Mr. Burford traced his roots to seven generations of apple growers in Amherst and Nelson counties, in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, and he came to preserve local and regional varieties in danger of being lost to modernity.
With his encyclopedic knowledge, mannerly Southern bearing and gift for story telling, Mr. Burford became a hit at local food festivals around the country, including the Apple Tasting held each September at Monticello.
He also held workshops on the traditional propagating technique of grafting, what he called the making of an apple tree and a time-honored method of duplicating a given variety. And he worked as a consultant to an emerging number of hard-cider makers on the East Coast.
“Any apple you could give to him, he would tell a story,” said Ben Watson, a fellow apple preservationist in Peterborough, N.H.
Mr. Burford wrote extensively about antique varieties of apples and their place in American history. In seeking to preserve and disseminate apple varieties at risk of extinction, he lamented the state of the apple as a supermarket fruit. Most Americans, he said, knew the apple only as a handful of varieties bred for appearance and durability but lacking the flavors and uses of heritage varieties, as well as their stories.
“For fifty years I painfully watched the disappearance of the apple culture and the emergence of so-called beautiful apples,” he wrote in his 2013 book, “Apples of North America.”
The book featured 192 heirloom varieties, a fraction of the many thousands that once were grown locally in the United States. Mr. Burford insisted that the photographic portraits of each apple showed those with blemishes. “Eating with our eyes brought this tasteless object to the fruit bowls of America,” he wrote.
Growing up on Tobacco Row Mountain in Amherst County, he said, he took his cornucopia of old apples for granted because of the richness of the family’s commercial apple orchard, which contained approximately 100 varieties and many more individual trees. The various fruits ripened between June and November and were used, depending on their qualities, for dessert, cooking, cider, drying, applesauce, apple butter and livestock food. Some were storage varieties and would keep the family in apples until the next season’s harvest.
Thomas Nelson Burford was born at his family’s farm in Long Hill, Va., on Aug. 29, 1935. He said his mother went into labor as she was picking apples from a variety named Smokehouse, which he pointed out was a 19th-century Pennsylvania apple well suited to frying in butter.
He and his older brother, Walter, were home-schooled by their mother, who also invited local Native American and African American children into the classes at a time when state schools were segregated. “They were very progressive people and liked to rock the boat,” said W. Matthew Whitaker, a landscape architect who worked with and befriended Mr. Burford.
Mr. Burford, who never married, had no immediate survivors but was connected to a large network of friends and distant relations in and around Lynchburg. “He was kin to everybody. There wasn’t anybody in this part of the world who wasn’t one of his cousins” — actual or honorary, said Jane White, a friend.
Mr. Burford attended the University of Virginia but did not graduate, according to a college alumni official. With Walter, he established Burford Brothers, a consortium that included a farm, orchard, fruit tree nursery and sawmill. It closed in 1995, a year after his brother’s death.
The nursery became an ark for Mr. Burford to keep alive many of the varieties he cherished and wished to share. One was a variety discovered by his family and called the Burford Redflesh. Small with white flesh stained red, it was found at the home of Patrick Henry’s mother, he said.
He attributed the loss of the country’s rich apple heritage not just to the industrialization of fruit production, with its varietal limitations, but also to the rise of mail-order nurseries in the 20th century that would sell a limited range of trees for the home garden or farmstead. Previously, folk would simply make new by grafting scion wood of the desired variety to rootstock.
After he closed his nursery, Mr. Burford worked with the emerging industry of artisanal cideries and guided owners on variety selection, orchard establishment and fruit tree cultivation, including traditional pruning practices.
Charlotte Shelton said Mr. Burford helped with the establishment of her family’s Albemarle CiderWorks cidery and Vintage Virginia Apples orchard and nursery near Charlottesville. The latter grows more than 200 varieties of antique apples. “He was an inspiration,” she said.
The Burford Redflesh is used by many cidermakers to bring a rose quality to their product, but his greatest contribution, Watson said, was the rediscovery and dissemination of a superior cider variety named Harrison, a New Jersey apple popular in the 19th century but thought lost. Mr. Burford told Edible Jersey magazine that when he first tasted it, he found it so superb, complex and mysterious that he had to sit down. “I was so unsettled,” he said.
“Tom did a great service in preserving the genetic diversity of the apple,” said Peter Hatch, author and retired director of gardens and grounds at Monticello. The two conducted the annual October apple tastings at Monticello and, later, at Jefferson’s nearby Tufton Farm, usually to a sellout crowd. “I think he had a significant role in the revival of cider orchards along the East Coast.”
Like his apples, Mr. Burford was a product of his terroir. His connections to his family and place, and the apples of his childhood, were an essential part of his identity.
“Growing up on Tobacco Row Mountain lent a certain authenticity to him,” Hatch said. “He definitely comes from a place.”
Mr. Burford was known for his mouthwatering apple pies made from several select varieties, but when asked to evaluate the pies of others, he would often say, “This is a very good cinnamon, lemon juice pie, but where is the apple?”
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