Apples of John Claridge’s eyes: Marcellus heirloom apple farm boasts 80 varieties

For a living taste of history, visit Marcellus’ Spirit Springs Farm started by the late John Claridge. The 70-year-old orchard features over 80 heirloom apple varieties.

For the late John Claridge, what started out as a way to be self-sufficient grew into a 70-year-old heritage apple farm business. After reading Ten Acres Enough, the Classic 1864 Book of Independent Farming, an early permaculture approach to farming that philosophized agricultural success depends not on quantity but how and what you grow, John Claridge made it his business to find crops that were the best of the bunch. 

“Dad was a fisheries biologist and teacher. He started grafting English Walnuts (a favored and expensive European variety) onto black walnut rootstock (American), which is really hard to do,” says Beth Sampsell, daughter and now farmer of Spirit Springs Heritage Apple Farm at 12401 Hoffman road in Marcellus. Beth and her husband Al Sampsell have been running the farm alongside her sisters and family friends for years. “He started practicing on apple trees and that resulted in about 6 acres of the 15 acres with 80 or so varieties we have now.” 

Eighty varieties of apples in one place? An incredible feat considering that you might find eight types of apples in a typical grocery store and at the farmers market maybe double that. “Dad just couldn’t help himself, he’d find an apple and fall in love with it and have to have it.” 

So, why did the farm begin to raise so many obscure yet delicious apple varieties?

“Dad wanted to have the best cider in Michigan so he would find and buy apple cuttings that were known for the characteristics of good cider, and for keeping and eating. Those often tended to be very old apples.”  Those varieties include rare and ancient ones like the Roman era Lady Apple (not to be confused with the common Pink Lady), or one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites called the Calville Blanc d’Hiver originating in the late 1500s in France. 

Mr. Claridge didn’t get the opportunity to enter his cider into competition, as he passed in 1986. Now the families of Mr. Claridge’s daughters Joanna (Zimmerman) who passed away recently in 2022, Amy (Sehy) and Beth and husband Al (Sampsell) continue the legacy that Claridge left as they cultivate over 15 acres of heritage apples.Visitors tour Spirit Springs Farm, a 70-year-old orchard features over 80 heirloom apple varieties.On a recent tour of the farm, visitors discovered that only 6 quarter-pecks (think about 8 cups each) of the Calville Blanc d’Hiver apples survived after severe hail damage last spring. The discerning farmer she is, Beth Sampsell didn’t feel the second-rate apples were worth selling, but the group of eager apple hunters disagreed, knowing of their rarity and flavor.  

Folks like Kirk Taskila, a repeat visitor and medieval food history buff, said, “We’re willing to press with them or do anything with them if you’ll sell them to us” and the group proceeded to buy every last one. 

Another person on the orchard tour was Kim Willis, owner and farmer of the Lillie House Farm, a permaculture homestead in Kalamazoo, who enjoyed the tour of the orchard for more than just the taste experience. “The Spirit Springs Farm family has a beautiful legacy that makes our corner of Southwest Michigan that much richer of a place to live. Being able to taste apples that were cultivated decades or centuries ago is quite a rare and vivid way to experience our horticultural history.

Passion for heirloom apples is something Kelly Sehy understands. Kelly (Amy Sehy’s daughter) grew up on the farm, and still lives there and cares for the orchard. “The apples were special to me because they were raised by my grandfather and grandmother, but I also knew they were heirlooms – at first people didn’t understand until I explained, you just can’t get these apples in a supermarket.”

Her favorite apple is the Winter Banana, a mild, crispy, and juicy apple with a slight hint of banana flavor.
Claridge’s family members didn’t always want to follow in his footsteps. Beth Sampsell was 18 when she realized her passions were off the farm so she pursued a degree in engineering. Beth became one of the first female cable splicers, climbing telephone poles and driving the big cable trucks with the ladders-reminiscent of her work on the farm – but as other family members passed, she saw to it that the Spirit Springs Farm continued. “The trees keep me going,” she says, “Somebody’s gotta’ take care of them.” 

Beth, always a realist, looks to the future and acknowledges her family would like to improve the farm. “Going forward we’d have to have someone who is capable of putting together the technology and has the drive and energy to make it work,” she says.

She’s alluding to her young great-nephew Hunter Sibley, 27, who also shares her love for the farm, the family, and the apples. 

