There’s a national park in Pennsylvania where you can have your history and eat it, too.
At Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site in Elverson, you can learn about the iron industry’s role in our nation’s history. But you can also pick apples in the mid-19th-century-style orchard, where the 32 varieties include some no longer found in stores or markets.
In the 18th century, eastern Pennsylvania’s Hopewell Furnace roared furiously, supplying cannon and shot to the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. A hundred years later, during the Civil War, it forged pig iron, and then stove plates when iron stoves became common in homes. In 1883, it stopped, doomed by a growing steel industry.
Today, Hopewell is a sleepy village anchored on a lush green hillside and managed by the National Park Service. On a self-guided tour, you can see the massive stone furnace built in 1771 and the ironmaster’s white mansion, where descendants of furnace manager Clement Brooke lived until 1935. The first-floor rooms mix Colonial and Victorian styles — there’s a spinning wheel, a clawfoot table, porcelain teacups. Other buildings are more rustic.
But I wanted apples. Hopewell’s roughly 200-tree, 5-acre orchard offers McIntosh, Rome and other apples that I know, but also Newtown Pippin (from 1759 and supposedly a favorite of George Washington’s) and Rhode Island Greening (started from seed in the 1650s). There’s Summer Rambo, which originated before 1535 in France, and Roxbury Russet, grown before 1649. And Wednesdays through Sundays in September and October, you can pick them all for $1 per pound.
There has been an orchard on Hopewell at least as far back as 1788, park ranger Frank Hebblethwaite told me, citing a real estate ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette of that year boasting of “an excellent young bearing orchard of about 250 apple trees of the best fruit.”
Most of the present-day trees were planted in 1942 and 1960; the average apple tree lives about 100 years, though some grow older. George Martin, Hopewell’s facilities manager, said that trees are managed the old-fashioned way, with well-timed pruning and little in the way of pesticides; spraying to control insects and disease didn’t become common until after 1889 in Pennsylvania. Bees pollinate the buds.
There are dead trees amid fruit-bearing ones, plus fenced saplings being nurtured. Many trees are 25 feet high; commercial orchards favor dwarf trees because they’re easier to manage. And unlike the apples you get from orchards that use pesticides, some of the Hopewell apples have blemishes, splotches, speckles or odd shapes. But if you wash them (soap is recommended), they’re edible.
And there are plenty of them — enough last year to bring in more than $10,000, which funds interpretive programs (and 1830s-era costumes for the living-history interpreters). Apple pickers swarm to Hopewell on weekends, so many that the orchard runs out of apples every year, according to Hebblethwaite.
I got an orchard map at the visitor center, as well as a handout listing each variety and its uses and offering snippets of history (e.g., Nonesuch, available October, for eating and desserts, discovered in Massachusetts in 1830). Cortland, Gravenstein and Starr were ripe the day of my visit, but I was told that I could pick any kind I wanted.
“Watch for bees!” Hebblethwaite cautioned as I set off.
I read the “apple gathering courtesies” — seven guidelines including “don’t climb the trees” and “no ladders allowed” — and headed for the orchard, armed with a plastic-bag-lined park-issued bucket and an orange basket-picking pole.
The trees all bear wooden signs announcing their variety, which is good, because after a while, all the apples started looking just green or red. I consulted the variety handout while dodging yellowjackets, recipes twirling in my head.
There were other hazards: from above, falling apples as I shook the branches. On the ground, smooshed fruit that made walking precarious. Everywhere, gnats. Some trees were so high — like a two-story house — that the 6-foot pole plus my 5 feet 3 inches still couldn’t reach the apples. After half an hour, I’d gathered just 11; I was obviously doing something wrong.
I watched Pat Miller of Gilbertsville, Pa., circle a Gravenstein tree. With sure, quick thrusts, the Hopewell regular caught lots of fruit. “I get 20 to 30 pounds each time,” she said. She was going to make applesauce and said that she’d be back “when I’m in a canning mood.”
Charles Fairchild of Reading, Pa., spent 15 minutes in the orchard with his wife, daughter and two grandchildren and collected 19.5 pounds, not including the Red Delicious he ate while picking: “Mmm, that was sweet.” (Martin explained that the Red Delicious doesn’t really belong in Hopewell’s orchard, which grows varieties that would have been typical in the 19th century. Red Delicious is a 20th-century seedling of a late 19th-century Delicious apple tree. But it’s popular.)
After two hours of picking, I netted 12 pounds — 49 apples.
Afterward, I feasted on the site’s history: exhibits on the mines and miners who supplied ore for the furnace and on how the massive water wheel that powered the furnace worked. Wood used to make charcoal to fuel the furnace came from what’s now French Creek State Park next door. Hopewell-made products in the visitor center include a stove “made in direct opposition to the Iron Act of 1750,” when England tried to hamper the upstart American colonies by prohibiting the building of lucrative ironworks, ranger Christopher Quesenberry said.
On a three-quarter-mile self-guided tour of the village, I peeked inside 12 buildings — the blacksmith shop, the springhouse, bake ovens — pressing their audio buttons to hear stories about past residents. My favorite was the tenant house, furnished with a rope bedframe and kitchen items that you can touch. Fat yellow squash ready for eating grows in the vegetable garden nearby, as if someone still lives there.
At the barn, I met horses Maximilian and Clouseau, and at the chicken coop I exchanged clucks with four huge speckled birds, down from six since a visit from a fox, apparently.
In the ironmaster’s garden, with its 60-plus medicinal, culinary and decorative herbs, I started thinking about apple-oregano compote and knew that it was time to leave. On the way home, I stopped at a farmers market selling $1.99-a-pound apples, no prettier or larger than mine.
I had grand baking plans: apple-cornmeal pancakes (using three Baldwin); Jewish apple cake (three Stayman); McIntosh apple dumplings; Gravenstein in ham-apple pie; Starr-smothered pork chops; Cortland apple fritters.
I like Hopewell’s orchard. But if I go back, I’ll take bug spray and a very, very tall friend.
Shuman is a former editor at The Washington Post.