September 22, 2018
September 22, 2018 4:27 PM EDT
Nancy McIntosh poses for a photo while looking at historic artifacts from her families apple business in the Morrisburg, Ont. Her ancestor, John McIntosh, discovered the original McIntosh Apple on a farm in the nearby town of Dundela, Ont, in 1811.Tyler Anderson/Naitonal Post / PST
DUNDELA, Ont. — Nancy McIntosh was running errands on a cool, cloudy, mid-April afternoon, driving the back roads northwest of Morrisburg, Ont., in her white Ford and daydreaming as she went. When it occurred to her that her route was going to take her right past her childhood home in the village of Dundela, for a fleeting second, she considered turning around. Nuts, she knew — but perhaps better than catching sight of the two-storey white country house she grew up in, currently unoccupied, seemingly unloved and sagging into serious disrepair, as is the surrounding 14-acre property.
“I tried to close my eyes when I went by,” she says. “I never go to Dundela. If my grandmother was alive to see the property now, she’d roll over in her grave.”
McIntosh is a semi-retired high school teacher with short, grey-brown hair, a feisty sense of humour and a black-and-white Corgi named Piers. One late August morning she was at her kitchen table in Long Sault, near the banks of the St. Lawrence River, telling stories about her family and their old place. Apple motif place mats adorned the table; framed photographs of apples hung from the walls; a sign by the backdoor read: “Have an apple a day.” But her name is the most telling clue.
She is the great-great-granddaughter of John McIntosh, a pioneer with Scottish roots who, in 1811, was clearing his land in Dundela when he stumbled upon a cluster of apple seedlings. McIntosh transplanted the seedlings — 20 or so — to the garden. One among them eventually bore apples, stripy-red with a taste unlike any other: not quite sour, but not quite sweet.
John and his wife Hannah’s ninth child, Alan, took a special interest in the tree. A hired farmhand, whose name has been lost to history, taught him the agricultural art of grafting — of taking a bud from a tree and fastening it to the roots of another seedling to ensure the characteristics of the original survive in its descendants. Alan, also a lay preacher, traveled from place to place spreading the good word and sharing the bounty of the apple tree by handing out seedlings to the people he met. The apples became known as McIntosh Reds — or “Macs” — and by the mid-20th century they accounted for more than a third of Canada’s annual apple harvest and were being planted in abundance in the United States.
Even today, in an age of varietal plenty, food engineering, shifting consumer tastes and fierce produce aisle competition from the Royal Gala, Fuji, Ambrosia and the sweet (and expensive) Honey Crisp, Macs still reign atop Canada’s annual apple crop in terms of production, and are a top-10 apple south of the border. Thanks to an apple-loving Apple employee, they are the namesake of an iconic computer brand. And every McIntosh tree in North America claims a common ancestor in Dundela.
Canadians can debate the primacy of Montreal smoked meat versus poutine versus maple syrup versus wild blueberries all they want, but a compelling argument can be made that the rightful king of Canadian eats is a humble apple — which is why Nancy McIntosh gets so depressed whenever she drives past the property where it all began.
“I’m not even allowed on the property anymore,” she says. “He threw me off.”
Gerd Skof takes a break on a basket of apples, while McIntosh apples fall from trees all around him, at his property in the village of Dundela, Dundas County, Ont. The original McIntosh Apple was discovered on this site in 1811 by John McIntosh. Skof has let much of the site fall into disrepair but is hoping to sell property. (Tyler Anderson / National Post) Tyler Anderson/Naitonal Post / PST
He would be Gerd Skof, a 76-year-old Austrian-Canadian with a disdain for trespassers, raspberry thieves and day-tripping lovers of apple history. Skof bought the McIntosh homestead in 1987. It was never intended to be thus. Nancy’s mother, Olive, put the farm up for sale in 1974 after her husband, Sam, died. Her wish — championed at the time by Roy Class, chief horticulturalist at Kemptville College — was that Heritage Canada would buy it and transform the house into a museum and the orchard into a park, preserving the Mac’s birthplace forevermore. Citing lack of funds, Heritage Canada declined. The property cycled through a handful of owners before Skof bought it and, much like Heritage Canada, he finds the idea of turning it into an apple shrine unappealing — unless somebody else is willing to pay for it.
“I am not interested in opening the place to the public,” he says, adding that the two roadside historical plaques out front should be enough to satisfy curious passersby. (A third marker, viewed as a Holy Grail among apple groupies, is hidden from the road about 100 metres into the property, on the exact spot where the original Mac stood until its death in 1906, a decade after being damaged by fire.)
Skof has had some dust-ups with the McIntosh heirs, he admits, but declines to offer details, except to say that he has “no problem” with Nancy but isn’t a fan of her brother, Harvey.
“Those McIntoshes don’t like me very much,” he says.
