7523 – The lost fruit trees of Champaign County with Sean Williams

Several years ago Sean Williams learned about a retired FBI agent’s quest to discover America’s lost apple varieties. This led Sean to begin exploring Champaign County for lost fruits, and to uncover the history of lost orchards, such as the ones now resided on in Savoy, Illinois, where Old Orchard Bowling Lanes and Senator’s Inn sit. In this episode we learn how Champaign County was once the home of one of the two largest orchards in the Midwest, and how his quest for lost fruit led Sean to possibly discover a pear that was thought to be lost for 100 years.


• Email Sean at CUFruitExplorer@gmail.com
• Midwest Explorer’s article The Lost Fruit Trees of Champaign County (PDF)
Weston’s Antique Apples in Wisconsin
Hocking Hills Orchard in Ohio


• Email Steve at steve@holstein.co or visit holstein.co/contact/
• Get the newsletter at holstein.co/newsletter
• Comment on this episode on Facebook.

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This is an automated transcript which likely contains minor errors.

Steve Holstein (00:22):
Sean Williams from Champaign is on the, on the phone with me here on the podcast, you sort of became interested in what’s called the lost apple project, which was started by a former FBI agent. And so you just kind of decided, well, I’m going to see what sort of apples are literally hiding in plain sight on tree branches here in Champaign County.

Sean Williams (00:44):
Likely I, I definitely have to say thank you to Sarah Johnson for, um, asking me to write an article about my exploration of my research efforts into the Los fruit trees of Champaign county and the quarterly easing. She puts out mid lots of Stuller because we wouldn’t be talking today if it wasn’t for her. Uh, yeah, I read an article. Uh, I’ve always been fascinated by, uh, heirloom varieties of things. I, uh, grow Fairwinds tomatoes and different plants, but I started getting to fruit trees, uh, several years ago and had read articles. Like you said about David Best in court, who was a retired FBI agent who just got that itch and decided to, um, go out and explore what was lost in terms of apple varieties in the Pacific Northwest, in, uh, Oregon and Washington state and Western Idaho, and vaulting after he had, uh, gotten through, uh, turning a friend’s orchard, uh, I’m trying to figure out what apples she actually had.

Sean Williams (01:40):
So that raised a, um, some curiosity, um, in my mind of asking myself, okay, what’s in Champaign county, but if you look around the landscape, it doesn’t seem like a place that’s very conducive to growing apples or pears and fruit trees, um, or lots of them in the orchard type situations with the landscape covered in corn and soybean these days. But at one time Champaign county had the second largest orchard in the Midwest and the Midwest thing, like all the way over to Kansas and Colorado, the largest orchard, and it was started by a guy named Messiah Dunlap. He had the, um, the idea of following the expansion of the Illinois central railroad down to Champaign county. And as a, I guess, new horticulturist decided to start offering different types of three trees and shrubs to, uh, the drawing area of Champaign and Champaign county.

Sean Williams (02:34):
Um, and as this area doomed, so did the, the growth of the railroad, uh, that crisscrossed the counting from east to west and north to south, the Illinois central railroad eventually made its way down to the Gulf of Mexico and then two other railroad lines, uh, with one having a junction in Tolono made their way east west. So Dunlap was really a visionary and he’s sort of placed as orchard, I guess, strategically, that’s sort of the crossroads of all these railroad lines, where the Senator in and orchard lanes now reside. And that became a point to where, uh, different settlers could come pick up trees of a magnificent amount of varieties that were found nowhere else in the Midwest have heat source. A lot of things from the east coast and even just farmers or people who had had small plots of land that they purchased from the railroad.

Sean Williams (03:25):
So he was a visionary and he imported lots of different science to create many different trees and create the second largest nursery. Like I said, in the Midwest with the first largest nursery actually being a Bloomington normal, and that were called FK Phoenix nursery. So believe it or not, the two largest Midwest nurseries were located right here in central Illinois. Now, how does this all relate to Los apple project? Well, towards the 19 hundreds, uh, Memorial in 1901, there was a guy named Benjamin document and he had the largest collection of apples in the United States at that time with over 1000 apples. And he was located in Farmingdale, Illinois, which is a bit Southwest of Springfield. And at this, at this point, and then I like to turn the century. A lot of these cities were connected now by railroads. Well, Benjamin Bucklin had a relationship with a gentleman named George Rudy out in Washington.

