There’s a hearty band of hunters ransacking the South, says Lee Calhoun, hunting for old Southern apples. They are tracking down apple trees in the front yards of old country homes that may disappear tomorrow. Time is running out for these hunters. Of the 1,400 apple varieties known to have originated in the South, only about 200 are still known to exist. “The others are totally extinct,” says Calhoun, “and when that happens, you lose a whole apple. Most of these trees were planted in the early 1900s. I’d say we only have about five years left to find them.”

Creighton Lee Calhoun is a pomologist. Etymologically, that means he loves apples. On his land in the Saralyn community in the heart of old Chatham County, he is growing 450 kinds of heirloom apples. Calhoun’s Nursery on Blacktwig Road has become legendary among those who are trying to rescue a history that is slipping away. There he collects cuttings of old varieties, grafts them onto root stock and plants and sells the results, all in the name of preservation and propagation. Our own Johnny Appleseed.

One hundred years ago, apples were a staple of the Southern diet. Time was, says Calhoun, when every farmhouse in the largely rural South had apple trees in its yard. Apples provided fresh fruit from June to November, and were kept in the root cellar all winter. The varieties were myriad, providing fruit through the whole summer — early, midseason and late. Southerners dried the tart varieties, made applesauce and apple butter from the soft ones, and fashioned pies from the firmer fruit that held its shape during cooking.

When I arrived at Calhoun’s house, a beautiful Oriental-style structure he shares with his wife, Edith, he had collected a basket of more than two dozen varieties of apples for me and had written their names on the bottoms in ink, “so you can have an apple-tasting,” he said. They were red and yellow and green and striped. But none of them were massive and waxy and spotless like the varieties shipped to Food Lion from Washington state. Calhoun sprays very little for the insect damage and fungal infections that come with growing apples in the South. “An apple that’s blemished is as good as one that’s not,” says Calhoun. He patrols his orchard daily, ridding the trees of caterpillars, aphids and Japanese beetles. He likes to quote an old Chinese proverb that says, “the best fertilizer is the farmer’s footsteps.”

Calhoun found his two dozen acres in Saralyn in 1977 and began clearing land for a garden. Thinking about fruit trees, he asked an old friend in Pittsboro for advice. “Why don’t you plant some old-timey ones,” said the friend, “like the ones we used to have–Blacktwig, Red June, Nickajack, Fallawater, Horse Apple.” Calhoun liked the idea and wrote off for some catalogs, but nobody carried the old-timey varieties. Most sellers were limited to the apples we know from the supermarkets, like Red Delicious and Jonathan and Macintosh from Washington, New York, New Zealand.

Calhoun wasn’t discouraged. From a magazine article, he taught himself tree-grafting, then started driving around the county looking for old apple trees. When he spotted one in a farmhouse yard, he would go up to the house and ask if the owners knew the apple’s name. “Often,” he told me, “they’d say Granny knew, but she died in ’84. But when they could name it, I would take a cutting, graft it onto some root stock, and plant it in my orchard. I thought there’d be only a few dozen, but I just kept finding them.” Calhoun traveled further and further away from Chatham County, finding old Southern apples in Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. He outgrew his little orchard, and the saga of Calhoun’s Nursery began.

Now Lee Calhoun gets 1,000 phone calls and letters a year asking him for advice and sharing new information about apples. “I’ve met some great people,” he said. “I’m so interested in these old folks, I’m tickled that somebody’s trying to keep the apples growing. They’re mostly elderly, and to hear them talk, you’d think it was the 1800s. Most of them grew up in the ’20s and ’30s on primitive farms, working with mules. They’ll tell you their apple memories–how they kept them in an unheated room under the bed, how the apples would perfume the whole room.” There are as many old stories as there are old apples–stories of having apples for breakfast fried in meat drippings, drying apple slices on a tin roof, eating a freshly picked fruit right off the tree, after it had baked in the hot Southern summer sun.

Calhoun’s eyes light up with the memories: “They’ll tell you all about their apples and then send you on down the road to the neighbors. I met a woman in Stokes County whose father fought in the Civil War. Imagine that. The Civil War. This is the end of the line, you know. We’re in double jeopardy. The old apple trees are dying out, and so are the old people who can identify them.”

Calhoun hauled out a thick, coffee-table-size hardbound book called Old Southern Apples–by Creighton Lee Calhoun Jr. (Blacksburg, Va.: McDonald & Woodward, 1995, 326 pp.). It catalogs 1,600 extant and extinct old apples: the Baltimore Monstrous Pippin, recorded in 1817 at a foot in diameter and four inches high; the Blacktwig, over which a furious battle was fought in the magazines and newspapers of 1896 (Is it or is it not the same apple as the Paragon?); the Buff, traced in 1853 to a North Carolina seedling tree raised by the Cherokees; the Cathead; the Chenango Strawberry; the Cullasaga; the Duchess of Oldenburg.

