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THE WILD ROSE SWEETING
Still another memory goes with that first Cattle Show in Maine — the Wild Rose Sweeting.
Afterwards I came to know that delicious apple well; but it was at the Fair that I first made its acquaintance. Willis Murch was peddling them, and made the place resound, not unmusically, with cries of "Wild Rose Sweetings! Straight from the Garden of Eden! The best apple that ever grew! Only a few left!" — and he was actually asking (and getting) four cents apiece for them.
In some astonishment I drew up to him to see what it could be in the way of an apple to command such a price and be in such evident demand. They were truly lovely apples to look at, but noticing that I was still skeptical as to their exceeding merits, Willis kindly gave me one — by way of removing all doubts. Truth to say, those doubts were at once removed.
The Wild Rose Sweeting, indeed, is really worthy of a biography, its history was so romantic, its fate so sad. Let me try to be its humble biographer.
As a rule apple-trees that come up wild, bear fruit that is either sour or else bitter-sweet. All such trees need to be budded, or grafted and cultivated, to be of value to man. It is only once in a million times that a really good apple comes up as natural fruit.
The value to the world of such a choice apple may be enormous. The Baldwin, for example, which first appeared growing wild in a Massachusetts town, could hardly be reckoned to-day as worth less than a hundred millions of dollars. We can bud, graft, cultivate and do much to improve existent apples; but it is only by chance that we propagate a new one that is really good.
The Wild Rose Sweeting was named by Miss Alice Linderman, a young lady from Philadelphia, who had come to our northern hill country several years previously in the vain hope of recovery from advanced pulmonary disease. She named it from the wild-rose tint on one cheek of the apple.
The tree was discovered by Willis, who kept the secret of it to himself as long as he could, for his own behoof. He was sufficiently generous to give some of the apples to Miss Linderman, but he demanded a cent apiece from others. He even asked four cents apiece after the fame of the apples spread abroad.
The year after he discovered the tree Willis carried a bushel to the county fair, and began peddling them at a cent apiece. Nearly every one who bought an apple came back for more. Willis raised the price to three and four cents. Presently a gentleman who had bought two came back and took the last ten in the basket at a dollar!
This fact shows better than any description could what a really luscious apple it was. There was that in the flavor of it that impelled people to get more.
The Wild Rose Sweeting more nearly resembled the Sweet Harvey than any other apple to which I can liken it. The flavor was like that of the Sweet Harvey thrice refined, perhaps rather more like the August or Pear Sweeting; and it melted on the palate like a spoonful of ice-cream.
It will not seem strange to those who know something of the "apple-belt" of New England that apple-trees, even good ones, should be discovered growing wild in back pastures and secluded openings in the woods.
Oxford County, Maine, abounds in wild apple-trees. By looking about a little, the farmer there can readily pick up enough young trees, growing wild, to set an orchard. They spring up everywhere. For this is one of the world's natural apple regions. North and northeast of the Old Squire's farm rose wooded hills; and extending back among them was a valley, down which ran a brook, abounding in trout-holes at the foot of ledges and large rocks.
At one time the land here was cleared, but being stony and rough it had been used for pasture, and was partly overgrown with bushes. There were thousands of young wild apple-trees here, scrubby and thorny, where cattle had browsed them.
The boys often went fishing in this brook, spring, summer and fall. Far up the valley, at a point where the brook flowed over a ledge, there was a well-known hole. Willis Murch was fishing here one afternoon in the latter part of August, when he saw a red squirrel carrying an apple in its mouth by the stem, and coming out from some thick young hemlocks that grew along the west bank of the brook. He was sitting so still that the squirrel ran close up to him; but when he suddenly thrust out his hand, the animal dropped the apple and scudded away with a shrill chicker.
The apple rolled close to Willis's feet, and he picked it up. Apples were common enough, but this one looked so good that he rubbed it on his sleeve and bit it. Then his eyes opened in surprise, for this was no sour cider-apple, but far and away the best apple he had ever tasted.
"It must grow near here," he said to himself, looking curiously around. "That squirrel didn't bring it far. The stem is fresh, too. He has just gnawed it off the tree."
Thereupon Willis began searching. He crept into the hemlocks on hands and knees. Presently he came upon several other gnawed apples; but even with this clue, he was half an hour finding the tree. There were four or five huge rocks back from the brook among the thick hemlocks. At last he crawled in past two of these that stood close together, and came upon the apple-tree, in a little sheltered amphitheater. It was at the foot of another large rock, twelve or fifteen feet high. A tiny spring oozed out at the foot of the rock; and here this apple-tree had grown up, unwatched and undiscovered save by the squirrels and birds. The tree was a thrifty one. The trunk had attained a diameter of six inches; and when Willis found it, there were, he says, four or five bushels of those delicious Sweetings, now just beginning to ripen. Willis first ate all he desired, then took off his coat, made a bag of it, and shook down the ripest of the apples to carry home to his family and the neighboring boys and girls.
"Won't they smack their lips!" he said to himself. "Won't they be up here for more!"
But on the way he took second thought, and craft entered his heart. "I won't tell them where it is," he said to himself. "Let them hunt. They never will find it." For the place was a mile and a half or two miles from the nearest farm.