Sean Williams (04:21):
And the lost apple project had realize that a lot of correspondence is going on between George Rudy and Benjamin Bucklin Buckman here in Illinois. And they were trading sirens and fruit trees and some of the varieties back and forth. And so they started looking for apples that were lost in the Pacific Northwest area. And I reached out to them and said, Hey, I’ve got some catalog listings of some other apples and those apples there you’re looking for, they might have made their way around central Illinois. So in my current search of central Illinois, where my searches, I I’m constantly looking for apples that they’re looking for and trying to find some very specific, um, Illinois apples, if you will, that were developed just here, but were quite outstanding and made their way over to other states like Missouri and Kansas eventually, and possibly even out west to Washington state. And the,

Steve Holstein (05:15):
When Sean, did you see, sort of begin this a personal quest to look for, I guess, apple trees that people just drive by all the time or walk by all the time. When did this personal quest began here in Champaign county?

Sean Williams (05:27):
Sure. I actually, um, it began during the pandemic, uh, last year.

Steve Holstein (05:33):
So not that long ago. Yeah, exactly.

Sean Williams (05:35):
And I’ve always, you know, I was always out and about looking through the countryside while I drove, uh, for trees and flashes of color that light signify as, um, you know, apple or pear tree, but it wasn’t until last year that I finally, you know, we see all what’s horse apples out there. They’re called Losada orange. These really big, inevitable, bright green fruit to have bumps all over those. Well, you can’t eat those, but they’re plentiful. Or one time they were grown for hedge rows. They’re quite, um, strong trees and they make for great fence posts, but it was last year that I spotted a pair that was the most peculiar pair I’ve ever come across. And I stopped and I looked at it and I picked some pears and I examined them and they were the most peculiar pairs. And these pairs are what set me off in my food exploration journey.

Steve Holstein (06:26):
Sean, did you bite into a pair that you did like that you randomly found? Yeah,

Sean Williams (06:34):
I did. I, I I’ve been into this pear iron and I thought, wow, this is amazing. A pair is weeks earlier than any other pair that comes into bearing or harvest time is here in Champaign. And also it had the very diminished size. It was small, um, compared to, you know, the grocery store varieties like Bartlett or on you. Um, it was very different. And so I bit into it, it has great sugars, great flavor. And I thought, okay, this is really odd. This was a very old pear tree bearing these very small pears and at a very early date, this is this doesn’t add up. Why is the street here? How did it get here? And what is this pair? And those are all questions I started asking myself.

Steve Holstein (07:20):
I imagine you probably don’t tell too many people where this particular pear tree is, but what, what did you discover about that variety of pear?

Sean Williams (07:30):
I need a pair of tree was old. So what I needed to do, we’ll figure it out. What kind of pears were sold in San Payne county and to do that, I needed to really figure out what kind of nurseries or orchards existed here. And all of my internet services always brought up this name, Dunlap and the Senator in, or the rural home as Dunlap and named his farm and homestead here in what is now. It’s a boy, I thought, okay, I need to figure out what this guy offered because this tree is really old. And it seems like he was the only source of trees in the area besides the nursery. I, I aforementioned in Bloomington. And so finding what he offered was going to unlock the mystery of what this pair I was biting into was, and that took a lot of sleuthing, but eventually I was able to uncover complete orchard listings from the late 1850s into the 1860s.

Sean Williams (08:29):
And what I found was this listing of pairs. And I sent you a scan of that earlier. And I found a listing of trees from his catalog and the pair section. And that pair section told me, okay, these were all appears that he offered. And he massively put what time of year they came into fruiting and harvest. And if there were summer pair, there were winter pair. Well through a process of elimination and some very old books called B pairs of New York, I was able to, did you use to have this paradigm? I was actually eating. We called Dearborn seedling and his pills actually from Massachusetts and hell was held in high regard in the United States as being a very, very good, uh, early eating dessert pear, but also something that was easy for farmers and home setters to grow. It was disease-free very heavy in production and, um, you know, it was quite rewarding. And so through process of elimination and working with other books, I was able to figure out that what I was actually working with was the Dearborn seedling pear, which was a major finding this pair. It was believed, had been extinct since the beginning of the 1900.

Steve Holstein (09:42):
You found it in Champaign county in 2020.

Sean Williams (09:45):
See, that’s, that’s a big claim though, claiming that you found a pair of variety that had been lost for 100 years. If you’re going to make a claim like that. Well, you better enlist the services of the United States foremost expert on Paris, Joseph postman. He was the curator of the national pirates collection pairs belong to the family of pirates in Corvallis, Oregon. That’s the living art of pears and quinces in the United States. Same thing with like the apples, but the captain Oregon.

