A Poet and His Apples

The trees of Robert Frost are alive and well—again—in South Shaftsbury (and who knows where else)

Robert Frost's Snow apple
Robert Frost's Snow apple

Written By

Ellen Williams

Written on

April 30 , 2013

At the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in South Shaftsbury—his Vermont residence from 1920 to 1928—an ancient and magisterially gnarled Snow apple tree presides over the grounds. Placed, probably by the poet’s own hands, in a commanding spot directly behind the house, it was the only one of its kind among the hundreds of apple trees planted on the 80-acre farm during the 1920s. The rest of the orchard, which Frost envisioned as “a new Garden of Eden with a thousand apple trees of some unforbidden variety,” was set behind the barn and populated with McIntosh, Northern Spy, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, and Red Astrachan trees.

Today, 90-odd years after the soil was first tamped down around its roots, the heritage tree, as the Snow apple is known, remains vigorous enough to produce a bountiful harvest of distinctively striped and tasty white-fleshed fruit every year around Labor Day. But the old orchard is a ruin. After the Frost family relinquished the farm, all but seven acres of the land was sold, including the orchard, which was subsequently neglected. Although the trees are still visible on neighboring lots and are occasionally reported to bloom, the majority are choked and dying.

If Frost were alive, the plight of his beloved trees might well elicit a poetic lament. Then again, he might be pleased. In “Unharvested” he wrote:

May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan,
Apples or something forgotten and left,
So smelling their sweetness would be no theft.

Whatever Frost’s opinion might have been of the current seedy state of his orchard, he would surely approve of the path to rehabilitating the seven-acre farm that Carole Thompson, the museum’s founder, curator, and chief apple detective, is now taking. She gets right to the point: “What’s Robert Frost without apple trees on the place? It’s like having Robert Frost without birch trees.”

How this passionate and effervescent 68-year-old came to be the steward of the Shaftsbury farm and its Frostian legacy of apples is itself the stuff of epic poetry. After a 30-year career as a sales executive for the Reynolds Aluminum Company, she retired and moved in the early 1990s to Bennington, an area familiar to her from many ski trips to Mt. Snow. At the time, she had no idea that Frost had any history in the area, nor did she have a particular connection to him other than through his poetry, which she had loved since she first read it in high school.

But after settling into her new home, Carole learned, quite by chance, that Frost was buried in Bennington. That discovery led her to search locally for a Robert Frost society, similar to the Robert Burns societies prevalent in Scotland. “But,” she says, “I found no one here who I could bond with over Frost. Finally, I posted a notice in the Bennington Banner for a Frost poetry group and 10 people showed up.”

The group met regularly and at first stuck to the poetry. After a few years, they began to delve into Frost’s biography and family history. Then, in 1999, the group curated an exhibition for the Bennington Museum to commemorate the poet’s 125th birthday. That was the turning point for Carole. She immersed herself in the Frost collection at the Bennington Library, which led her to discover that Frost had lived in a stone cottage in Shaftsbury during the 1920s. After that, obstacles fell like dominoes before Carole’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm. In November 1999, she contacted the owners of the Shaftsbury cottage and, to her great astonishment, learned they had been planning to move.

“I always felt that this was meant to be,” she reflects, referring to the founding of the museum, “that it was just waiting to happen, just waiting for someone with arms and legs to come along.” Within two months, Carole assembled a board of directors (starting with key members of the poetry group), established a nonprofit organization with bylaws, and began the years of negotiations that culminated, in October 2001, with the signing of a purchase contract. At that time, the Friends of Robert Frost nonprofit organization was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, and fund-raising began in earnest. The sale was completed in May 2002, and the following September the Stone House Museum opened its doors.

However, it took a bit longer for the apple project to be launched. “Once we knew we had these apple trees on the property,” Carole explains, “we looked for years to find somebody who would help us propagate them.” Propagating apple trees is a complex, delicate, and exquisitely time-sensitive process. Orchardists skilled in the art were far too busy with their own orchards during propagation seasons to be able to help with the Frost trees. But in 2005, Carole found Russell Allen of Westminster Station, a retired expert on apple propagation and grafting. He was ready and able to help.

“The project had one goal,” Carole says, “to make baby trees that could be planted.” Some of the baby trees would be used to populate a planned display orchard—a new 20-tree orchard on the Stone House’s seven acres—and the rest of the saplings would be sold to the public to raise funds to support the museum.

Ideally, all the saplings would have been produced using grafts taken from the old orchard, or at least from Frost-planted trees at his other homes. Unfortunately, after doggedly researching a slew of options, it became clear to Carole that she would have to settle for only partial success. “Of the historic trees in the Stone House orchard,” she continues, “none could be propagated. They couldn’t be relied on, because they’d gone wild.”

