The Passing of C. Lee Calhoun: Southern Apple Hunter

It is with a heavy heart to report the passing of C. Lee Calhoun, Southern apple hunter.

Lee Calhouon Horne Creek

Lee Calhoun at Horne Creek Historical Farm


In March of 2009, while living on an un-bridged island in Maine, I was struck by an instant and permanent passion for apples. When I came out to my family that I wanted to be an apple orchardist, my Grandmother wrote me back and said: Did you know that we have a family apple? Your great-great-great-grandfather, JA Dula, whom you are doubly related, was a famous North Carolina orchardist of his era. Our apple is called the Dula Beauty.

Immediately after reading this, I googled “Dula Beauty” and the only descriptor I could find was a snippet from the Book “Old Southern Apples,” by Creighton Lee Calhoun. I was too poor to buy the book at the time, so I found Lee’s phone number and gave him a call for the full description. He answered, asked me to give him a moment to pull out his notes, and started to tell me everything he knew about the Dula Beauty apple and where I could find it.

Lee graduated from NC State with a degree in agronomy and plans to become a plant breeder, but the Korean war had different plans for him and he joined the army soon after graduation. Though the army soon made a career man out of him, he couldn’t shake his passions to get back to farming. The day he retired, he bought a chainsaw and started clearing a site for a house and orchard in Pittsboro, NC.

Once his Japanese-style house was built, he shared with his elderly neighbor that he wanted to plant a few apple trees. This conversation sparked the neighbor to share with him that he had once had a Magnum Bonum apple growing in his childhood home, and he’d sure love to find another to plant at his house. Finding the Magnum Bonum was the sort of challenge that got Lee’s wheels turning. How many old apple cultivars were still out there? Little did he know at the time, the tradition of Southerners growing apples was quickly disappearing from the landscape and he had been tagged to help keep it alive.

Apples were once grafted onto seedlings or roots as a means of propagation, which gave them a lifespan of around 100 years in the South if the vines were kept out of the trees. In the 70s, Lee realized these trees were aging out, as were the people who knew the names and stories of these trees and the window to find them was quickly closing. From there, he and his wife, Edith, devised a plan to go find what they could: They would buy ads in the rural electric cooperative newspapers across the South and see what people knew of the old apples in their landscape.

This plan worked. Soon, Lee and Edith were getting calls and letters from all over the place with apple names they’d never heard of like “Notty P,” “Crow’s Egg,” and Early Joe.” Excited for the adventure and exploration, they hopped in the truck and took off. As they gained more fruit exploring experience, they developed more parameters for apple hunting which they called “signs of elderly people.” If there was an apple tree, a clothes line with laundry hanging on it, and an old car somewhere on the property, they would stop and knock on the door. Lee told stories of pulling into these driveways to find an elderly man skinning a muskrat on the porch, or a man whittling a wooden duck for his great-grandson which he planned to give him on his 100th birthday, which was only 3 days away.

My favorite Calhoun cold knock story came when I asked him if he knew of any apple varieties that were used to feed hogs. He snorted and then he told me about the time when he pulled into a driveway next to a doughnut factory. The man who answered the door said he’d gladly take Lee to the tree in the backyard, and grabbed a large stick on his way out the door to keep the pigs back, because the apple tree was located in a pig paddock. When looking at the tree, Lee asked if the pork was good from eating all of these apples. The man smirked and hollered in to his wife to make a couple ham biscuits for Lee. Once back to the house, Lee sunk his teeth into the ham biscuit and it was the best he ever had. “This is what apple fed pork tastes like?!” He questioned/exclaimed. “Nope,” the old man replied. “That’s what doughnut fed pork tastes like.”

It took Lee and Edith two years to find the Magnum Bonum that his elderly neighbor first mentioned from his childhood. With each find, each letter, each phone call, a world of apples unfolded. Through the grapevine, he was finding other people who were also looking for and propagating these apples. People like Joyce Neighbors of Alabama, Jim Lawson of Georgia and Tom Burford of Virginia. People catching on to Lee and Edith’s work were contacting Lee wanting to take part in the hunt, too. Soon, Lee and Edith had a network and a lifeblood to go rescue these lost apple cultivars from the throws of nature and human development/axe. Over that decade, Lee and Edith had acquired nearly 400 apple cultivars from across the South. They grafted these trees to dwarfing rootstock and started one of the first high density apple orchards in the South, if only to hold their large repository in a small space. They also started a fruit tree nursery where they custom grafted these apple varieties from their home, located on Black Twig Road.

