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Faithlife

Original Red Delicious line lives on

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November 5, 2008

Original Red Delicious line lives on

Mike Kilen
Des Moines Register

Dick Tracy and his sister, Elma Tracy, live together in the old home place off a rock road in rural Madison County, Iowa. Elma, 97, and Dick, 85, never married and remained rooted to the farm.

They mow the yard as a team.

"He's got a Craftsman," says Elma. "I've got a John Deere."

Just down the rock road is a famous tree that Dick and Elma took care of together, too. The original Red Delicious apple tree grew on their land north of East Peru, Iowa, and its descendant is rooted in the same spot today.

Decades of apple harvesting seasons have come and gone - 65 seasons since the family first bought the land - but this fall the tree is a sight to behold.

Destined for greatness

In the 1870s, farmer Jesse Hiatt tried to chop down a stubborn tree, but it kept coming back. Finally, he let it grow and called it a Hawkeye. He sent off the apples to fruit shows in 1893, where they didn't make much of a splash.

Then Stark Nursery in Missouri paid Hiatt $85 to propagate it, renamed it the Delicious, and the rest is apple-eating history.

Even with countless new varieties gaining popularity, it remains the nation's most-grown apple - 52 million bushels are forecast for 2008. The next most popular is Gala, forecast for 29,600 bushels this year, according to the U.S. Apple Association.

The rich red color of the Red Delicious was attractive to sellers, and it traveled well, says Paul Domoto, a professor of horticulture at Iowa State University. "It's got a fantastic history - 200 varieties of apples have been derived from it," he said.

Tending a legend

Dick and Elma are from a family of 10 children. One died in childhood. Five of the nine never married and worked hard on the farm, which grew to more than 500 acres through the years.

They were practical Iowa farmers, and trees are a nuisance to a farmer growing row crops and feeding livestock.

Yet the story of the apple tree was well known when the family bought the land in 1944 from William Landis, who had cared for the tree after buying the Hiatt place. So when the Tracys cleared much of what was left of the orchard they saved the stump of the old tree - it had died in 1940.

Dick and Elma's brother, Raymond, and sister, Margaretha, owned the plot in the early days. Margaretha considered the tree a bother while Raymond entertained reporters and visitors on the subject with nonchalance: "What I know about the tree, I also know about airplanes - absolutely nothing," he told the Des Moines Tribune in 1946.

That year, it was news that four sprouts had grown from the roots. A new tree formed from one of the sprouts.

The Tracys plowed around it. Many years, it stood engulfed by a corn crop. People always wanted to see it.

"People in town were pressuring us to turn it into a park," Dick said. "But I was afraid vandals would destroy everything. It's good farm ground."

The tree eventually died, but the roots held to the soil again, waiting.

Elma went to the field one day in 1985 and found three sprouts coming up. "The world is full of chances," she said.

She dug up the sprouts and planted them at the home place. Two survived. After Raymond died and Dick took over the land in 1990, they watched the two trees grow in the yard, slow but sure.

Dick said he didn't care much about the tree, really. He prefers to eat Jonathan apples.

Elma talked him into digging up one of the trees 10 years ago and replanting it in the original spot. They hauled out a giant rock and had it engraved to note the tree's historic value.

Genuinely Delicious

Down the rock road heading southeast three miles, the 15-foot tree sits in a mowed alfalfa field on a hill overlooking the beautiful, rolling landscape of Madison County. The tree was propagated by Iowa State University horticulturists, and four trees now grow at the school's research farm.

This was the original, from the mother tree, and holds to its genetics like no other vegetatively propagated plant, says ISU's Domoto.

But with age comes change. The apple was tweaked and refined for color and hardiness to the point where its taste was less popular. Today, the Red Delicious has rapidly lost ground to apples such as Fuji and Gala.

Dick sold his land, including 100 acres, to Kit and Mary Spangler three years ago.

Kit Spangler, who lives near Minneapolis today, said he quickly learned the tree's history and is committed to preserving it. He mowed the field so people could easily see the tree and venture out to it.

The first year the Spanglers owned it, the tree had no apples. The second year it had four.

Today, in the field he was rooted to much of his life, Dick Tracy looks up to the great crown of a historic apple tree, bushels of red apples dangling on its branches.

He picks one, rolls it in his rough hands and counts the distinctive five bumps on its bottom.

"That's a genuine Delicious," he said.

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