Bringing the apple trees home again

Local fire fighter plants historic trees on NJCU campus

Lending a hand, JC firefighters help plant historic apple trees.
Lending a hand, JC firefighters help plant historic apple trees.

Scott Paladino works as a Jersey City firefighter out of a firehouse near Reservoir No. 3 in the Heights and his twin passions are trees and history.

He operates an orchard in his spare time on land he owns in Wantage, Sussex County, where he has raised 1,400 heirloom apple trees.

Many of the varieties he has raised are considered historic. And while he doesn’t see himself on par with the legendary John Chapman – better known as Johnny Appleseed – Paladino wanted to bring back some of these historic trees to Jersey City.

So he reached out to the Bergen Square Historical Society, which has been very involved with the historic Apple Tree House in Bergen Square, and offered to donate some spare trees if they could be planted in public places in Jersey City.

“I’m a history buff,” he said. “I actually learned about the Bergen Square Historical Society from one of my fellow firefighters in Jersey City.”

Local legend has long claimed that George Washington, as general of the Colonial Army, met with French Major Gen. Marquis de Lafayette in 1779 under an apple tree in front of a house on Academy Street owned by Harman Van Wagenen, a Jersey City farmer. The house is known as “The Apple Tree House,” based on that legend.

Paladino raises apple trees with the exact heirloom varieties that New Jersey colonists used to make and sell their famous apple cider in the eighteenth century.

“I originally came from Wyckoff in the suburbs of Bergen County and had a landscape construction company there for nearly 20 years,” said Paladino. “Being a man of the soil, I had an opportunity to purchase a 50-acre farm in Sussex County in 2000, and went for it.  When I first made the investment, I was not sure what I was going to grow on the farm but just loved the open fields, dark soil and the clean air.”

Following the farmers market movement and agritourism, he felt this was where he needed to be with his organic property.

“I wanted something original, not what everyone else was doing,” he said. “I started to do some research on fruit growing and found brand new history. ‘When do you find new history, I said?’  Well, oh my God, the history of making cider in America during the colonial period and heirloom apples was amazing. Everyone drank hard cider for the first 300 years of our country, the 16, 17, and 1800s.”

Cider the old fashioned way

“The name of my new business is Colonial Cider LLC,” he said, “and I am making organic hard cider from these amazing varieties. I am growing organically, processing, and fermenting the cider naturally, without any preservatives or sterilization, trying to replicate what our forefathers did during colonial times.”

Apple cider – in particular hard cider – was as popular in that era as coffee and tea are today. In fact, apples were among some of the first crops grown in colonial America. Potted seedlings and bags of apple seeds were brought over on the Mayflower. And the cider made from these was hard, meaning it had an alcohol content.

Fermented beverages were an important source of safe drinking water. And because American geography was well suited to growing apples, cider became a staple in the colonial American diet. Everybody drank it, men, women even kids, even for breakfast. New Jersey became the hub of the new world and cider production.

The Temperance Movement during the late 1800s began the decline in the industry, which died completely with Prohibition in the 1920s.

Then during the 1980’s apple pomoligist’s — botanists who study fruit — rediscovered many of these old varieties and started to re-propagate them.

“Paladino said he wanted to donate some extra saplings (intended as spares in case some of his planted trees didn’t make it) to be planted in Jersey City in public places,” said Steven Dworkin, of the Bergen Square Historical Society. “We arranged for them to be planted on the grounds of New Jersey City University. The NJCU campus had originally held the greenhouses of Peter Henderson, considered the “father of American horticulture.”

Planting at NJCU

Paladino brought along two fellow off-duty firefighters, Keith Walker and Bela Vasclavik. Dworkin was there along with Kevin Burke, groundskeeper for NJCU.

“The groundskeepers found a good, sunny area for planting near the library,” Dworkin said.

The planting took less than an hour. Paladino brought buckets of homemade wood-chip mulch and organic nutrient solution to mix with the soil in the tree holes.

“These were 1-yr old saplings that he had grafted onto sturdy root stock and grown in his greenhouse,” Dworkin said. “He buys a few extra each year in case some of the trees he’s planted have problems, and these extras were what he was donating and planting. He expects to be able to do this in future years as well, in various public spaces around Bergen Square and Jersey City, and the BSHS will be on the lookout for available spots.”

“Currently, I have over 1,400 organic apple trees and grow about 20 varieties,” said Paladino. “Most of them are 200 to 300 years old and native to New Jersey and surrounding states.”

Varieties native to New Jersey

One of them is called the “Harrison”. This tree is native to the Orange Mountain section of Newark, which is now East Orange. It was the base for cider making in the north and generated the most money in all the New York City markets.

This small yellow round apple makes a single varietal cider that has been compared to a thick syrup.

“Another native New Jersey apple tree we planted at the university is the Golden Russet from Burlington County,” Paladino said.

The American Golden Russet comes from Burlington County in the 1700’s. This yellow oblong shape, rough skinned apple is great for fresh eating, and makes a 7 percent high alcohol content cider

“We also planted an apple from Massachusetts, called the Roxbury Russet. It dates back to the 1600s and was the ‘First American Apple.” Paladino said. “Jefferson and Washington planted all these varieties on their plantations.”

“Jersey City has been so good to me over the past 15 years of my career,” he said.  “I wanted to give back as much as I can. Having some of the off duty guys I work with was a great way to tie in the fire department to such an important day too. It was a home run that I could bring back some of these old varieties to such beautiful lands. The early farm and apple history in Jersey City was the perfect match.”

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