Burn Them! A Myth of Cider, Orchards, and Prohibition


This article was first published in Issue 11 / 2020 of Malus, a quarterly print journal featuring bittersharp criticism and commentary by America’s great cider thinkers. Subscribe today.

Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project (MORP) has worked for over a decade to document and map the apple and orchard history in Colorado, to identify and propagate unique heritage apple varieties and to help farmers in southwest Colorado care for and benefit from their existing historic apple trees. We have been searching to find original sources that document orchards being destroyed or replaced due to local or national prohibition laws or the temperance movement, a myth often repeated in respected publications. To date, we have not found any direct accounts. Yet, the recounting of this urban legend has risen in popularity over the past several decades, even here in Colorado where orchards never were planted specifically for cider in the first place. There are many reasons for the loss of orchards, decline in diversity, and cider’s fall from popularity, but national Prohibition and the events leading up to it are not one of them.

As part of our research, we contacted a handful of well known cider and apple historians to get their input including Ben Watson, author of Cider Sweet and Hard, (1999), Dan Bussey, author of The Illustrated History of Apples in the United States and Canada, (2016), Tom Brown (applesearch.org), David Benscoter of The Lost Apple Project, and Professor William Kerrigan, author of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard: A Cultural History (2012).

“The oft-repeated example of the unnamed orchardist who took an axe to his trees in a fit of Temperance fervor is, even if true, an isolated example,” wrote Mr. Watson. “And the fact that cider, like wine, doesn’t require boiling like beer (or moonshine) made it very easy for people in rural areas to keep making cider under the radar; unless your neighbors dropped a dime on you, no one was going around trying to eradicate cider.”

When asking writers that have contributed to this urban legend about their sources we are invariably lead back to Michael Pollan and his book Botany of Desire (2001) where he writes “Just about the only reason to plant an orchard of the sort of seedling apples John Chapman [Johnny Appleseed] had for sale would have been for its intoxicating harvest of drink. . . . . Eventually they [temperance advocates] would attack cider directly and launch their campaign to chop down apple trees.”

William Kerrigan wrote about this myth back in 2014 on his blog American Orchard in a post titled “The Fall and Rise of Hard Cider”. In another post “The War On the Cider Apple”, he notes, “By 1829, at least a few farmers had taken the advice of “burn them” to heart. One report in several journals told of a New Haven, CT gentleman who “ordered a fine apple orchard to be cut down” because the fruit may be converted into an article to promote intemperance”. When we contacted Prof. Kerrigan about his sources he replied,

Perhaps there was one crazy guy out there in the pre-tractor age who expended the extraordinary energy to pull up/destroy/burn an orchard full of live trees because they believed alcohol was evil, or perhaps the story was made up entirely by someone who wanted to characterize Temperance advocates as fanatics. In either case, it is exactly the kind of story people repeat, so it is quite possible that one example of this was retold until folks thought it was widespread. I think even Thoreau mentions it in his essay Wild Apples, but again it is quite non-specific. I think the “Burn Them” article [originally in The Religious Intelligencer, Oct. 1827] is a good example of how these stories spread, as it was reprinted in numerous journals.
Another part of this myth includes the narrative that the temperance movement led to the conversion of cider orchards to fresh eating varieties and to the destruction of supposedly cider-specific orchards planted by Johnny Appleseed. The primary reason most orchards were planted in the first place was for multi-purpose homestead use (including cider) or for the fancy fruit commodity market, but not solely for cider. “In his effort to subvert the popular, wholesome image of John “Appleseed” Chapman and portray him as a corrupter, he [Michael Pollan] essentially declared that the seedlings he planted had no other use than production of alcohol. It was an appealingly amusing story. It just was such an oversimplification,” added Prof. Kerrigan.

