Horticulturist Hopes To Reintroduce Long-Lost Varieties Of Award-Winning Apples

CORTEZ, Colo. (CBS4) – Call him a modern-day Johnny Appleseed (or not), but Coloradan Jude Schuenmeyer wants to repopulate apple trees throughout Montezuma County.

The trees aren’t the garden-variety “red delicious” apples found at the grocery store, however. One hundred years ago Montezuma County was famous for its apples, and the apples were almost as individual as the people who went there.

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(credit: CBS)

Vivienne Kenyon stands next to what’s left of one of the original trees in the Gold Medal Orchard, saying both she and the tree have been there a long time. The tree was planted in 1890, and bore fruit until just a few years ago when it died. Efforts are now underway to re-introduce these historic varieties of apples. (credit: CBS)

“Folks who came here in Montezuma County really came from a lot of different places with a lot of different ideas on what an apple could do,” Schuenmeyer said. “Back then you’d go and try them and taste them — and people got to know then and you know this one is going to be good for eating, this one will be good for baking, this one will be a good dry one, this one will be a good cider one.”

County Fair records from the early 1900s show upwards of 55 unique varieties of apples in Montezuma County. Most of the varieties have long been lost to time, but Schuenmeyer is on a quest to find as many examples of these old varieties as possible and re-populate them.

His passion for unique apples led him to the Gold Medal Orchard, owned by Phillip and Vivienne Kenyon. The Gold Medal Orchard’s roots go back to 1890 when it was first planted by then Montezuma County Commissioner Jimmy Giles. Giles would soon sell the orchard to the Rev. Howard Antes, who thought enough of his produce to take it to the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. It won the coveted Gold Medal, and the orchard’s reputation (along with its name) was sealed forever.

(credit: CBS)

William Vencil offers lessons on apple tree care to other Montezuma County farmers in this c. 1930s photo. (credit: Phillip and Vivienne Kenyon)

Antes would sell the orchard in 1922 to William Vencil, Vivienne’s father. He worked the orchard as pretty much a one-man operation.

“All of the operation was his,” said Phillip Kenyon, Vencil’s son-in-law who quips that Vivienne was the best peach he ever got from the orchard. “Every now and then he’d hire someone, but they wouldn’t live up to his expectations.”

Vencil worked the orchard up until 1970, at which point it was up to Mother Nature to watch over things.

Vencil’s insistence to care for the orchard by himself, and then the family’s decision to simply let the orchard revert to nature proved to be a serendipitous course of events for the trees within the orchard.

“In other places, the old trees were ripped out,” said Schuenmeyer. “(Other orchards) wanted newer, easier to harvest trees.”

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(credit: CBS)

Horticulturist Jude Schuenmeyer takes a clipping from a century-old apple tree in hopes of repopulating the particular variety of apple this tree produced. In the 1890s when this tree was planted, there were at least 55 unique varieties of apples just in Montezuma county alone (and an estimated 17,000 varieties worldwide!). The apples of the Gold Medal orchard won national prestige at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. (credit: CBS)

The Gold Medal kept its older varieties of trees, and the land was never redeveloped. That means a few of the original trees still survive and bear fruit today — 125 years after they were first planted. And that’s where Johnny Appleseed … er … Jude Schuenmeyer comes in.

“Apple trees want to make apples. That’s their job in the world.” said Schuenmeyer as he clipped cuttings from a 125-year-old tree.

He’ll graft the cuttings onto root stock and make new apple trees. You can’t simply plant a seed from an apple and grow a new tree, the apples won’t be the same. His hope is to reintroduce the long-lost varieties of apples to the market. The timing couldn’t be better, according to Schuenmeyer. People today seek out unique flavors.

“With the increased demand for both local food and food that has greater flavor, and greater eating possibilities, these old varieties are relevant again,” he said.

(credit: CBS)

Inside Jude Shuenmeyer’s greenhouse, new trees grow from cuttings taken from the century-old trees that grew in the Gold Medal Orchard. These trees will eventually re-introduce historic varieties of apples that have not been enjoyed since the Gold Medal orchard stopped harvesting them in the 1970s.

Working with the Kenyons and Montezuma County, Schuenmeyer hopes to replant the Gold Medal Orchard with young trees of the historic varieties of apples. County Commissioner Larry Don Suckla loves the economic potential such an orchard would bring to the county.

“I think it would be very unique to say, ‘We have an apple that originated right here, and we’re bringing it back to life,’ ” Suckla said.

The Kenyons are equally thrilled to see the trees on the way back. Leaning against the trunk of a century-old tree which produced apples until just a few years ago in the orchard, she said, “Apples would be wonderful, but — you know — I am partial to peaches.”

No worries, Vivienne. They’re on the list, too.

LINKS: Colorado Preservation, Inc.Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project

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Kevin Strong is the producer of “Colorado’s Most Endangered Places” — an annual special that airs on CBS4 that profiles endangered historic sites in Colorado. To contact Kevin, click here.