An Appreciation for Lee Calhoun, the Man who Saved Southern Apples | Civil Eats

An Appreciation for Lee Calhoun, the Man who Saved Southern Apples

Calhoun, who died in February, spent decades tracking and saving rare Southern apple varieties, preserving a part of Southern culture that would otherwise be lost.

Lee Calhoun. Photo credit: Donn Young, UNC College of Arts & Sciences

In the late 1970s, Creighton “Lee” Calhoun planted a couple of Red Delicious apple trees on his homestead in Pittsboro, North Carolina. When a neighbor suggested other traditional Southern varieties to add to his blossoming orchard and Calhoun couldn’t find them, he set out to discover where they’d gone.

In the decades since, the agronomist and history buff traveled the state, stopping at houses where he saw apple trees growing and asking permission to cut a twig, which he would later graft onto rootstock at his home orchard. He cataloged his research varieties in three-ringed binders, which he stored in the guest bedroom of his house.

Cidermaker Diane Flynt, founder of Foggy Ridge Cider in Virginia, still recalls the moment Calhoun—who has been referred to as the “savior” of Southern apples—showed her those binders. It was 2017, and Calhoun had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which would take his life this February, at the age of 85.

Flynt remembers Lee telling her, “I got there at the last minute; these people were [old], and they remembered their grandparents, who were alive in the 1800s, and who really knew what those apples were.”

With Calhoun’s future uncertain at the time, Flynt wanted to be sure that his research lived on, and so she called colleagues at the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina. A team started recording conversations with Calhoun and cataloging his research to ensure that his legacy would be preserved.

Collecting Southern Apples—and Their Stories

Most traditional apple varieties disappeared from the landscape when growers started planting varieties that were better suited to industrial production. In the 1980s, when Calhoun started researching and cataloging rare varieties, he was tireless in his efforts.

Calhoun would place ads in rural electric co-op newsletters asking for stories about apple trees—and receive hundreds of letters in response.

Knocking on the doors of people’s home, he would ask, “What kind of apple tree is growing in your backyard?” He would place ads in rural co-op newsletters asking for stories about apple trees—and receive hundreds of letters in response.

“The letters are amazing,” says Flynt. “Some are from botanists, and some are from folks who are hardly literate. They all wanted to tell Lee the stories of their apple trees. Some sent pictures or hand-drawn maps to [the locations of] the trees.”

Calhoun eventually traveled from North Carolina to the National Agricultural Library in Maryland to trace the history of the fruit’s varieties.

His collection of research became the basis for his seminal work, Old Southern Apples, first published in 1995. Featuring 1,800 apple varieties that originated in the South or were grown there before 1928, his publisher, Chelsea Green, called the work “an indispensable reference for fruit lovers.” The depth of his research—and his passion for the topic—helped Calhoun earn a reputation as one of the foremost figures in American apple conservation.

“His book produced a shockwave,” says Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt, John Shelton Reed distinguished professor of Southern Studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. At first, people expected Calhoun to find around ten kinds of Southern apples. “He found hundreds, and he found those because in the South, we like to tell stories,” Engelhardt says. “Once you talk about apples, you start to see them… in backyards, along roadways—and Lee cared about the varietals that had these important stories.”

In addition to writing about Southern apples, Calhoun used his knowledge of grafting (which he learned from an article in Sunset magazine) to grow iconic varieties like Nickajack and Magnum Bonum, along with lesser-known ones like Buff and Cullasaga, and to sell them through his nursery.

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Lee Calhoun at Horne Creek Farm in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Diane Flynt)

Lee Calhoun at Horne Creek Farm in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Diane Flynt)

Calhoun operated the nursery, which opened in 1986 with 60 apple trees, with his late wife, Edith. By the time he retired in 2002, he was growing more than 400 varieties. Horne Creek Living Historical Farm in Pinnacle, North Carolina maintains the nursery collection.

Helping Others to Grow

Calhoun was generous with his time, writing letters and spending hours on the phone with apple enthusiasts who had questions, needed help, or wanted to share stories.

Flynt first came across Calhoun’s book in 1997 while researching cider apple varieties for the orchard she was planting in Dugspur, Virginia, to start Foggy Ridge Cider. In addition to offering advice, Calhoun traveled from North Carolina to Virginia to tour the site and help Flynt choose the best cider varieties for her location; it turned into an enduring friendship.