Steve Holstein (10:19):
So we’ve got an R we’ve got an arc that’s full of pear seeds in Oregon. We’ve got an arc of apple seeds in the state of New York. You went to the guy who runs the arc, that stores all of the known pear seeds. Yeah.

Sean Williams (10:33):
Pear trees, um, and germplasm. So actual is freeze. And I reached out to him. I sent him all my scans and my research and pictures, and he told me to go back and grab weaves to look at and read corresponded. And he had retired. And I said, I think I found Dearborn seedling, what do you think? And he said, well, I think I found Dearborn seedlings too, but I’ve had my doubts about it. And he gave me the history about how he found the tree at Oregon. This is one of the world’s foremost expert on Paris. And he said, why don’t you collect some on wood? This is a cutting from the tree that represents what that tree’s genetic makeup is. And it can be, you use that to cologne the tree. Um, and he said, why don’t you take a cutting from Nigeria Saigon and send it out to us and real grasp it, essentially creating a clone of the street and we’ll assess it from there. And actually see if this might be Dearborn seedling, which they believe it is for DNA fingerprinting, uh, which will happen on this pair of soon might unlock the mystery. And finally confirmed that this might be a pair that had been lost for over a hundred years. And it was found in all places, Champaign county, where it was offered by on very great nursery man named Matthias Dunlop.

Steve Holstein (11:48):
Have you spoken to the, to the person that owns the land that that pear tree is on? Do they know what’s going on? I don’t

Sean Williams (11:54):
Think they do because that land has seen his hands many times and the owners aren’t located here in Champaign. So it’s more of a corporate agricultural type of situation where the land is leased and it’s farmed. That’s happened a lot, a lot of these pears and apples that we, you know, people like myself are out hunting and trying to find they don’t reside in orchards anymore. Or, you know, if you go down to the founder and, and, uh, the bowling alley, you won’t find an orchard there, you won’t find remnants of old apple trees hiding anywhere. Those were, those things were all leveled off. And they happened in the early 19 hundreds. And so a lot of these varieties that are lost are on the former grounds of farm homes, their yard. This was what they grew for food. This is what they can, this is what the eight for a snack.

Sean Williams (12:46):
They don’t reside in orchards that might’ve been around a long time ago. They reside on the grounds of former farms or in head roads. And many heads roads has come down with the advent of industrial agriculture and larger farm machinery that needs to move from field to field, but that’s where there’ll be found. And they’ll also be found along the towns that crisscross Champaign county towns like Sydney [inaudible] is’ bill St. Joseph’s Ogden Mohamad. So Townsville crisscross, this area could have these pears and apples and it’s worth looking for them because they could still be out there.

Steve Holstein (13:23):
So you’ve obviously discovered a pretty important pair and you’re, you know, the DNA analysis will happen soon. What about apples? Have you discovered any rare apples or thought to be extinct apples in Champaign county?

Sean Williams (13:35):
I have not. And that’s been my obsession. Um, and especially since we are in that apple season right now, where a lot of trees flashed their beautiful red colors, I have not found two apples that I’m looking for. They’re truly Illinois, apples, Fulton, strawberry, apple, and Downing’s Paragon. And those are the apples that I’m working loosely with the lost apple project on finding here in Champaign county or the central Illinois corridor that stretches over to Springfield. And even all the, you know, even all the way south, uh, going down to Villa Grove and Tuscola and those areas as well, wherever the railroad is. So I have not found those apples. I long with one pair that’s been lost to history. Um, and it’s called [inaudible]. And this was an old pair that you harvested very late in the season, November, all the way up to December, depending on the year. So it was a winter pair. Um, and so I’m searching for those three things in particular. And I believe that they still might be out there and they pushed me on every available minute. I have to driving around with binoculars now and just looking everywhere.

Steve Holstein (14:44):
Do you, I mean, do you welcome tips? Like if there is an agricultural family, a farmer who has this old on their property, would you welcome an email from somebody like that? So you could come in and poke around?

