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apple orchards, apple varieties, Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, Berks County, tree grafting, Rambo apples
A handwritten manuscript entitled, "Orchards", compiled by Victor C. Dieffenbach, dated from October 5 through October 19, 1953. Within, Dieffenbach details his grandfather's apple orchard and the tradition of tree grafting, along with the many different apple varieties that could be encountered within Berks County, Pennsylvania.
Packet 577-214-22 to 577-214-33
“Der Bum-gorda”- “Bungert”!
The pioneer ancestor of ours would no more have thought of farming without an orchard, than the Arab would go without a harem. When this country of ours was first settled, and the house of the men had to be hewed out of the living forests, they required some spiritous or vinous liquor to replace the drinks of their homeland. What more convenient and accommodating to their likes than cider, since it could be made right on the farm, once they had the fruit.
Since the little trees or seedlings can readily be grown from seeds, it took only a few years to get an orchard started. This was usually located on a hilltop of upland; this had a two-fold reason as the farmer had a dual-purpose in view. Primarily the apple requires a well-drained soil, and the higher elevation of the orchard-site eliminated the danger of delayed frosts and the resulting decimation of the crop. At the time of this writing viz. 11 P.M. April 20th. 1953, the thermometer shows 28 [degrees] and is still falling. Early this morning it read 26 [degrees] and nearby mud puddles had ice in them. When the young seedlings were several years old, they were grafted - “ga-tzweikt” to their favorite varieties. Some of these go way back to the old country - “des fodder-loudt”, and many a cherished scion was carried for miles in the horticulturist's saddle-bags. I know that my own grand-father, who was an authority on apples and their culture, made a number of trips to various places to procure some scarce or beloved variety.
Tiny twigs of the previous years growth are broken off from the tips of the branches of a bearing tree (never from an immature one) and are rolled in damp cloth or any material that will absorb moisture and exclude the air, and prevent their drying-out. If they have to be kept for only a few days, they are buried in moist sand, in a shady place (preferably in a cellar) where they will not freeze.
If grandfather had no grafting-wax he would proceed to make some. Into an old skillet he would put a mixture of bees-wax, tallow and rosin - 2-3-1 in proportion respectively, and melt it over a gentle fire; never did he allow it to boil. Once it was all dissolved he would pour this mixture into a pail full of water, and would then pull and stretch it with his hands like “pull-taffy”. If it is of the exact proportions, and not overheated, it can be stretched out in a thin ribbon like the modern fly-hangers. It is a delicate operation to attain perfection in its making, as so many different factors contribute to its success. The writer has made some to the above specifications that would have won a blue ribbon in any competition; and a later batch, made for some friendly fruit-grower, wasn't worth a hoot. Different waxes and resins - in fact all three of the ingredients may vary.
Any warm day in the Spring will be the proper time to graft an apple tree. I have grafted when the young fruits on the tree were as big as a hickory-nut, and had 75% of them to grow; earlier in the season I have had up to 95% of the scions growing when I was top-grafting for a fruit grower who was raising apples commercially.
