Gravenstein apples, a long and delicious history

The forecast is for a relatively cool weekend to check out the Gravenstein Apple Fair at Ragle Ranch Park in Sebastopol.

At the Aug. 12 and 13 event, you can expect apple pies made by church members, bags of rare Gravenstein apples for sale, a Chef’s Tent sponsored by the Shed and organized by Relish Culinary Adventures with almost constant demonstrations by well known chefs, a Children’s Corner, Craft Cider and Beet Tents, a DIY Arena, farm animals and cow milking, historic apple processing equipment displays and demos, 28 food vendors from vegetarian from the Farmer’s Wife to hot dogs from Estero Café and turkey legs from Willie Bird Turkeys and Hawaiian Shaved Ice, lots of arts and crafts, and a pie baking contest.

Apples were once one of Sonoma County’s primary crops, with loads of canning and bottling enterprises around Sebastopol. More recently, many of the grand apple orchards have been replaced by vineyards, although some younger farmers are again planting apple trees and making apple products including soft and hard cider. Gravenstein apples are now on Slow Food’s endangered list.

Gravenstein apples history in the region dates back more than 200 years. Around 1811 Russian explorers planted apples and other crops around Fort Ross, and those trees reportedly produced into the 1880s. Mitchell Gilliam and his son-in-law, Isaac Sullivan, arrived in what is now Graton, known then as Green Valley, in the 1850s and planted a 150-tree apple orchard with stock they bought in Petaluma for $1.50 per tree.

After the trees began to yield apples, the pair sold fruit door-to-door in a horse-drawn wagon, while others with large lots planted apple trees, as well, leading Sebastopol to a national reputation for its apples.

Nathaniel Griffith, called “Grandfather of the Gravenstein” locally, planted his orchard in 1883 off Laguna Road and worked with renowned plant breeder and grafter Luther Burbank to develop the Gravenstein.

Thomas Barlow integrated blackberries into his apple orchards in Green Valley. Though he died at 34, Barlow’s sons started apple sauce canning in the area in 1939. Hence, the Barlow commercial development in downtown Sebastopol that includes an old canning shed and many metal buildings designed to resemble canning buildings.

Like many of the immigrant farmers in the area, enterprising Swedes John and Neta Hallberg settled on 40 acres near Sebastopol, planted apple trees, and built one of the first apple dryers in California, which burned down in 1905. In fact, all but 15 of the estimated 101 local dryers burned to the ground eventually. Apparently this was not a finite science.

In 1910 the Sebastopol Apple Growers Union started the Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple Show, now called the Gravenstein Apple Fair held every August.

Tickets at the gate: Adults $15, adults who bicycle to the fair $12, seniors and veterans $12, children 5 to 12 $10, and kids 5 and under free.

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