We at MORP recognize that prohibition laws, put in place in Colorado in 1916 and nationally in 1920, did effect all alcohol production. However, a major reason that commercial production of hard cider was not part of Colorado’s founding history was due to the development of the grain-based beer brewing industry. German immigrants were transforming America into a beer-drinking nation years before Colorado became a territory. As Mr. Brown shared with us, “Hard cider is something people are reviving now. Of all the thousands of older people I talked to [in the South] not a single one mentioned hard cider.” Agreeing, Mr. Bussey wrote, “I’d like to concur that hard cider just wasn’t a “thing” commercially, and though it existed on a very small scale, it wasn’t a driving force as to the varieties grown. Beer and spirits were king as grain cultivation [in the Midwest and West] began early after settlement.”

What About Them Apples?

As to particular apple varieties falling in or out of favor, the people we’ve consulted support our conclusions that apple diversity declined for many reasons other than the temperance movement. One driving force was the recommendation by experts for farmers to turn to monocultural practices. According to Mr. Benscoter, “I have looked at a lot of newspapers from the early 1900s in eastern Washington State, and I have yet to find one that mentions hard cider, [although t]here is documentation right now for over 250 apple varieties [non-cider specific] in eastern Washington and northern Idaho in the late 1800s and 1900s.” Dan Bussey added, “The list of the apples to discard from cultivation was part of a concerted effort in many states, generally for the purposes of having as few as seven mainstay varieties to offer to the public as a larger number was thought to be confusing. It was all about marketing. Sad to think that many of the varieties are better than most of the apples you find today.” To which Mr. Benscoter replied, “It’s not surprising; quite a few lost [and documented from the period] varieties are on the list.” MORP’s own list of apples grown historically in Colorado includes over 400 varieties, 50% of which are considered lost.

In America, fermented cider was a micro-industry, primarily in the east, using available orchard apples. By the 1880s, most apples in the United States were grown for eating, whether baked, dried, sauced, or fresh. Any excess crop was used for livestock feed, cider (soft and hard), or vinegar. Most of these were multi purpose apples, though a few, such as Harrison and Hewe’s Crab, developed reputations for making great cider. Vinegar was a particularly valuable product. “Cider vinegar (an indispensable product for preserving, cleaning, etc.),” wrote Mr. Watson, “requires that one ferment apple juice as the precursor to vinegar, and it makes even less sense to think that [hard] cider could disappear entirely as a homestead product. Much less that orchardists as a whole would actually chop down their trees. More common was the population shift to the new lands of the West. In Nelson, NH (a town of 500-600 people near where I live), the population in the 1860s was twice what it is today. That’s because farmers moved to less stony and more fertile lands in the Midwest and West after the Civil War.”

Disappearing Orchards

So, if not temperance beliefs or prohibition laws, what were the causes of orchards being razed to the ground, in other words, completely destroyed? A search of the digitized newspapers available at the US Library of Congress website showed that by far the number one reason orchards were razed, destroyed, or “grubbed out” was tornados, followed in no particular order, by wind storms in general, accidental fire, flood, development, cyclones, hurricanes, hail, war, dust storms, codling moth control (kill the orchard to kill the moth), fruit inspector orders, pests, and general spite or vandalism. Also, low productivity, disease, pest damage, or old age of orchard causing the owner to pick up an axe or torch.

With the rise of industrialized agriculture, most of Colorado’s fruit industry was unable to compete on economy of scale. Despite the genetic diversity of our area’s first orchards, within 20 years, by 1910, local orchardists were turning to commodity crops realizing that a boxcar of shiny red apples sold better than one of mixed varieties. Prohibition and the temperance movement in general did not effect Colorado’s fruit industry in regards to either varieties selected or eliminated, or to its rise or decline. We invite you to do similar research where you live. If you find differently, please let us know!

We must, we conclude, respectfully disagree with Michael Pollan’s belief that, “Carry Nation’s hatchet, it seems, was meant not just for saloon doors but for chopping down the very apple trees John Chapman had planted by the millions.” Instead, please raise a glass of your favorite cider and give “cheers” to all the women who today are playing a leading role in the resurgence of hard cider.