He wrote this book by hand, compiling, he says, at least 30,000 facts gleaned from trips to the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Md. There, with his wife, he trudged up and down the library’s 14 floors and sorted through thousands of boxes of old seed and nursery catalogs. The curator of rare books took the seekers to a steamy room in the sub-basement to inspect files compiled by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s pomology section between 1886 and 1920. There they found thousands of handwritten cards tracing the origins of old apple varieties.

They also found what Calhoun says is a “priceless national treasure”–7,000 hand-painted pictures of American fruit, executed by USDA artists from 1885 to 1930, all unpublished. Calhoun enlisted Chatham County photographer Jerry Markatos to spend two days “in a darkened niche” at the library, making 48 color plates from the original drawings to grace the book. Each one includes the handwritten identification of the apple and the signature of the artist.

Calhoun’s book contains a treasure trove of apple lore. When the first English settlers arrived on this continent, says Calhoun, they found plenty of fruit, but, to their surprise, no apples. The English had always had apples and had come to regard them as native to their own land. But in fact, they originated in Kazakh-stan, in central Asia, and seeds were carried to Europe around 1,500 B.C. The Greeks, Romans and Etruscans grew apples, and Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century, described 29 varieties. The Romans carried apples with them to northern Europe, where they thrived in the British Isles.

The first settlers to Maryland were instructed by Lord Baltimore to take with them “kernalls of pears and apples, especially of Pippins, Permains and Deesons, for making thereafter of Cider and Perry.” Most Southern farms of the Colonial period had orchards. George Washington had 200 apple and peach trees planted on his farm in Berkeley County, Va., but even ordinary farmers usually had 50-200 trees, mostly for making cider. A rough rule of thumb for Southern farm families, says Calhoun, was six apple trees per person.

The earliest documented nurseries in North Carolina were operated by Quakers, offering apple trees from cuttings brought from England in 1806 by Ann Jessup, a Quaker minister in Guilford County. Descendants of her trees spread throughout the Carolinas, and were sold to North Carolinians migrating into the Northwest Territories from 1820 to 1826. The coming of the railroads in the 1880s, especially into the Appalachians and Arkansas, brought on an “apple boom” in the South. But overproduction, poorly sited orchards, falling prices after World War I and competition from the West Coast doomed the Southern apple boom. In North Carolina, ten million bushels of apples were sold in the early 1910s, compared to about 3 million in 1950.

Most Southern trees were grown from seeds. “This means that the South was literally a vast agricultural experiment station,” says Calhoun. Because each apple seed is genetically different from all other apple seeds, it will, if planted, produce a tree and fruit different from all other apple trees and fruit. Calhoun explains that to reproduce a distinct variety of apple, we cannot rely on the seeds. Apple biology requires that its genes be passed on through a root sprout or, more reliably, through a twig cut from the tree and inserted into the pencil-diameter, severed trunk of a young apple tree. The twig and trunk fuse into a tree which grows up to be identical to the tree from which the twig was taken. Each new tree will bear fruit identical to the original tree.

And out of the millions upon millions of apple trees grown from seeds in the South from 1607 to 1900, only a few were of exceptional quality, “the geniuses of apples,” as Calhoun calls them. Those are the ones that were cherished and saved and shared and traded and sold. It is those varieties Calhoun has collected, grafted and sold in his nursery. And because apple trees only live about 100 years, the rest of those genius apples from 1900 will be gone in five years if they are not found and saved by the apple hunters.

Walking in the orchard with Calhoun, I was surprised to find the trees espaliered, that is, with the branches trained along wires stretched in parallel aisles. Calhoun assures me that this method produces the most bountiful harvest, and he is presently writing a book on “espaliering for beginners,” which he says is “really fun,” and a good idea for people with an urban lot or a small amount of room for the orchard. There are a variety of shapes that work well, he says, and, when in fruit, they will “stop traffic.”

As we passed through the rows of trees, Calhoun spotted some favorites. He showed me the July-August Go No Further, from West Virginia (as in: “that’s the best, you might as well stop looking”); Aunt Cora’s Yard Apple (grown by an African-American midwife in Virginia); the Ben Davis (from 1870 to 1920 the most popular commercial apple in the U.S., the Red Delicious of its day); the Spitzenburg (Thomas Jefferson’s favorite, grown at Monticello); and the Rattling Core (its seeds are loose inside, and rattle).

As I drove down Blacktwig Road through the wilds of Saralyn, I couldn’t help remembering that song from Disney’s Johnny Appleseed: “Oh, the Lord is good to me/and so I thank the Lord/for giving me the things I need/the sun, the rain and the apple seed/Oh, the Lord is good to me.”

At home in my kitchen, a Dixie Red Delight, a Nickajack, a Ben Davis and a Rockingham Red have already been served up in a delicious pie, and the rest of my famous, cherished, rescued old Southern apples are waiting in a cool spot in my storage shed. If there are any left in December after his orders are all filled, Lee Calhoun will sell me a couple of little apple trees, and I will plant them on the meadow in Saxapahaw where I got married. Thank you, Lord.