“I can’t give you a good number, but I’ve spent quite a few of my summers on the farm, helping out starting around age 5, out driving a tractor and running equipment,” says Hunter. “It’s been great, we've had ups and downs but I’ve enjoyed all of it.”  Even the stressful parts, he adds.

“Sometimes everything (harvest) comes in all at once and we have to get these trees or that trees, sometimes it's egos, but in the end we get over it and move on. It’s a feeling of being grateful. As a family, we can do that. I feel bad for others that don’t get that opportunity. At the end of the day we’re all family. When we can sit there and forgive each other. You feel better about yourself.” 

Hunter is sharing a family philosophy instilled by their matriarch, the late Mary “Ma” Claridge, who passed away in 2020. “She’s a big reason why I wanted to keep the farm around and pass it on – the farm was my second home, a home away from home even though it was just across the street.”  He chuckles when he shares, “She (Mary Claridge) was kinda’ the final say, the head honcho on how things were going to go about. I guess the way she conducted herself and acted (made me want) to be like her.
At work at Spirit Springs Farm, a 70-year-old orchard features over 80 heirloom apple varieties.“I am excited about being a part of the future of this farm,” Hunter muses, “It’s always kinda’ been like a dream to run the farm and I am hoping that some of my ideas are going to help financially turn some stuff around for the future.” 

Some of those ideas include building a website and developing a social media presence to capitalize on the uniqueness of what they grow. “I feel honored to have apples that people have never heard of,” says Hunter. “We separate ourselves from other growers with these historic apples, some from different parts of the world, and it gives me a sense of pride (to raise) all of these different varieties.”

Family favorites

Hunter’s Favorite apple? Smokehouse Apple. The lore is that it was randomly found behind a butcher’s smoke shop in Pennsylvania in 1837.  “When you bite into it, you get a smoky hint of flavor and I’m a big fan of BBQ so it’s always been my favorite apple.”

Finding an apple at Spirit Springs Farm, a 70-year-old orchard that features over 80 heirloom apple varieties.Beth’s Favorite Apple? Lys Golden. “It has a thinner skin than a yellow one but is super crispy and juicy and sweet.” 

Amy Sehy, Hunter’s grandmother, handles the general management of the farm. “Of us three girls–Joanna (late), Beth and Amy–each has taken their turn at perpetuating and maintaining the orchard (along with help from many other friends and family).

“There's been a lot of challenges over the years at the farm.” she adds. “The orchard is a living entity. Trees die, people die. My observation of being out in the field for 40 years is that it’s like a neighborhood, or a family. They get along despite not necessarily liking each other, but in the end they work it out.” 

Amy’s favorite apple? “That’s like asking what my favorite color is,” she says. “But if I had to say it would be the Newtown Pippin or the Fall Pippen varieties (17th-18th Century Long Island). They are very close to a Calville Blanc, which is a tart apple that holds together (think of a Granny Smith only better).”

Author’s Note: 

Some varieties are so fragrant that if you close your eyes and hold one up to your face, you would swear you were smelling a rose (roses are related to apples). Some have flavors like pepper and honey and lemon all rolled into one. Every apple is unique and in order to duplicate them you have to take special steps or else you’ll never see them again.  

When we talk about culinary history and experiencing food of the past, what we’re often talking about is recreating that experience to the best of our ability using approximations of ingredients, foods and processes. So, it’s as close as we’re ever going to come when we do this because we can’t go back in time. But when you get a chance to bite into an apple, say like the Calville Blanc D’Hiver originating in France in 1598, you are not just tasting an approximation. You’re tasting a clone of the original. It’s as close to being in a time machine as possible. Why? Because apples don’t propagate like most other fruits. Instead of being able to reproduce the same variety of fruit by taking its seed, planting it, and allowing it to grow, apples that you want to reproduce have to be done by cutting, which is a process called “asexual” propagation where you use roots, stems, or leaves of a parent plant. Asexual propagation produces a genetically identical plant to the parent plant and as such creates an exact clone of the apple. 

If you are interested in a seasonal tour or more information about Spirit Springs Farm, please leave a message at 269-624-1301 or check out the Spirit Springs Farm Facebook page.

 

Read more articles by Channon Mondoux.

Channon Mondoux is a published author, food historian, and local food chef. Her work reflects decades of experience in private and commercial kitchens, having food adventures that have taken her across the country and places beyond. She is an avid historical re-enactor who puts her culinary skills to work by creating dishes from bygone eras as well as reinventing modern cuisine using time-honored traditions. A native of Windsor, Ontario, Canada she is married to Dan and has three sons.