Sean Williams (14:57):
Oh, definitely. Um, that’s exactly what I’m looking for. When I put this all together and I wrote the article, it was almost the way I felt like crowdsourcing binding WAFs fruit. I envisioned this being a community effort of people that were like-minded that were curious and wanted to track down something that was lost. You know, agricultural extension offices have been a dead end in terms of finding things. Uh, the university has since switched its focus, um, to different crops, farm bureaus. Aren’t very interested in these things. Um, as well as local orchards, you know, um, sadly things are in this very narrow lane of selection when it comes to apples or pears, um, that consumers have to choose from. So it’s those landowners, those farmers, those family, uh, the families that have inherited farms and so forth. It’s those folks that have the information or the actual trees that I’m looking to talk to because they could potentially have this, like you said, great apple. That’s been there for a hundred years that they love. That’s one of these missing apples that myself I’m looking for. And so were other people up in the Pacific Northwest.

Steve Holstein (16:07):
Well, what I’ll do is I’ll include your email in the show notes, but we can give it right now. It’s C U as in Champaign-Urbana C U fruit explorer@gmail.com. See you fruit explorer@gmail.com. So if there is an apple tree, or I guess even a pear tree that has been there for years and years and years, and you’re not exactly sure what it is, uh, email Sean and he’ll come out with is a database of knowledge and, and take a look around, right?

Sean Williams (16:33):
Yeah, I would, I love to examine the old trees, um, and old apple trees and pear trees are monsters. So they’re not, when we go to the store or go to the nursery today and we buy a tree, um, you know, that the apple or pear tree might get through about 14, 15, 20 feet. These guys, these old guys, they’re monsters, they’re 50 feet, sometimes big, and the spread is enormous. They can live well over a hundred years. And so this is not going to be one of the small trees that you spot. It’s going to be a very large specimen, but Joseph postman, the guy we talked, we spoke up a little bit earlier. Who’s the former curator of the national pair collection out in Oregon. He said something very interesting. He said, yesterday’s genetics could hold the answers to future problems. And so if we are plagued by some type of bad disease that will hit apples or pears and things like that, some of these older things that have been forgotten about these varieties, they might hold the genetic resistance to what is being faced in the future. And it can be used for breeding and creating new varieties that are tolerant of maybe climate change or disease pressure. And so it’s very important, not only from the romantic side point of finding these old things, but from the future survival of things to have as much genetic information as we can on hand, because they might solve some of our future problems that we have not encountered yet.

Steve Holstein (18:06):
So I got to ask this question, I mean, you’ve become an apple and pear expert when you go to the grocery. Obviously these are mass produced, modified fruits and vegetables that we have there, but do you have a favorite apple

Sean Williams (18:18):
To answer your question? Yes. I would probably say that it’s American golden russet or asked me to Colonel, which is also a lesson. So I have this love of rusted apples, and that’s also what drove my journey and to seeking out old fruit trees or graphing them and drawing my own personal collection. It’s because in the United States and around the world, there’s been this training of the consumer that apple should be red and they should be, have stripes on them, the crunchy and crisp with a little bit of sweetness. And if you’re ever going to buy an apple, that’s not red or pink Demond should only be granny Smith or golden delicious as the other two colors. And you’ll notice that in the grocery store, or there’s a new one called Opal, but they’ve done a very good job of narrowing the lane in which consumers buy things.

Sean Williams (19:11):
And they’ve trained them very well. And so myself, a self-proclaimed lover of rusted apples and their flavor didn’t like that. And so that’s why I started creating drafting my own fruit trees and searching for apple varieties that were lost because the flavors that you get from the grocery store represent a very small snapshot of the flavors that you could experience. If you had the opportunity to taste different kinds of apples, there are apples that taste like vanilla ice cream, there’s apples that taste like bubble gum, which a friend of mine just found really interesting flavors out there. Um, but you’ll never get that at the grocery store. And you’ll never find that at, you know, most mainstream orchards, you really have to seek those things out. And it’s unfortunate that things have gone that way with, um, industrial agriculture, but it’s not just apples, pears, there’s only three varieties. You really see Bartlett Bosc and pawns. You they’re amazing pairs out there. There are apples that have red flesh they’re pairs that have red flesh and the flavors are really tantalizing. So it’s thinking about old varieties or, you know, trying to figure out what are those flavors I haven’t tasted that can lead to a natural curiosity of discovery, whether it’s searching for old fruit trees or searching for orchards, I grow these things. And there are some, you know, there was an orchard, I think, in Monticello called, um, Wolf orchard, I believe.