To graft a tree, grandfather would have a little old basket with his tools and wax in it, and I’d trudge after in his footsteps. If it was a young tree he would cut it off with a very finely-toothed saw, several inches above the ground, making a clean cut, and not bruising or tearing the bark. “Now geb mer der maisel!”- (Now give me the chisel) he would tell me; this was an old chisel, very wide, and ground to a blunt edge. He would hold it in the middle of the “stump” or cut-off tree and give it a sharp blow with the palm of his hand. He was a big, husky old rascal - a lighter operator may require a hammer or mallet. When the stock was split for several inches (the length of the split depending on the stock's diameter) he would insert a very thin long wedge made of hard-wood, having both sides rounded, and very smooth and polished; this he gently inserted into this split. Now he would get one of the scions - “en tzweik”- and with a sharp knife he cut the lower or broken-off end into a long thin wedge, having one side a trifle thinner than the other side. This cut must not go quite up to the lowest bud on the graft. It is now gently inserted into the split, with the thickest side outwards, and gently pushed by hand into the split until the lowest bud is almost on top of the cut-off stump; it is always put in on an angle, the top leaning outwards, and the wedge meanwhile being loosened and gradually withdrawn by shaking the top and pulling on it; if the cut was made right, it can hardly be pulled out, as the sides of the stock pinch on the scion like a vise. “Now geb mer der wox”! (Now give me the wax!) he would tell me. This I usually had in my two hands and would roll and manipulate it in various ways so as to keep it from sticking fast to my fingers. He always had a lump of tallow in the basket, and would rub it over his hands, so the wax did not adhere to them. He would squeeze the end of the roll, and pull it, and put a blob of it on top of the stock, between the two scions. “Ya, er hut immer tsway druff!” (yes he always put two grafts in one split - one on each side) This wax he flattened and pressed down over the edge all around the top; then a strip went down over each split, and this he pressed and pushed with his thumb until every tiny crack was covered. Now another strip was wound all around the top, and all smoothed into place. Once he was finished you could not find one tiny hole that air could enter. He took great care not to cover nor injure the buds on the scion, as that was what formed the future tree. He never used any strips of cloth, saying that the birds could find plenty of strings elsewhere; if they would pull on a string they would dislodge or loosen the graft from its proper position. I have witnessed a robin pulling a scion out by the roots. Likewise he would not use a scion longer than three or four inches - preferably the shorter one. Once they are too long, the birds roosting on them will also displace them. The inner bark of the scion and of the stock or cut-off tree must be sure to meet in some place, hence the idea of putting them in on an angle, so they will have to cross at some place.
“Ya well - now iss er fertich!”- (yes well - now it is done) he would say. I am sure that in the time I took to explain the procedure, he would graft half a dozen trees. End Nov. 5
Older trees would be top-worked - i.e. some young smooth-barked branches are cut off and the scions put on the stubs. All neighboring branches or twigs must be removed so they will not hit the scions when slammed and slapped around by the wind.
“Now gaisht do mull draw”! - (Now you go at it once!) he would tell me. “Do consht des ding nimmy yinger lerna”! - (you cannot learn this thing any younger) he would tell me. I was an apt pupil; for well did I know the resulting reproofs did I fail in my trial of heeding his advice.
“Now schneidt net on sellera tzweik os we wons en fenra-shtawka waart; un moch dei schnilt glott - so glott as en shtick glaws!” (Now don’t you cut on that graft as if it was a stake from a worn-fence - make your cut smooth - as smooth as glass.)
I whittled away for dear life and I finally had the wedge cut right, to a hair. But the lowest bud was gone and I was almost up to the next one; he saw it and told me to just turn the twig in my fingers, and then to cut off the top-part exactly above the second bud, counting up from my finger. “Un schneidt shepp, so os es wosser ob-lawft, un grawdt uvva om gnupp. Dray see so os der gnupp noustsuss shtait, un shtick see in der riss!” (and cut on a slant, so the water will run off; and right above the bud. Turn it so the bud faces out-wards, and put it in the slot!)
Then he helped me, or instructed me to wax it with the same meticulous care, and that scion grew just as nice as any of his did.
In the orchard started by my great-grandfather were Early Harvest, Summer Rambo, Focht - “de Fochta-eppel,” a variety seldom found nowadays. It was an immense flat green apple, and when perfectly ripened in a sunny spot, it would get a bright red cheek. Fall Pippin and Late Pippin, Smokehouse and Benjamin Rambo, Winesap - the progenitor of the modern improved variety. Honey or Summer-sweet - “de Hunnich-eppel, Fallawater - “de Folly-wotter”, and Pound-apples- “de Pundt-eppel”, so called from their immense size, many a one weighing a pound or more. These big boys would also have a deep reddish blush and it was spotted like a dapple-grey horse. Baldwin and Rome Beauty - “de Ducktor-eppel”, York Imperial - “der Shipp-eppel”, so named for its lop-sided shape - not a nicely rounded one in a bushel; Krausers - “de Brisselcher”, or “de Breeselins”, by some so called; they were small, conical in shape, pale yellow and slightly striped and gave some wonderful pies. All of these were still going strong and bearing when I was a kid, and the old man had gone to his rest for many a year. And then last but not least were the Grindstone - “de Schleiff-shtay eppel,” so named from their appearance, being a flat, wheel-shaped little fruit; if you found one measuring two inches in diameter you had an average sized one; two and one half inches would be a big one, and anything over that would be a rarity, and would look immense in a pile of the little ones. Bite into one at the risk of your teeth; as well bite into its name-sake; so some claimed it derived its name from that feature. It was dark reddish, and brownish, and full all over of tiny pale yellowish dots the size of fly-specks. It was so sweet your lips got sticky once you got a bite out of it; the inside was a nice yellow color. It was so hard, old Jake Groff claimed that one time he had thrown one of them clean through a barn-door; when folks expressed their surprise he added - “Ya, des iss wohr! Un der oppel dar waur hohver foul; un de deer waur hinna-wetter uff!” (Yes, this is true! And the apple was half-rotted! And the door was wide open!”) In the P. Dutch dialect - “de shire-door”, means the opening, as well as the door closing it. If these apples were buried in the ground in the fall of the year, and could be got at late in the Winter, they would be mellow, much like a banana; never did anything grow on a tree that equaled them. My Grandad always insisted that the original tree came up as a seedling right aside a farmers grindstone, and that it derived its name from that circumstance. Also the Benjamin Rambo, which much not be confused with the Summer Rambo. The Benj. variety originated on the farm of one Benjamin Batdorff, situated two miles west of Millersburg (now Bethel) in Bethel Township, in Berks County (Lebanon County to the west also has a Bethel Twp. - the two having comprised one twp. as well as one county long ago) at present owned by John Krill, of Frystown .
