Scattered in orchards around the county are varieties of apple trees that were largely forgotten until the co-founders of the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project went looking.
In the process, Addie and Jude Schuenemeyer have found three varieties of apples once thought to be extinct.
The Raspberry apple was found in the area, the Cedar Hill Black in New Mexico and the Colorado Orange in Canon City.
Across the nation, the number of apple varieties has steeply declined since 1900. From approximately 18,000 varieties, now only about 6,000 types of apples exist and a few of the rarest types still grow locally.
Jude Schuenemeyer has been working to track down and clone the rare trees in the remnants of what used to be extensive orchards in McElmo Canyon and revitalize local orchard production for years.
“For a long time, it felt like jousting at windmills,” said Schuenemeyer.
But this spring the project is launching an effort to genetically test all the rare apple trees in the area, he said.
The project is becoming an official nonprofit and has started to raise the money for the equipment and lab services for the testing. The nonprofit will be under the umbrella of the San Juan Resource Conservation and Development Council, but a local board would run it.
The project members hope to do all the testing over the summer and create an online database of apple varieties.
Schuenemeyer is hoping to identify trees that may be more resistant to late frosts and more suited to this climate. Such trees would be part of the effort to encourage more local production.
Part of Schuenemeyer’s vision includes booming orchards with specialty apples that would draw in tourists and supply a local cidery.
Around the turn of the century, the county produced fruit that won ribbons at the World’s Fair.
“I believe that the fruit industry suffered from a thousand cuts, Washington State, high altitude frosts, the Great Depression, remote location, [and] a cultural forgetting of the greatness of an earlier generation,” he said.
But he knows the McElmo Canyon and other areas in the county could produce marketable fruit again.
“A generation went by and they forgot what was possible here,” he said.
Once identified and tested, information including photos, location and important identifying factors of the rarest varieties would go into the database so other researchers can have access to it. It would be like Wikipedia for apples, he said.
Much of local knowledge only exists in oral history and some books and articles dating back to the late 1800s.
Many of early the settlers of Montezuma County, brought fruit trees with them, some from Germany, others from east Tennessee. A few including J.D. Hall were experts in their craft.
As part the project, Shuenemeyer wants to start recording the oral histories of the orchards and settlers so the history won’t be lost.
To promote the potential for local production, the orchard restoration project is working with students at all three area school districts to plant and care for fruit trees as part of the Montezuma School to Farm Project. They are also replanting a small orchard at Battle Rock Elementary School.
While the focus has largely been on apples, there are also unique cherries, quinces, mulberries, and pears in the area the project would like to save.
The project also holds free workshops for those who want to learn how to care for local trees. The next one will be held at Let It Grow and will focus on grafting. It will start at 10 a.m. on March 22.