Steve Holstein (20:41):
Yeah. Yeah. And that, uh, they, they’re no longer selling, I think a couple of years ago they selling, yeah. There’s a, there’s

Sean Williams (20:48):
A guy who leased their orchard. Um, his name is John Williams. Um, he’s a, he also works at solar Bharatiya farm and, um, Urbana. And so he leaves their orchard with the idea of, um, creating an apple CSA. Um, you would be able to, uh, that’s called community supported agriculture. You would be able to get so many apples to seize them and pick some different varieties. So he leaves Wolf orchard, but it’s been a pretty bad year in terms of disease. And so he had some problems with that. And then the year before has also been very difficult. So that orchard is somewhat still going. But I would say that they probably had the most amount of local selection if you will, of different kinds of apples that you don’t find at the grocery store, why all this is super important is that I want you to realize one thing from this conversation.

Sean Williams (21:39):
Um, if you take anything away, is that when Mathias Dunlap was offering apples for sale in central Illinois, there were probably over 17,000 different varieties of apples at that time. Now, in terms of apples in the United States, that if you wanted to get a tree and found someone to graph that tree and give it to you, you probably only have about 4,000 to 5,000 to choose from. So 66% of the varieties that you have to choose from are gone, they’re extinct. And so, you know, that says a lot about industrial agriculture and the way things have gone in the, you know, the progression of agriculture in the United States. And that’s why it’s important to preserve what still might be out there because there aren’t that many things left to be found. And, uh, I take full, you know, it’s going to take a lot of people to try to find them, but we’ll never recover that 66% that’s been lost to just being plowed under or obscurity, uh, that will never come back.

Steve Holstein (22:42):
I know that there was a university that worked with, uh, an apple grower manufacturer a few years back to create the cosmic crisp. I’m sure you heard of that one. Yeah. And I don’t, you know, the problem is, is I remember seeing it in stores here in Champaign and maybe it’s still there, but it was really expensive. And I tried one and I thought, I thought, yeah, this is fine. It’s not worth the price though,

Sean Williams (23:06):
Which is, uh, I believe led by Washington state university and has a multi-million tens of millions of dollars of marketing behind it because everyone wants the next honey crest. And so it’s an expensive apple. You don’t have to be licensed by the university. You have to be a licensed orchard. You, uh, they can only sell them in certain stores that does a lot about the way things are going straight into that next Honeycrisp apple, that, you know, the next big thing that people are just going to say, I love cosmic crisp. Um, so there’s a lot of money behind these things, but I think what people might’ve forgotten was in the 19 50, 60 seventies, the university of even before that used to be a center of apple breeding, really outstanding breeding, what’s going on here in Champaign, even where, you know, that place, they call it orchard downs, the student housing that it used to be a giant apple orchard.

Sean Williams (23:59):
Um, and then it moved over to where the Meyer is on Windsor and there’s metal Meadowbrook park. There’s like some old creepy apples in there. Well, that’s where the breeding happened off of Windsor and phylo road. So they started a program called PRI, which was Purdue, Rutgers, and Illinois. And they released some outstanding apples, amazing apples. And a lot of people I think, forget about those apples, but they are local. They are great. People have them all across the U S and even the world. It’s just that there’s not that marketing behind them. It’s not, you know, it’s not that cosmic crisp wow anymore. It’s just this real, these really unsung flavorful apples that were bred here with

Steve Holstein (24:41):
Where in this country could I go, if I’m on vacation, I, you know, load up the family in the RV. Cause everybody’s got RVs and campers, thanks to the pandemic. And you want to go to someplace and enjoy just a huge variety of apples right off the tree.

Sean Williams (24:53):
I would go to a place in Ohio and it’s called Hocking Hills, like a cabin rental place. He also has acres and acres and acres of trees in Ohio. He’s a super nice guy who has, I was fascination, a love of apples, especially red fleshed, apples, apples, that when you bite into them are red as a Ferrari. Um, but he has a massive selection. I haven’t seen, he has over a thousand different apples and he has a you pick place. So you can go there, pick apples from all different types of trees. Um, I think it would probably be about maybe a five and a half hours, six hour drive. Um, you know, some, see some fall forwards, go pick some apples, but I would say he had the largest collection now in Wisconsin, there are a few places that also have a great selection of apples that you don’t have to go that far for. Um, so I would probably tell you to venture out of state. Um, that’s not to say there’s not some very apple here. I just, you know, I just don’t know of any places that have the selection of, you know, the, the orchard in Wisconsin and also Ohio.

Steve Holstein (25:57):
Well I’ll, um, I’ll, uh, we’ll do some digging and include some links in the show notes of this episode. Hey Sean, thanks so much for hopping on the podcast with me. I appreciate it. Happy hunting for those apples and pears. Thanks so much.

Sean Williams (26:07):
I appreciate it.