Willis as yet had not thought of selling the apples or making a profit from his discovery; that idea came into his mind later, after he found how fond every one was of them. But that night when asked where this tree grew, Willis laughed and said darkly, "Oh, I know!"
Such secretiveness was deemed piggish, and was resented. Several declared that they could and would find that tree and get every apple on it. Willis laughed and said, "Let me know when you do."
That was the beginning of the long search for "Willis Murch's good tree." First and last, hours, days and, altogether, weeks of time were spent scouring the pastures, fields and clearings. Willis was watched constantly, in the hope of tracking him.
Alfred Batchelder lay in wait for days together on a hill overlooking the Murch farm, expecting to see Willis set out for the tree. At one time Alfred and another boy, named Charles Cross, had thoughts of waylaying Willis, and extorting the secret from him by threats or torture!
Willis steered clear of them, however, and remained close-mouthed. He had grown very crafty, and went to the tree by night only, or sometimes early on Sunday mornings, before other people were astir.
During the August moon of the second season after discovering the tree, he brought home a bushel of the apples on three different occasions by night; and he now began canvassing among the farmers who had orchards, to sell scions, to be delivered in May of the following spring. After eating the apples, not a few signed for them at fifty cents a graft.
It required a fair share of courage on the part of a boy of fifteen to go to the tree by night, for the distance from Willis's home was fully two miles; and at that time bears and lynxes frequented the "great pasture."
Willis afterward told the other boys that a bear came out in the path directly ahead of him one night, as he was hurrying home with a bushel of Wild Rose Sweetings on his shoulder. The creature sniffed, and Willis shouted to frighten it. He was on the point of throwing down his apples, to climb a tree in haste, when the bear shambled away.
Willis seems now to have had great designs of selling scions to orchardists and nurserymen over the whole country. Only a tiny twig, three inches long, is requisite for a scion for grafting into other trees. The Wild Rose Sweeting tree would produce thousands of such scions. Willis, who was a Yankee lad by ancestry, resolved to preserve the secret of the tree at all hazards. He appears to have had dreams of making a fortune from it.
[Pg 326]Thus far no one had been able to find the tree, as much from nature's own precaution in hiding it as from Willis's craft. By the middle of September that autumn he had gathered most of the apples, when the same chance which had first led his steps to the tree revealed it to the eyes of his enemies.
For about that time Alfred Batchelder and Charles Cross's brother, Newman, went fishing up the brook, and in due course arrived at the trout-hole where Willis had sat when he saw the squirrel. They crept up to the hole, baited and cast in together.
There were no bites immediately; but as they sat there they heard a red squirrel chirr! up among the thick hemlocks, and presently caught the sound of a low thud on the ground, soon followed by another and another.
"He's gnawing off apples," said Alfred. "There's an apple-tree among those hemlocks."
Then the two cronies glanced at each other, and the same thought occurred to both. "Who knows!" exclaimed Newman. "Who knows but what that may be the tree?"
They stopped fishing and began searching. They could still hear the squirrel in the apple-tree, and the sounds guided them to the little dell among the rocks. There were a few apples remaining on the tree; and they no sooner saw them than they knew that Willis Murch's famous tree was found at last.
They were so greatly pleased that they hurrahed and whooped for joy. Then they secured what apples there were left, ate all they wanted, and filled their pockets with the rest. No more fishing for them that day. They had found the famous tree, and now were intent on thinking how they could most humiliate Willis.
Neither of them knew of his grand scheme to sell scions; but it had long provoked their envy to see him peddling Wild Rose Sweetings at the Fair for four cents apiece. They would find him now and thrust a pink-cheeked apple under his nose!
But that would not be half satisfaction enough. They wanted to cut him off from his tree forever, to put it out of his power ever to get another apple from it. Nothing less would appease the grudge they bore him.
And what those two malicious youths did was to take their jack-knives and girdle that Wild Rose Sweeting tree close to the ground. They went clear round the tree, cutting away the bark into the sap-wood; and not content with girdling it once, they went round it three times in different places.
That done, they went home in great glee, thrust the apples in Willis's face, and bade him look to his good tree.
"We have found your tree, old Cuffy!" they cried to him. "You never will get any more apples off that tree!"
Beyond doubt Willis was chagrined. He did not know that they had girdled the tree, but he thought it not worth the while to go up there again that fall, since there were no more apples. Yet even if Alfred and Newman had found it, and even if they got the apples next season, he supposed that he would still be able to cut scions from the tree. Late in March, directly after the sap started, he went up there with knife and saw to secure them.
Not till then did he discover that the tree had been cruelly girdled, and that the spring sap had not flowed to the limbs. He cut a bundle of scions, some of which were afterward set as grafts; but none of them lived. The tree was killed. It never bore again. Nor can I learn that sprouts ever came up about the root. It was quite dead when I first visited the place.
Thus perished, untimely, the Wild Rose Sweeting. Ignorance and small malice robbed the world of an apple that might have given delight and benefit to millions of people for centuries to come.
I have sometimes thought that an inscription of the nature of an epitaph should be cut on the great rock at the foot of which the tree stood.