While Flynt has worked to help ensure that Calhoun’s legacy lives on, others, too, are helping make sure his work endures. In 1999, when Calhoun was just getting out of the nursery business, David Vernon, owner of Century Farm Orchards in Reidsville, North Carolina, was just getting started. Vernon had moved back to his family farm and discovered apple trees that his grandfather planted in the 1800s.

“Someone said that the only way to save them was to graft them, and I had no idea how to do that,” Vernon recalls. “I came across an ad in an electrical co-op magazine… and I called him.”

“Lee preserved hundreds of apple trees that would have gone into extinction had he not made them available for other people to grow.”

The phone call led to another long friendship. Calhoun taught Vernon how to graft and, over a period of years, their connection resulted in the passing of the torch. Vernon’s nursery now grows and sells more than 500 varieties of apples, including several from Calhoun’s collection.

“Lee preserved hundreds of apple trees that would have gone into extinction had he not made them available for other people to grow,” Vernon says.

Vernon has found a lot of interest in heritage apples in recent years. While some growers want trees that are well-suited to growing in Southern climates, others are simply looking for non-GMO varieties (there is only one genetically engineered variety on the market, however). Flavor, however, is one of the biggest reasons for the resurgence. “Most of the uses of the apples in the grocery store are for snacks, they’re not for cooking; they’re not for making cider,” Vernon explains.

A Living Legacy

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Calhoun donated the papers he kept from the 1970s until 2010 to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and last year, Engelhardt assembled a team of archivists from the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library to record his oral history. Thanks to those efforts, all of his work—an estimated 1,200 items—have been archived in the library and made available online.

“Lee was, fundamentally, a scientist who was fascinated by the diversity of apples and their complications; he was also fascinated by the stories of apples,” says Engelhardt.

From left: Keia Mastrianni, Lee Calhoun, Diane Flynt, Chef Andrea Resuing. Photo courtesy of Diane Flynt.

From left: Keia Mastrianni, Lee Calhoun, Diane Flynt, Chef Andrea Resuing. Photo courtesy of Diane Flynt.

Students in the undergraduate Southern Studies program use Calhoun’s papers as the basis of their final projects. Their work ranged from the evolution of apples in advertising to exploring apple smoke flavor to mapping fruit trees around Chapel Hill.

In the Spring of 2019, about a year before he died, Calhoun was the guest of honor at a reception where students presented their work. The attendees included friends, students, apple enthusiasts, and cider makers.

“I think it can feel like if you donate papers to a library, they might just sit there,” Engelhardt says. “But these are not just going to sit there; people are going to use them.” At the reception, Engelhardt continued, “Lee told me that he was especially moved that the students were already using the materials.”

Most importantly, Calhoun’s legacy lives on in the orchards throughout the South, where some of the 400 varieties that he managed to preserve (and the 1,800 Southern apples he cataloged) throughout his lifetime are growing today—apples that would have otherwise disappeared from the landscape.

Top photo by Donn Young, UNC College of Arts & Sciences

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based freelancer who writes about food and farming for National Geographic Traveler, Hemispheres, Modern Farmer and among others. Visit her online at Read more >

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  1. Cathy Eville
    Such an interesting and important newsletter. Thanks so much. Are you familiar with the Fexix Gillet Institute in Nevada County Calif? It's worthy of an article. Cathy
  2. Arlene Medder
    Years ago, I had the honor of meeting Mr. Calhoun and the pleasure of buying 9 apples trees from Mr. Calhoun. 3 were for friends who lived near Charlotte, 3 were for my brother in Greensboro, and 3 for friends in Raleigh. He helped me select trees that would thrive in those areas and that suiting the interests of the recipients. A few years later, I was given a jar of apple sauce, made from one of those trees (the one with apples suited for applesauce). Thank you for letting me know who has taken his torch so I can buy more trees.
  3. Leslie W
    This article moved me to tears. Mr. Calhoun’s book is a bible for Southern apple growers like me. And I’m so glad his records are being preserved and used. I only wish I could have met him before he passed. Now to go hunt down some old timey apples...

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