Your browser is out of date.
This site may not function properly in your current browser. Update Now

The History of Apples in Western New York

Insider Tips & Inspiration, Fall Activities
Follow the journey of apples from Kazakhstan to the Americas to western New York.

Apple picking is one of the most popular pastimes in western New York, and New York is the second largest grower of apples in the United States. How did apples come to be such a force in New York?

There’s a reason New York is famous for apples: the state grows over 29.5 million bushels of apples a year, making it the second largest apple producer in the country. Western New York plays a central role in the prominence of apple farming in the state, in large part because of Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Science (CALS). This year, Cornell Agritech in Geneva, part of CALS, released three new apple varieties -- the Cordera, Pink Luster, and Firecracker--, increasing the number of varieties that CALS has released since 1880 to over 69. How did apples become so integral to New York’s agricultural industry and economy?

Apples growing in an orchard.
Apples growing in an orchard.

Crabapples are the only apples native to the United States; farmers need to cultivate every other variety. The primary ancestor of the apple we know today, the domesticated apple, originated in Kazakhstan in central Asia. As traders on the Silk Road made their way to Europe from Asia, they ate these apples and tossed the cores around them. The trees that grew from these cores crossbred with local crabapples. Apples became so popular that eventually farmers came to cultivate over 7,500 varieties worldwide, and the first colonists in America brought apple seeds and cuttings with them to Jamestown. Colonists quickly bred varieties that would do well in their new homes, prizing the fruit especially for its ability to ferment into hard cider.

A selection of hard ciders from OSB Ciderworks in Lakeville.
A selection of hard ciders from OSB Ciderworks in Lakeville.

When Asa Danforth settled in Onondaga County in 1748 from Worcester, Massachusetts, he planted the apple seeds he had brought with him, growing the first known apples in western New York. He established a small nursery, selling the plants and disseminating the fruit around the area. In the next 50 years, landowners cultivated orchards in Fayette, Ovid, and Farmersville. Iroquois from the Seneca and Cayuga Nations planted their own orchards in Kendaia, present day Romulus, and General Sullivan was surprised to find seventy well-established apple trees there in 1779 during the bloody Sullivan-Clinton Expedition. In 1796, the early settlers of Dansville, hailing from Pennsylvania, planted their own apple seeds, the majority of which were for cider apples.

An apple cider slushie, a favorite from Castile Cider Mill. Photo by Katie Sutor.
An apple cider slushie, a favorite from Castile Cider Mill. Photo by Katie Sutor.

It was not until the 1800s that western New York became as famous for apples as it is today. George Ellwanger, an immigrant from Germany, decided that Rochester was the perfect place for the horticultural establishment he hoped to start, in large part because the Erie Canal connected the region to the West and Lake Ontario provided a route to Canada. In 1839 he purchased 8 acres of land and, together with Patrick Barry from Ireland, started the Mount Hope Nursery.

Highland Park in Rochester, part of Mount Hope Nursery. Photo by Katie Sutor.
Highland Park in Rochester, part of Mount Hope Nursery. Photo by Katie Sutor.

Ellwanger introduced many European horticultural techniques to the area, from soil management to better methods of pruning and grafting. The Mount Hope Nursery was the first creator and purveyor of dwarf fruit trees, and the two men exhibited over 100 of their own varieties of pears and apples at the 1851 New York State Fair. It is due to their work that Rochester became famous as the Flower City. In 1880, the New York Legislature created what is now known as Cornell AgriTech, and the center’s very first horticulturist specialized in New York’s apple and crabapple varieties, work that Cornell continues to this day.

Apples for sale in Perry. Photo by Nina Piccini.
Apples for sale in Perry. Photo by Nina Piccini.

It is hard to imagine fall in western New York without fresh apples. Here are some of the best places to get apples in the Genesee Valley:

  1. Titus Fruit Stand, 1332 S. Academy, Wyoming, NY 14591
  2. Castile Cider Mill, 29 East Park Rd. Castile, NY 14427
  3. Pankow UPick Orchards, 5878 Glen Iris Rd. Castile, NY 14427
  4. Crnkovich’s Farm Market, 8041 East Main Street, Le Roy, NY 14482

If fermented apples are what you're after, check out OSB Ciderworks in Lakeville.