The Apple of Herbert H. Dow

In reading the entries in his personal diary, made between 1907 and 1912, we learn of The Dow Chemical Company founder’s brilliance as an orchardist.

If someone were to ask me why I am growing apples, potatoes, and flowers, I think I would explain it this way. A man who has money enough can go out and within a year build a very magnificent house, but he cannot build beautiful trees. A house grows old and out-of-date every year. A tree becomes more beautiful and valuable with age. There are beautiful houses wherever men congregate. Beautiful trees, flowers, and grounds are less common and, consequently, more appreciated.

~ Herbert H. Dow

Herbert H. Dow, founder of the Dow Chemical Company, is best remembered for his genius as a researcher, innovator, and industrialist. Dow’s interest in growing various types of fruit trees and the development of his extensive orchards has also received some attention, but little has been written about the apple varieties he planted.

Virginia Florey’s article, “I Planted an Orchard Yesterday,” in the Midland Daily News, January 15, 1997, states that Dow began planting his first fruit trees in 1899. For the next 30 years he aggressively pursued the planting of various types of fruit trees, experimented with numerous sprays, and documented the production of his trees.

One of the best sources of information about his orchards and love of apples is his personal orchard diary. His daughter, the late Dorothy Dow Arbury, located and shared it. On the cover of the diary is written: “This book is valuable to me—reward if found, signed, Herbert H. Dow.”

The first diary entry is June 3, 1907, and the last entry is in spring of 1912, but his attached tables extend through 1920. His extensive notes reveal the varieties he planted, the date they bloomed, the dates fruit ripened, and the amount of produce harvested. He also documented year-round climatic conditions. For example, his October 19, 1909, entry states: “All soft maple leaves have turned more or less. View of Main Street is yellow and occasionally a tree is bare of leaves. Weather is quite warm and cloudy, frosts for several days. Apparently, there have been no frosts on home side of brook and trees and also much of the tomato vines are still green.”

By 1910 Dow was winning prizes at the Michigan Sate Fair for his apples and other produce. A September 24, 1910, entry reads: “Got 1st place at State Fair on Snow, Lady, and 2nd on Wagner, Red Canada, and 3rd on Spitzenburg and Mother Apples.” The September 21, 1913, entry reads: “Got 1st prize at State Fair on following plates of fruit: Snow, Spy, Macintosh, Shiawassee, Golden Sweet, Williams Favorite, and Mother.”

The tables in his diary show the varieties he planted and their average production per tree. The diary lists 82 apple varieties, probably the most diverse orchard in the Great Lakes Bay Region at the time.

Some of the most extensive records of Dow’s interest in apples and his experimentations with them are contained in his correspondence with Professor U.P. Hedrick, the then director of the New York Experimental Station. Hedrick was the most prolific author and authority on fruit trees in the 1900s—and, perhaps, of all time. His four-volume series, The Pears of New York, The Cherries of New York, The Peaches of New York, and The Plums of New York, is the most definitive work (some of the volumes are more than 600 pages of text) ever written about these particular fruit varieties.

Dow began writing to the New York Experimental Station in 1908, quickly becoming friends with Hedrick. Their last correspondence is from 1921. In the intervening years, they met whenever they could, with Dow traveling to Rochester and Hedrick coming to Midland. A letter to Hedrick dated March 9, 1918, is typical of their correspondence:

“Do not forget me on that new Macintosh-Ben Davis Apple. I am very anxious indeed to find an apple that is particularly adapted to this locality. So far, Mother, Snow, Macintosh, King David, and Northeastern Greening seem to be best. Wagner would be all right if it were not for the blight, which I have been unable to control in the past, but I hope to control in the future. Jefferies and Porter, as early apples, do well. This is considered Spy country and I think I got first premiums at the State Fair every year I exhibited, but I do not think I ever made any money on them.”

The new Macintosh-Ben Davis Apple to which Dow referred was the Cortland. It was introduced in 1905, and even today it is considered by many to be the absolute best apple for salads.

Dow’s experiments with a wide variety of apple trees were methodically described in a pamphlet, Apples: Their Adaptation to the Light Soils of Michigan, that was probably first published between 1910 and 1915. An original fifth edition noted that it had been “rewritten and enlarged,” allowing one to assume that the pamphlet was an ongoing work in progress.

The apples he planted and wrote about in the pamphlet versions were those that were popular at the time; they are now referred to as “antique” varieties by enthusiasts. Because now prevalent dwarf and semi-dwarf rootstock was not widely used at the time, Dow planted his trees on standard rootstock.