Nancy McIntosh poses for a photo while looking at historic artifacts from her families apple business in the Morrisburg, Ont. Her ancestor, John McIntosh, discovered the original McIntosh Apple on a farm in the nearby town of Dundela, Ontario, in 1811. (Tyler Anderson / National Post)
A bookkeeper by trade, Skof, who now lives in Ottawa, looks the part of the gentleman farmer: tall, erect, broad chested, big-armed — strong — with a head topped by a Friar Tuck ring of white hair. He wears a straw hat and possesses a sturdy handshake, evident on the hot August afternoon he met with a reporter and a photographer in Dundela to tour the property. Area locals expressed surprise upon learning the National Post had been invited onto the land, spawning a theory, among some, that Skof must have had ulterior motives. Chiefly: free publicity for a dilapidated place he has been looking to unload, on and off, for more than 20 years and recently listed for $875,000 on Kijiji. (A 2016 tax assessment puts the property’s value at $249,000.)
The marketing theory, if true, would be a risky bet, since what Skof is trying to sell is a genuine dump. The old Mcintosh property is overrun by shoulder-high weeds, with three decrepit outbuildings and a country heritage house with which even the most optimistic handyman would be foolhardy to tangle.
“The place needs some work,” its owner says. “But I am in no hurry to sell it. If it takes me another five years, another 10 years, I don’t mind. I like the place.”
For all the gossip about him, Skof was a welcoming host, if a wandering conversationalist, veering from apples — Macs are his favourites, although he prefers the plums grown on the property — to the mysterious death of Horst Skoff, two “fs,” a former professional tennis player and distant relation who died suddenly at age 39 during a business trip to Germany.
Skof used to live in the house with his wife, Claire, and the occasional raccoon, until a rash of heart attacks among his siblings in Austria convinced him to move into the city. Apple lovers would sometimes bang on the door weekend mornings, requesting a tour. To discourage them, Skof stuck a prominent “no trespassing” sign on the large fir tree out front.
Not far from the house, in a clearing, is a cluster of Macs. The trees were weighted down with fruit and the air is humming with insects and the percussive thump of apples hitting the ground. They were small in comparison to the apples you see in grocery stores, and blemished with black spots. But the taste? Vintage McIntosh: not quite sour, not quite sweet.
A basket filled with freshly fallen apples in the village of Dundela, Dundas County, Ont. The original McIntosh Apple was discovered on this site in 1811 by John McIntosh. (Tyler Anderson / National Post)
“I have no use for the apples,” Skof said, gesturing at a dozen or so crates filled with the fruit. He doesn’t sell the apples, but lets them rot, perhaps in keeping with the overall decay of the place — and offering an unintentional metaphor for an apple whose best days, alas, are behind it.
“The Mac is definitely in decline,” says Charles Stevens. He is the president of Ontario Apple Growers, an organization representing Ontario farmers with more than 10 acres of orchard, and has close to 100 acres of his own near Newcastle, Ont., about 70 per cent of which is planted with Macs. It is the apple he grew up on, and an apple he predicts in another decade’s time he won’t be growing.
“The marketplace has changed,” Stevens says. “Consumers now want a hard, sweet apple, and we have to match our product to our market. I am 65 years old. People my age love the Macs. But I am going to die here, someday, which is kind of where we are heading with the Mac.”
I feel as though local people just aren't interested in the McIntosh story anymore
Fifteen years ago Macs accounted for 40 per cent of Canadian-grown apples, a percentage that has dipped to around 30 per cent today. More alarming for fruit nostalgists: one in three apples consumed in Ontario is a gala. Meanwhile in South Dundas, the municipality that includes tiny Dundela, signs that once heralded the area as the “Home of the McIntosh Apple” have been replaced as part of a county-wide rebranding effort by signs welcoming tourists to the place “Where Ontario Began.”
“I feel as though local people just aren’t interested in the McIntosh story anymore,” Nancy McIntosh says. She is the keeper of her family’s treasures. Boxes of black and white photographs — there is great-uncle Alan, pictured next to the original tree; logbooks crammed with orders from across North America for seedlings (the family eventually monetized great-uncle Alan’s spirit of giving and started a nursery); yellowed newspaper clippings and a small brown wooden box.
Inside the box are great uncle Alan’s grafting tools, along with some ancient-looking apple buds and a hunk of wood about the size of a baseball. The wood is wrapped in a McIntosh family tartan. According to family lore, it was taken from the stump of the original tree John McIntosh stumbled upon more than 200 years ago.
In more recent times, Nancy McIntosh marshaled her courage and parked at a cemetery bordering the Dundela property, hopping the fence to take a look around. It was early spring. It was quiet. The trees were bare. She wondered which, among them, were Macs. When Nancy was a little girl, car loads of people from Ottawa, from Cornwall, from all over, would descend on the orchard Sunday afternoons in late September, looking to buy apples. Nancy would sometimes give them a tour, showing them the plaques and the spot where the first McIntosh apple tree stood.
“It would be nice if the property could be something,” she says. “Some day, some guy is going to come through with a bulldozer and the whole place, the whole thing, is going to disappear into history.”
* Email: joconnor oconnorwrites