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Spring 2012

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

May 22, 2012

Peirce Mill restoration bears fruit

A 19th-century apple orchard begins the first phase of its return to Washington this month at freshly restored Peirce Mill in Rock Creek Park.

Three winesap apple trees will be in the ground by June, and as many as two dozen will follow in the next year or two. The Peirces grew winesaps in their orchards flanking Rock Creek in the mid-1800s.

They also sold trees from a nearby nursery. An 1857 Peirce catalogue listed about 50 varieties of eating and cider apples, says Steve Dryden, author of "Peirce Mill: Two Hundred Years in the Nation's Capital." That number "may seem large," says Dryden, "but such breadth was normal in the 18th and 19th centuries, when orchardists and the public relished a floral diversity developed over the centuries."

"Almost every farm had an orchard, as hard cider was preferred to water — safer, it was thought — though the easy availability helped produce a very boozy atmosphere in our country."

Dryden assumes that the Peirces made hard cider and brandies from the fruits they harvested. A stone house near the mill was known in Peirce family lore as "the distillery."

The new orchard is a project of the Friends of Peirce Mill. Students from the District's Harriet Tubman Elementary School will help with planting and upkeep of the trees. "We hope they will be involved in the care of the orchard for years to come," says Dryden, program manager for the nonprofit group, which raised $1 million to restore the mill.

"We may do demonstration apple-pressing to make fresh cider at some point," he says.

Meanwhile, after a decade-long restoration, Peirce Mill — the only operational water mill in Washington — is once again grinding corn and wheat. Demonstrations of the milling process are scheduled for May 23 and 31, and June 6.

Owned and managed by the National Park Service, Peirce Mill is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Wed.-Sun.

Peirce Mill, Rock Creek Park