Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library:

Apples in September - on Trees and in Books
This past week marked Johnny Appleseed Day, a fine time to celebrate apples and to think of the mysterious legends which grew around the true patron saint of the American frontier farmer and an inspiration to all gardeners—John Chapman (1774-1845) who travelled across the Old Northwest in the 1820s planting the first settlers’ orchardsAcross the lane from our home in the 1950s was a little picturesque farm that the local proprietor of the hatchery in our small town maintained, I believe, more out of habit and tradition rather than as a going concern. Chapman would have been very proud of this place. I learned so much wandering around that farm as a 7-year-old. I saw sheep shearing in the spring, learned the names of massive old trees arching up along the road, studied as closely as any scholar caterpillars to determine from their bushy coats if we would have a cold winter or not, and, if we did, I seemed to skate for weeks on the farm pond. Our neighbor’s wife was a great gardener. Her flower beds were laid out like the ones I’ve only seen these days on the covers of historic seed catalogues. In the summer she would send armfuls of blooms home to all of the neighboring mothers through child envoys—like me. What I think I remember most of all was the way that farm told the seasons to a young boy, and Mrs. Kriege’s apple orchard bordering on the south corn fields was the harbinger of fall. The trees were always full of apples and the ground was covered in them. Praying mantises, moths, dragon flies and cicadas flew in zig zagging patterns on a late September day. We kids were always welcome to pick the fruit and enjoy a snack after school.
The Mercantile has a vast collection of agricultural history, from almanacs and rural farm newspapers, to aforementioned seed and implement catalogues, from rural women’s journals, to horticultural guides, gazettes and grange publications. How could that be otherwise, with St. Louis sitting in the middle of a vast garden of corn, wheat and soybeans that stretches a thousand miles in every direction? The economic lynchpin for the entire region. My favorite single item in this special collection is this well turned, early nurseryman’s sample book owned by the C. Patterson Company of Kirksville, Missouri dating from the 1860s, when such elaborate and ingeniously bound illustrations were carried across farms from Pennsylvania to Iowa and Missouri, tempting the pioneers with these beautiful chromolithographs or colorful pochoirs of apples, grapes, peaches and berries that almost fell off the page into the enthusiastic customers’ hands. Did these apple plates tempt the great grandparents of my next door neighbors to grow an orchard to delight future little boys? I wonder. 
This rare nursery specimen book has over one hundred well preserved illustrations. These compilations are always rare because most were worn out long before they became appreciated as antiquarian treasures. Charles Van Ravenswaay, the great Missouri historian, likened these illustrations of apples to delicate folk painting rather than mere commercial art. I fully agree. They remind me of a treasured past, but these apples remain in the present too, of I hope, a beautiful autumn just ahead for our readers, on the back porch, perhaps with a glass of cider or a candied apple on a stick!  --JNH
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