Cortland…now those are ones I grew!” “Maidens Blush, Spartan, Iron Black and Sal, Betsy Crocket, PawPaw Sweet.” This went on and on…
“Red Rebel!” She yelled as it passed along her screen. Her brother’s wife had a red rebel apple tree growing in her parent’s front yard. Her Brother drove a truck under the tree so he could reach up there and take cuttings for Joyce to graft. Red Rebel was a better tasting apple than Carter’s Blue, the way Joyce grew it in her orchard. “Lee Calhoun said it was a good apple, too. But it’s not the Rebel he’s been looking for,” she said. “Make sure that everyone knows it. My Red Rebel is not Rebel!”
“That’s one right there! White Buckingham! Now you gotta get White Buckingham from Tom Brown. It’s the biggest apple you’ll find. Bigger than Gloria Mundi.”
“NOW THAT’S A GOOD APPLE FOR THE LOWER SOUTH!!! REVEREND MORGAN!!!”
She got so excited watching that slide show with me and calling out the names. Though her orchard was inaccessible to her in her own back yard, it was preserved in the form of a screen saver. She could watch it for hours on end, reminiscing about the flavors and growth habits and the hunt for each.
Joyce got into hunting apples when it became evident that she needed to save some apple trees off of her Father’s farm (one of them being Granny Neighbors). In 1979, She ordered a grafting kit from Stark Brothers and got Jim Lawson to sell her 10 rootstock (m7 she thought). She went by the directions in the grafting manual sent from Stark Brothers, and all 10 of them took. From there, a nursery business was born. January 14th, 1985- Joyce got her nursery license from the State of Alabama.
She told me how lucky she was to have received her nursery license. “It wasn’t this easy for all women,” she said. In her travels to find old Alabama apples, she visited Brannon Nursery because they were once a source for many of the old apples on her list, including the very illusive Black Warrior. Joyce arrived to Brannon nursery expecting to meet with old Mr. Brannon, but to her surprise and delight, it was Mrs. Brannon who ran the nursery! It turned out that Mrs. Brannon was a school teacher who hated and subsequently quit her job. She wanted to be outside, working with trees, so she applied for a nursery license from the State of Alabama in 1960. They denied her a license because she was a woman. Undeterred, Mrs. Brannon then sought a nursery license in her husband’s name…and began grafting. Joyce would go on to tell me about how Mrs. Brannon root grafted her apple trees (the only method she used). In December, she would take 3 or 4 inches of a root off an apple tree and then graft the scionwood to it. She put them in moist pine sawdust immediately after she grafted them and once they had taken root, she’d plant them out. Mrs. Brannon died a couple years after Joyce found her, and she wished she could have asked her more questions.
In Joyce’s own nursery operation, the most she ever grafted in one year was 700 trees, but she preferred to graft around 300 trees a year. They were always planted in pots, and people had to come to her. Never once did she ship a tree. She told me that on rare occasion, people would come to her with only enough money to buy one tree, not knowing that it needed a pollenator. Joyce would then go and find the most obscure variety she had that was a compatible pollination partner, and would sell it to them for next to nothing. She retired her nursery business in the spring of 2009, though her nursery sign was still hanging in 2015 when I went back to visit her with my friends Pete Halupka, Lindsay Whitaker, and Pete Walton.
Joyce LaRue Neighbors, 90, of Gadsden, Alabama, died September 30th, 2017. The apple world has lost one amazing fruit hunter and nurserywoman. She’s now eating and describing all the lost apples she came just short of finding, with Black Warrior being the first.
“It’s best to grow a variety out yourself and learn how to describe it. Learn how to describe a variety. Learn that for your own use. It’s going to vary for where it’s grown. Somebody down the road might be different from me. And the cultural processes have a lot to do with it. A lot to do with it. My growing condition, the pH, would affect it. Other people might look at it different. Give it plenty of sunshine. Roots don’t need to get water logged. You got deer? Put up an 8 or 10 foot deer fence.” –Joyce Neighbors
Pete Halupka, who lived a little over an hour away from Joyce, became a friend and mentee of hers. His write up is below:
RIP JOYCE NEIGHBORS. Who I am so proud to say was my dearest friend and apple mentor and deeply influential to many apple enthusiasts. Gadsden, AL.
I’m very sad to say that I was sending Joyce a holiday email, and when I googled to remind myself of her email, rather than switching email accounts, I saw her obituary. It makes me feel terrible, but I hadn’t emailed her since her passing in September, 2017.
I first found Joyce in Lee Calhoun’s Old Southern Apples in 2014. She was listed under the Alabama apples that she had found since the 1980’s. I Googled her name to find her contact as I just couldn’t believe there was an Alabama apple hunter, doing what I wanted to do.
I called her number. As many have. She was a bit dismissive till I told her I wanted to help her find “Black Warrior”, an apple she has never found. She perked up. She invited me over to her nursery and old orchard. I was elated.
I came to her home, for the first time. I knocked and heard her faintly speak across the house to hold on. She sat me down, almost immediately, at her old computer. She told me that she was very adept at computers after a long time as an assistant to a General. It was clear she actually could navigate her computer amazingly well for someone her age and of her generation. She began to do something really specific. She was opening Word documents and each individual document was titled for each apple variety she had in her orchard. Within each document, was vivid descriptions of her apples both from other sources but also her own descriptions in her book. For the next six hours, she spoke about apples. I have literally scores of hours of her speaking. I also have stacks, and stacks of papers of her writing and others.
I made sure that each variety was accounted for in her orchard. They were grafted and distributed by me, but also scores of apple nerds across the country and world. She found almost 10 Alabama varieties out of “extinction” that had much cultural importance to our ancestors. Each of those varieties is planted, and sometimes fruiting. For someone like Joyce, an botanical preservationist and apple hunter, this was her legacy.
The last time I saw Joyce, I showed her my two year old “Red Rebel” apple planted in my orchard, a variety she found after it disappeared for many years. I was elated to show her and in a touching moment together, she was having trouble speaking her words, and I saw one tear down her weathered cheek.
When Eliza Greenman, Pete Walton, Lindsay Whiteaker and I went to visit Joyce one time, we went out to the orchard (which she hadn’t walked in four years) and found several apples (Red Rebel, Horse and Captain Davis). When she saw herself in the iPhone, she giggled, she became just so excited and asked us to take more. This made us so happy, as she often would be a little closed off due to pain or discomfort, but then some days she would be very open and giggly.
If you want to learn more about Joyce, unfortunately there is limited information. But, the best interview available is a Southern Foodways podcast on #thefruitexplorers with Eliza Greenman and I, where Mary Helen Montgomery does a great interview with Joyce. I will link this below. Lastly, If you can find it, she has a self published book of her varieties and other Southern varieties available not online but from folks who have it. It is now time to scan her book in, as well.