In the 90s, Lee and Edith wrote the book “Old Southern Apples” cataloging all of the apples they found and all of the apple cultivars they believe to be threatened or extinct. I never got to know Edith, as she had died of pancreatic cancer a few years before I found Lee. However, Lee would never start a story about the book without telling me that Edith wrote that book. She typed the whole thing. Edited it. Gave insights to Lee on what to say. He would also tell me that she could bake an apple pie in her sleep, as she had to try each and every apple in their orchard in pie form to see if one of the old uses could be for pies.

Which leads me to tell you about the gargantuan amount of research and work that went into each apple find. Lee and Edith traveled far and wide to find old nursery catalogs, books, flyers, and articles describing these apples and their uses. These descriptions, aside from their elderly caretakers, were all they had left in terms of what these apples were used for. Dried apples. Pies. Molasses/Syrup. Fresh eating. Winter storage. Dumplings. Hard cider. Vinegar. And the list goes on. Edith and Lee were at the helm of running a home lab to try and bring back a purpose for these apples.

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We’re all eating “Tony,” one of Lee’s most resilient apples.

In 2015, I traveled to Lee’s house for the second time with my friends Pete Halupka and Pete Walton to sit down and drink some hard cider with him. We asked him what the chances of finding old lost Southern cultivars might be in this day and age. He responded, matter of factly, that it is nearly impossible in today’s time. So many pressures endanger an apple tree on the landscape, time being the greatest of all when it comes to old Southern apples. In seeing our fruit explorer hopes being dashed, he quickly amended this statement by saying the chances are nearly impossible of discovering identities of these fruits we find in the landscape, but we may very well still find old apple trees. He also encouraged the exploration of mulberry and other nut trees like pecans, as they are much more long-lived than the apple.

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Lee Calhoun was a member of the North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX) and his contributions went beyond apples, as he was also the one to re-introduce the Silk Hope mulberry to the US fruit world. He would tell me of streets in Chapel Hill lined with old Silk mulberry cultivars and the sleeping mulberry landscape of North Carolina which remained despite the failure of an industry. He also collected old rose cultivars, telling me that most of his rose genetics came from cemeteries throughout the South. He grew plums, peaches, sour cherries, grapes and other fruits at his house as well. Even the mightiest of the mighty fruit explorers fall to wanting to plant a little bit of everything.

The world has lost one incredible fruit explorer, but he seemed content with leaving this earth. A mutual friend of ours, Carl Thomasson, visited Lee on Wednesday at hospice, where he was lucid and grateful to have been given a couple extra victory laps of life after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer 3 years ago.

Lee and Edith are now driving down old country roads, spotting apple trees and “signs of the elderly.” Together again, the old truck doors shut and they make their way up the steps of a stranger’s porch. Each knock on the door filled with the thrills of being on the heels of recapturing a piece of history and breathing new life into it.

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Picture from Calhoun’s book “Old Southern Apples”

*Lee’s orchard was nearly destroyed by fireblight in the 2000s. His nursery business was passed to several nurseries, of which David Vernon of Century Farm Orchards and Horne Creek Historical Farm are still active.*

Fun Fact: Creighton Lee Calhoun was the last remaining descendent of John C. Calhoun, founder of Clemson University, and former US vice president.


Lee Calhoun’s List of Cedar Apple Rust Resistant Apples:

American Golden Dorsett

Morgan

Aunt Rachael

Muskmelon Sweet

Aunt Sally

Old Fashion Winesap

Ben Davis Ophir
Benham Pinky

Bevan’s Favorite

Polly Eades

Black Limbertwig

Pomme Gris
Blacktwig

Pound Pippin

Cherryville Black

Red Astrachan

Dixie Red Delight

Red Canada

Dr. Matthews

Red Limbertwig

Fall Orange Red Rebel

FREEDOM/LIBERTY

Rockingham Red

Gilpin Rusty Coat

Golden Harvey

Sally Gray
Harris Short Core
Honey Cider

Sine Qua Non

Hunge Starr
Ingram

Summer King

Jarrett

Summer Rambo

Jakes Seedling

Swazie
John Apple Sweet Russet

June Sweeting

Terry Winter

Keener Seedling

Tony

Kinnaird’s Choice

William’s Favorite

Lacy Winter Jon

Lowland Raspberry

Wolf River
Lugar Red

Yellow Transparent

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