If you were looking for the origin of an apple, where would you look? A good place to start might be the Garden of Eden.
There is such a place in Wilmington, and while you won’t find Adam and Eve there, you will find the Baldwin Apple Monument. This granite obelisk with an apple on top was erected by Woburn's Rumford Historical Society in 1895, commemorating the location of the first known Baldwin Apple tree.
There is a chicken-or-egg question about the Garden of Eden name. It is an area in the southwest part of Wilmington said to be the home of many unusual species of plants. Was it called the Garden of Eden before William Butters found the apple that became known as the Baldwin? Or did the area take that name after the discovery of the apple?
There is no doubt, however, as to the place of origin of the first Baldwin Apple tree. It was near Chestnut Street in Wilmington. It was not in Tewksbury, not in Billerica, Burlington, Winchester, Somerville, nor was it in Baldwin, Maine.
In the 1850’s, the location of the original Baldwin Apple was explored by a committee of the Massachusetts legislature, which pronounced the Wilmington location to be the true site. The question was also thoroughly discussed in an article by Rev. Leander Thompson of North Woburn, about 130 years ago. His article was first published in the Winchester Record, and later in the 17th Annual Agricultural Report of the State of New Hampshire.
The apple that became known as the Baldwin was discovered by William Butters (1711-1784), whose grandfather, Will Butter was the first white settler, about 1665, in that part of Wilmington. William Butters transplanted the tree to a spot near his house. The Butters family had long called it the Woodpecker Apple, also the Pecker Apple, for its attraction to woodpeckers.
It was woodpeckers that attracted Samuel Thompson to the tree in the 1780’s or 90’s, while surveying for the Middlesex Canal. Thompson told Col. Laommi Baldwin of the apple tree. Col. Laommi Baldwin of Woburn had served as Washington’s engineer during the Revolutionary War, was a vice president of the canal corporation. Baldwin visited the Butters farm and cut scions from the tree.
There are two versions of the naming of the apple. Thompson wrote that long after Col. Baldwin’s death, it came to be known as the Baldwin Apple, for his interest and efficiency in spreading the apple.
However, a history of Woburn by Rev, Samuel Sewall says that the name for the apple was proposed at a party which Baldwin had, and in his presence.
Mary Swain’s scrapbook in the Wilmington Memorial Library has an article from the New England Farmer, March 1885, which sings the praises of the Baldwin Apple. It reads:
“What the Concord is among grapes, what the Bartlett has been among pears, the Baldwin is among apples.”
The article says that while other varieties may exceed it in certain points, the Baldwin excels them all in the sum of its excellence.
The article said that 33 years prior, (1852) Dr. Silas Brown of Wilmington had sent the magazine a copy of a certificate he had obtained from Simeon Butters, whose father was James Butters. The article said that James Butters was the son of the William Butters who discovered the apple.
Simeon Butters stated that the original tree ceased to bear fruit about 1822, and that his grandfather, who planted the tree, had died about 30 years earlier, a very aged man.
The inscription on the Baldwin Apple Monument relates that the original tree fell in a gale in 1815.
Apple trees are reproduced by cuttings, known as scions, grafted to the base of other apple trees, to retain the qualities which would be lost in seed reproduction. Soon, Col. Baldwin had a row of apple trees planted near his stately home in North Woburn with the woodpecker apple scions. He took great delight in the variety of apple, and gave away many cuttings to his friends. After Col. Baldwin’s death in 1807, friends promoted the name Baldwin for the variety. It became a major crop in the Northeast in the 1800s — and the subject of considerable misinformation.
One persistent story was that it had been found in Tewksbury. Another story had it found in Somerville. As for Burlington and Billerica, neither was far from the original site of the tree. In fact, the Butters tradition was that William Butters had actually found the tree on Wood Hill and transplanted it. Burlington was not incorporated until 1799, and Wood Hill was part of Woburn when Butters transplanted the tree.
The Tewksbury location is interesting, and researching it provides some understanding of a few people. An article in a New York publication in 1906 credits John Ball of Wilmington, Mass. as the developer of the apple. The only Wilmington record found on John Ball, however, was his death in 1797. It turns out that his daughter married Dr. Jabez Brown, who lived in Hardscrabble, in North Wilmington. He was the only doctor in town during the Revolutionary War. It is quite possible that John Ball died at the Wilmington home of his son-in-law, Dr. Jabez Brown. But he lived in Tewksbury.
An 1826 letter by J. B. Brown to the New England Gardener is reproduced in Rev. Thompson’s article. “An old gentleman of Wilmington by the name of Butters discovered on his farm an apple tree of spontaneous origin which bore a fine red apple,” he wrote. Brown said that Dr. Jabez Brown, about 1775, grafted cuttings from the original Butters tree to trees on a farm he had in Tewksbury. J.B. Brown does not state his relationship, but he is believed to be the son of Dr. Jabez Brown and the grandson of John Ball. And he does not mention the original Baldwin tree being on his grandfather’s farm in Tewksbury.
Another letter quoted by Thompson was written by Dr. Rufus Kittredge in 1835. Dr. Rufus Kittredge stated that he was the grandson of John Ball, who settled in Tewksbury about 1740. Ball cleared the land and not long after, an apple tree sprung up. He said his father, Dr. Benjamin Kittredge, born there in 1742, said it was a large tree when he was a lad and that he called it “the mother of them all.”
Rufus Kittredge would probably be a first cousin to John Ball Brown, who wrote the 1826 letter.
The subject was of considerable interest in the mid-1800’s. In his 1862 autobiography, Wilmington Farmer, Asa Sheldon wrote of going to Tewksbury to see what proof could be accorded to that claim. He was shown a tree they called a Baldwin, but he said it bore little resemblance to the Baldwin trees of Wilmington. “I know of no better way to describe it, than by calling it a two-story tree,” he wrote.
As for a claim by Winchester, town historian Henry Smith Chapman (1936) yields to Rev. Leander Thompson’s finding for Wilmington. The Winchester story was that Baldwin, along with Benjamin Thompson, later Count Rumford, would stop at the Black Horse Tavern for refreshment on their way home from lectures at Harvard. One day they happened to notice an apple tree near the road, a favorite of the woodpeckers, with delicious fruit. Baldwin took scions from the tree, the story goes, and planted them.
Chapman states that the proof is complete that Baldwin never knew of the apple until 20 years after the days when he trudged along the dusty road to Cambridge.
The Baldwin Apple Monument was placed very near the site of the original tree, on Chestnut Street in Wilmington. It reads: This monument marks the site of the first Baldwin Apple tree, found growing wild near here. It fell in the gale of 1815. The apple first known as the Butters Woodpecker or Pecker Apple was named after Col. Laommi Baldwin of Woburn. Erected in 1895 by the Rumford Historical Association.