Admittedly, it's not much to look at. It's a bit scraggly and a bit haggard and, from certain angles, definitely shows its age. But the odds are that we won't look much better if we reach the age of 185 years, and the odds are that we won't stand as tall in Vancouver's history as the Old Apple Tree.
Legend has it that the Washington apple industry began in 1826 or 1827 when a British military officer took apple seeds from his native England and planted them a short distance from Fort Vancouver. This was a good idea, considering the only apple that is native to the United States is the crab apple. According to the Old Apple Tree page on The Columbian's website, Washington's first apple harvest occurred in Vancouver in 1830 and yielded one apple. Today, the state produces more than 100 million boxes of apples a year, generating a billion-dollar industry and comprising more than half the nation's apple harvest.
The Old Apple Tree, located at the end of the Vancouver Land Bridge, near the Columbia River, in the shadow of the Interstate 5 Bridge, is believed to be the oldest apple tree in the Northwest and, according to Vancouver-Clark Parks & Recreation, is considered the matriarch of Washington's apple industry. Why it's not a patriarch, we can't be sure; how do you test a tree for gender? Oh well, that's irrelevant this week, as we simply will focus on the Old Apple Tree Festival.
The festival will take place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. The celebration centers around environmental education and historic preservation, with Heritage Tree walks, tours of historic Fort Vancouver, live music, apple cider pressing and children's activities.
The fact that it is a festival rather than a wake might be something worth celebrating. Many, many times over the years, the Old Apple Tree has appeared to be near the end, and that's not going out on a limb (Get it? Going out on a limb?). Starting in 2010, The Old Apple Tree Research team — made up of local, regional and federal partners — has used several types of grafting to initiate new growth on the tree.
"The team met in August and reviewed the tree's health, and it's very vigorous. The grafts are starting to take off," Charles Ray, Vancouver's urban forester and a member of the research team, recently told Columbian reporter Tom Vogt.
That represents a hearty comeback. In 2010, two of the tree's three major branches cracked away from the trunk in what was believed to be wind damage. Since then, a little tender loving care has helped the tree become more robust. Workers, in fact, recently put up a permanent steel fence — 6 feet high, 24 feet long on each side, with the appearance of black wrought iron — around the tree. The project in Old Apple Tree park cost less than $3,000 and was funded by admission fees at Fort Vancouver.
Given its historical importance to the entire Northwest, the area around the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site never loses its appeal. With Old Apple Tree Park, and Fort Vancouver, and the historic barracks and parade grounds north of the fort, and Officer's Row, and the Academy building, much of the story of European settlement in the region is told in the area just north of the Columbia River.
It's a story worth telling and worth hearing over and over again, and the Old Apple Tree provides an engaging piece of that story. On top of that, the old tree still produces apples. Oh, to have such vitality at that age.