Of the more than 80 varieties he grew and tested, Dow recommended only five or six for commercial use, and he planted them extensively. Among those were:

Dow described Wagner as having an attractive appearance, large, and a good keeper with a very pleasant and mild flavor. He felt its main advantage was it could be depended upon for a crop every year to a greater extent than any other winter apple (except Grimes Golden). Wagner was first introduced in 1791, and is a fine-grained, crisp apple that resembles Northern Spy. Like Spy, it improves after the October frosts.

Grimes Golden was the Golden Delicious of its day. The apple is yellow with a slight green tint. It is a prolific bearer and very hardy. It is juicy and excellent for eating, and good for most kitchen purposes. It originated on property owned by Thomas Grimes in West Virginia in 1804, and it was especially cherished for making hard cider and brandy.

Snow or Fameuse was thought to be second only to Grimes Golden in terms of its value. Its major weakness is that it is difficult to keep free of scab, a fungal disease common to apples. Snow apples are small, and the name comes from its pure white flesh. It ripens around October 1 in the Great Lakes Bay Region and does not keep well. It was first introduced in the United States in 1730, and is a parent of Macintosh.

A red, mid-season apple, Wealthy, was described by Dow as the most beautiful apple of its season. That may have been true then, but it isn’t today. The tree is very hardy, but Dow thought it was susceptible to fire blight. A prolific annual bearer, it needs extensive thinning when the apples are small. It is a seedling of a Cherry Crab that was planted by Peter Gideon in Minnesota around 1860.

Spy (often called Northern Spy) is still considered to be one of the best baking apples by apple lovers. Dow’s major objection to it was that on standard rootstock it took 10 to 12 years before it would bear fruit. Some 100 Northern Spy trees planted in 1991 in the Great Lakes Bay Region did not produce a peck of apples until they were 16 years old. The fruit ripens locally around October 15, and has good keeping qualities. The variety was discovered around 1800 in East Bloomfield, New York.

Jonathan is a great all-purpose apple that has withstood the test of time. It ripens around October 1 in the Great Lakes Bay Region. First described in 1826 by J. Buel of Albany, New York, it remains one of the most popular apples grown in Michigan—and one of the most prolific and dependable bearing varieties.

Dow also described a number of other apples he recommended for commercial growers, but only in very limited quantities. Some of those included Yellow Bellflower, Golden Russet, Baldwin, Williams, Rhode Island Greening, Roxbury Russet, Tolman Sweet, and Mother. It should be noted that the most popular apples in the early 1900s were Baldwin and Rhode Island Greening, both of which have all but disappeared from the commercial market.

Dow’s basic contention was that the cultivation of apples was well suited to the sandy soils of Midland County, and that they should be grown by farmers in the region who at the time also were growing corn, wheat, dry beans, and other types of crops. The irony, of course, is that there are no commercial orchards in Midland County today, and few commercial apple orchards exist in the Great Lakes Bay Region. There are a few hobby orchards in Midland County, but no one grows apples as a livelihood.

That may be because the climate on the western part of the state is much more ideally suited for growing apples, and it is not uncommon to have a frost in the Great Lakes Bay Region during the bloom in early May. Other likely reasons are that it takes approximately $12,000 per acre and seven to 10 years to develop an orchard into even moderate production. Most people cannot afford that type of capital investment, and are unlikely to be able to wait that long to see some return on their investment. Even Dow, according to the book A Hundred Years of the Pines, admitted he never made a profit from his apples.

It is impossible to read Herbert H. Dow’s description of his orchard experiments without being impressed with his powers of observation, the analytical approach he used in his orchard experimentations, and his general love of nature. The brilliance he demonstrated as a chemist and businessman are evident in the brilliance he showed as an orchardist.

The Wolf River apple trees across from the Midland Cemetery, the magnificent Rhode Island Greenings in the yards of some of the homes near the corner of Sugnet Road and Orchard Drive, the Snow Apples near the Michigan Molecular Institute, and the old apple trees on the lawns of some of the homes on Applewood Drive are living testimony to Dow’s efforts and enthusiasm for apples. The 110-acre Dow Gardens, which the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation has maintained, upgraded, and expanded over the decades, is a major attraction in the Great Lakes Bay Region. In 2013 it recorded 124,568 visitors—certainly, well worth visiting.


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