Wisconsin apple orchard has long history
NEW BERLIN - This is where you can taste history.
It can be tart, sweet or somewhere in between.
A few have hints of pineapple, vanilla, apricot, strawberry or grapefruit. Most come with red, yellow and green skins.
The Wisconsin State Journal reports that there are over 160 varieties of apples that hang from the more than 1,300 trees that make up Weston's Antique Apple Orchards. And like the name suggests, many of the varieties here on Prospect Hill along West National Avenue have quite a backstory.
The Pink Lady apples originated in western Australia and have a pink-colored flesh. The Black Gilliflower dates to the 1700s, is conical-shaped and tastes like a pear. The Prairie Spy was developed at the University of Minnesota in 1940 and is good for eating but also makes a decent pie. The Sops of Wine apple was introduced in 1832 in England, while the Cort Pendu Plat apples are one of the orchard's oldest. They date to the 1600s in Europe, bud in late spring to avoid frosts and ripen in October.
But two of the best stories in the orchard come from a pair of octogenarian siblings who are the heart and soul of the farm that was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996 and donated to the city of New Berlin in 2004.
The orchard is operated as a nonprofit, and Ken Weston and his sister, Genevieve Weston, are making sure that the history of the orchard and its apples is being preserved with the help of a few employees and a team of volunteers.
"I haven't lost my enthusiasm but I've lost my mobility," Genevieve, 87, said, as she sat on a metal folding chair in the orchard's more than 100-year-old barn. "This is my world. I love the farm."
Ken, 88, roams the orchard on a Kubota, zero-turn lawn mower, while Genevieve uses a four-wheeled electric scooter. When they're not in the orchard, they use walkers for assistance. But their minds are sharp and they both have witty personalities that occasionally clash. Their apple IQs are off the chart.
"It's not a great flavor but it's not bad. I keep it because it's historically interesting," Ken said while looking over a Tomato apple tree planted in 1936. "When I was a child, I would wander through (the orchard) in the dark. They looked like giants."
The whole idea of the orchard is to preserve antique apple varieties that generally predate the widespread use of refrigerated box cars. Beginning in the 1940s, refrigeration allowed apples that were "transportation-hardy" to be shipped greater distances, which led to a decline in the number of varieties available to consumers, Weston said.
The orchard is part of the Prospect Hill Settlement District, a collection of historic structures and properties in this southeastern Waukesha County city. Besides the barn, its neighboring farmhouse and the orchard, the district includes the former Freewill Baptist Church, which was constructed in 1859 and restored to its original state after being destroyed by arson fire in 1985. Other buildings include barns and houses from the 1800s, a red schoolhouse built in 1863 that was converted to a cheese plant, the Meidenbauer log cabin and a windowed tower that was part of the Milwaukee Children's Hospital from 1930 to 1955.
The orchard's barn was built in 1906 for dairy cows, but when Ken and Genevieve's grandfather, William Marckwardt, moved to the property, he and his brother Henry, used the barn's basement for an aluminum and brass foundry where they made barrel staves and metal handheld nutcrackers. William Marckwardt purchased the farm in 1931 and in 1936 his daughter Alice and her husband, Harvey Weston, who had moved to the farm from Milwaukee with their two young children, began adding to a small apple orchard already on the property.
"My father at first was in the chicken business but, of course, that was no good at all because people were stealing the chickens and so we got into the orchard business," Genevieve said. "This was during the Depression and they weren't getting money (in Milwaukee), they were getting script instead of money so they came out here. My mother always liked apples as a little girl."
Alice Weston used to sell apples from the small orchard, fresh bread and pies along the road. But by the mid-1940s, the trees planted in the mid to late 1930s, some from McKay Nursery in Waterloo, began to fully produce. As more trees were added, the orchard became a major undertaking and thriving family business. The barn's basement was converted to cooler space for harvested apples, while the main floor of the barn was used to store machinery.
Alice Weston inherited the property from her father's estate in 1949. She died in 2000 at the age of 99, while her husband, Harvey, died in 1992 at the age of 87.
Genevieve Weston graduated from UW-Madison and taught elementary school for about seven years before returning to the farm to help on the orchard. Today, she spends three afternoons a week at the West Allis Farmers Market with employee Dave Scott, who loads and drives the pickup truck with nearly two dozen different varieties of apples displayed in wooden crates and half-gallon jugs of apple cider made from a mixture of apple varieties.
Weston sits in a chair behind the stand where she collects money and weighs apples, and is quick to offer background on the taste and texture of the fruit. She's been coming to the market for over 50 years.
"People used to like early apples, now they only go for the hard, crunchy apples. They don't like soft apples anymore," said Weston, who wore a purple John Deere sweatshirt partially covered by her long, white hair. "We have wonderful helpers, as you can see. Without these helpers, I don't know what we would do."
At Thursday's market, the inventory, all sold for $2 per pound, included Yellow Bellflower, Golden Russett, Hubbardston Nonesuch and Mutsu, a variety developed in Japan in the 1930s. One customer purchased 19 pounds of apples. Another, Ralph Spano, of Milwaukee, bought a plastic grocery bag full of several different varieties.
"I've been coming here to see this young lady for a long time," Spano said. "I've tasted them all so I get an assortment."
The orchard produces between 3,000 and 4,000 bushels of apples a year, which are also sold at Riverwest Co-op Grocery & Cafe in Milwaukee, at the farm on Sundays and since the 1970s, at the Dane County Farmers Market. That stand is now run by Ken Weston's daughter, also named Genevieve. The orchard also offers classes on grafting, integrated pest management and pruning, and grows other fruits including cherries, plums, pears and peaches.
For Ken Weston, the orchard has become a second career. After graduating from Waukesha High School in 1947, he headed to UW-Madison, where for a time he lived in a room at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Monroe Street and earned bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees in mathematics. He taught at Notre Dame and Marquette universities and in 1973 joined the academic staff at UW-Parkside in Kenosha County, where he would teach and give lectures around the world on algebra and mathematical logic until his retirement in 2007.
Weston, who almost died five years ago from an inflamed gallbladder, recalls cutting the grass in the orchard when he was young with a sickle and hauling rocks in a rickety wheelbarrow because his father refused to buy modern machinery. But while the farm now has lifts, tractors and other more modern amenities, the orchard has remained as true as it was 70 years ago.
"The wide variety of flavors of apples beats just about any other fruit," said Weston. "We're adding apple varieties all the time. This place is very special to me."