But four original Frost trees from Shaftsbury could be grafted. “The Snow apple and the Transcendent crabapple [planted by Frost’s daughter-in-law in 1935] were produced from the historic trees at the Stone House,” Carole explains. “We used two other varieties from The Gully, which is the house in Shaftsbury where Frost lived after he gave the Stone House to his son for a wedding present. One of the Gully trees we were able to identify as a Rhode Island Greening. We never could identify the other Gully tree. Zeke Goodband, the orchardist at Scott Farm in Dummerston, thought it was a wild apple, so we called it Gully’s Wild Patience.”

The rest of the grafts that were propagated—Gravenstein, Red Astrachan, Sops-of-Wine, and Duchess of Oldenburg—were provided by Zeke Goodband. Zeke’s grafts were not descendants of the historical trees, but did represent the species that Frost planted, at the age of 83, in a new orchard at his cabin in Ripton.

The first cuttings of the four historic trees from Shaftsbury were made in the third week of August 2006. Only during that brief period does sap production decline while new buds start to form. Carole then drove the precious budwood to the nursery in Aspers, Pennsylvania, that Russell Allen had recommended—“some people ship their budwood in coolers, but I didn’t trust that because if it got caught on a hot day on a shipping dock somewhere then my budwood was cooked.” In Aspers, the nursery professionals grafted the cuttings onto rootstock—a process called custom budding—and absolutely pampered the grafts for the next 18 months, until they were about six feet tall and sturdy enough to be transplanted. In the spring of 2008, the saplings were shipped to Shaftsbury, and the museum had its first sale of historic apple trees.

At that sale, the Snow apples sold out. The second sale, in 2010, included the Ripton species, but again, it was the Snow apples that sold out. Three of the 2010 trees were sold on eBay. The popularity of the Snow apples does not surprise Carole. “There’s a great emotion about those trees,” she says. “It’s like having Robert Frost in your yard. How good the apples are is almost immaterial.”

No sales have been held since 2010, and none are currently planned. The sales, Carole notes, are not the easiest way to raise funds. For one thing, the economy has not been cooperating and, at almost $100 per tree, the purchase price is substantial. In addition, the timing is difficult. The saplings must be shipped in early spring, when the museum is not yet open for the season. And they must be planted within three days of delivery, which limits prospective purchasers to those willing and able to collect their new trees during mud season, a time of year that is one of Vermont’s less appealing.

Still, Carole will continue the propagation project. Her preferred option is to be able to graft the new trees herself, rather than deliver budwood to Pennsylvania and ship saplings. “I was never formally educated in literature or Robert Frost, nor in running a museum or raising apples; I simply know that if you love something, you can do anything.” Her early experiments in grafting, not surprisingly, have already yielded some promising results. And there are a number of Vermont orchardists she could always turn to, including Zeke Goodband.

Carole hopes that the next sale at the museum, when there is one, will feature her own Shaftsbury-grown historical saplings. Maybe it will even raise some money, but if not, Carole will do it anyhow. “I like doing it for the fun of it,” she comments, “and for the sharing of the Frost pleasure with people. That’s really the point of it.”

Ellen Williams is a freelance writer, literature buff, and dedicated 
consumer of apples. She lives in Newfane.

Photo by Kevin Bubriski

Good-by, and Keep Cold

by Robert Frost

This saying good-by on the edge of the dark
And cold to an orchard so young in the bark
Reminds me of all that can happen to harm
An orchard away at the end of the farm
All winter, cut off by a hill from the house.
I don’t want it girdled by rabbit and mouse,
I don’t want it dreamily nibbled for browse
By deer, and I don’t want it budded by grouse.
(If certain it wouldn’t be idle to call
I’d summon grouse, rabbit, and deer to the wall
And warn them away with a stick for a gun.)
I don’t want it stirred by the heat of the sun.
(We made it secure against being, I hope,
By setting it out on a northerly slope.)
No orchard’s the worse for the wintriest storm;
But one thing about it, it mustn’t get warm.
“How often already you’ve had to be told,
Keep cold, young orchard. Good-by and keep cold.
Dread fifty above more than fifty below.”
I have to be gone for a season or so.
My business awhile is with different trees,
Less carefully nourished, less fruitful than these,
And such as is done to their wood with an axe—
Maples and birches and tamaracks.
I wish I could promise to lie in the night
And think of an orchard’s arboreal plight
When slowly (and nobody comes with a light)
Its heart sinks lower under the sod.
But something has to be left to God.

“Good-by and Keep Cold” from the book, The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright ©1923, 1969 by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright ©1951 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

About the Author

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Ellen Williams

Ellen Williams is a freelance writer, literature buff, and dedicatedconsumer of apples. She lives in Newfane.

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