This farm fell into the hands of my great-great-great-grandfather, John Jacob Dieffenbach who was one of the original settlers of the Tulpehocken Settlement.
The apple is smaller than the Summer variety; it would be big if it came up to three inches in size; it was striped like its big cousin, but was a pale whitish color, looking much as if it was mildewed. It was very crisp, and had a peculiar tangy flavor, all of its own. At some kind of a meeting held in Reading, Pa. in 1873 my grandfather is quoted in a clipping from the Reading Eagle of May 14th as addressing this meeting of the agricultural society by telling them the above related facts concerning this apple. He claimed it dated back to about 1810 and by 1820 was famous all over Berks Co., the only and major digression of reporting in the clipping is that the dumb reporter keeps on repeating that the apple is the Berks County Summer Rambo, where as it was the above mentioned Benj. Rambo. We had the two growing side by side, so I know positively what I am talking about. He stated that the original tree passed away two generations ago. The clipping further states - “that in 1873 Mr. Dieffenbach admired the apple so much that he offered to give grafts free of charge to any one desiring them.”
Alas! I have my doubts if a single specimen of this wonderful fruit can be found today. Some of the very choicest ones would keep until after the holidays, and that plainly showed that it was not the Summer variety. But it definitely was a Rambo.
The Winter Rambo was the progenitor of all the other Ramboes; it was small, hard, pale, insipid or flat-tasting, and the only d- good point in its favor was the keeping quality. The very last apple on the place would be a Rambo.
Apples in those days, did not have a much of a commercial value; the farmers all raised them - the man in town had some in his little fields adjacent to the village, and also a few trees in his back-yard. The city had not yet been born, so who would buy?
But all Summer the thrifty P. Dutch “hausfrau” would be busily employed in “schnitzing” any surplus apples as they ripened. I find one very good variety that I failed to put in my list, viz. the Maiden’s Blush. This is a favorite for the “schole-metsch” (apple-peeling party). It is very round and smooth, and it was a cherished dream on long Winter’s evenings to think of the gala times to be had next Summer, whirling the red-cheeked beauties on the mechanical apple-peeler - “der eppel-shoiler”, while a red-cheeked damsel sits alongside and cuts them into eight thin schnitz - cut thin, so they dry sooner. Long-long ago they were strung up in long rows - “see sin in beudel gfettelt worra” and were hung in a dark corner to dry; where it was dark the flies would not be so apt to crawl on them. In my Grand-father's orchard was one lone survivor - a cripple of a tree that had props to keep it up from the ground - he used to say -: “mer missa dem aurema oldta dunner parvr gricka gevva,” (we must give the poor old rascal some crutches); It had a few apples that tasted much like quinces, and they were all wooly or fuzzy like a quince. Granny would halve and peel them, and put them in big jars (they were big) and add spices -: “des sin"
Oct. 19th 1953
Der Aldt Bauer
English and Pennsylvania German
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Dieffenbach, Victor C., "Dieffenbach On Orchards, October 5 - October 19, 1953" (1953). Alfred L. Shoemaker Folk Cultural Documents. 86.
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