Apples, Cider and Bettys?

A quick drive thru rural areas of Canada’s Maritime provinces reveals countless abandoned homesteads. Some with remnants of buildings, houses, barns, etc. others are marked by trees, apple trees. Despite filling the spring air with their glorious blossoms these wild apples are mostly, small, sour, and unpalatable.

Photo courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives Photographic Collection c.1950 Image #201603573

You could be forgiven for thinking apples are native to North America, but they aren’t, nor are they native to Europe. Apples originate in Asia, and owe their worldwide prevalence to the Silk/Spice trade routes1, although some say we owe our North American apples to cider.

Apples had an important presence in Abigail Lyon’s life. The daughter of a prosperous farming family in colonial Connecticut, Abigail grew up picking, eating and processing apples. Abigail’s father John raised a variety of crops and livestock, including apples and other tree fruit. Some of the apples Abigail helped to pick, she accompanied to the kitchen for preserving, drying, or made into apple sauce and apple butter. The majority of the apples, those with poor texture, taste and lacking the sweetness of eating apples, were fermented into apple cider and apple cider vinegar2.

Mary Rose Wilkins knew apples too, although in her early years in the newly established Halifax, Nova Scotia her father Walter, purchased them for both his family and his business. The apples and apple cider arrived packed in barrels from New England but not from nearby Acadie.

Old French Apple Trees – Photo courtesy of the Clara Dennis Collection at the Nova Scotia Archives #630

Mary Rose, like most children and adults elsewhere in Nova Scotia; in Virginia; Acadie and New England, drank apple cider with most meals, even breakfast. Loosing her mother at 5 years old, did not hamper Mary Rose learning the skills she would need as a wife and mother. The raids by Mi’kmaq and Acadians3 which occurred with tragic frequency, despite fortifications and military guards meant Mary spent much of her time with the women of the household, watching, helping and learning. Fall was especially busy with lots for Mary Rose to absorb, about important winter preparations, harvesting, preserving, and processing food including apples. By the time of her marriage to Alexander MacKenzie, 16 year old Mary Rose was well familiar with household duties, although not with farm life.

Mary Rose arrived at Stoney Beach4 on the Annapolis river about 1765, 10 years after Acadians had been forced from their land. Only foundations, root cellars and neglected orchards remained of the once vibrant and productive community. Mary Rose and Alexander MacKenzie claimed and eventually built a farm on former Acadian lands.

Farmer plowing among apple trees nearing Canning, NS – Photo courtesy of the NS Archives Image NSIS 6853.

Fortunately apple trees are relatively long lived, maturing around 4 years and remaining productive for 20 or more years, even when neglected. In the early years on the farm Mary Rose and Alexander depended upon the area’s natural bounty of fish, game, greens, and berries but also upon apples trees which had been planted and tended by Acadian farmers. Dykes which had been damaged in storms after the expulsion of Acadians had to be repaired and fertile farm land returned to production. Eventually Alexander and Mary Rose renewed the orchards replacing older trees with younger and more productive ones. Apples, and apple cider along with a range of fruits, vegetables and other farm produce from the region went to market in Halifax, Newfoundland, New England, and eventually to troops and refugees of the Revolutionary war.

In June 1775, the force of political dissent which had turned neighbours and kin against each arrived in Redding Connecticut. Abigail’s father John’s political support of the British Crown saw his land seized and a mob of his neighbours bent on executing him, sent him fleeing for his life. For Abigail, her siblings, and their Mother Hepzibah Betts Lyon their once comfortable life and social status were gone, replaced by threats and insecurity.

Picking apples ca. 1950 Photo courtesy of the Nova Scotia Archives

It would be two years before the family were able to escape Redding, and join John in Lloyds Neck, Long Island, NY where he was garrisoned. The refugee settlement which had grown up around the Lloyds Neck garrison meant improved security, especially since John was available to remove some of the burden of care his wife had born alone.

Strategic importance to supply routes and its natural defenses, made Lloyds Neck5 a logical place for the British military to headquarter. Lloyds Neck was also blessed with reliable sources of food. The waters of Long Island sound provided fresh fish, and shell fish, the surrounding land was rich with wild game, productive wheat fields and farm produce including berries and fruits, pears, plums and apples. Abigail and her siblings helped with gathering food, harvesting, and foraging, but also gathering fire wood, and hundreds of other tasks life now required, all under the watchful eyes of adults.

‘Mother and Children’ Emma Mae Blackmore and her children c.1900 Photo courtesy of Our Miramichi Heritage family.

Life was far from normal, living in tents during summer, sheltering in any available structure in winter, windowless barns, sheds even military structures. The Lloyds Neck refugees did all they could to maintain normalcy, including arranging school for their children. By attending school Abigail and her siblings were able to continue their education, and were provided some distraction from the unrelenting fear of rebel attack. The constant vigilance life in a war time refugee camp required was eased during those hours at school, eased for both the children and Hepzibah.

In the Laboratory – a lesson on apples at McDonald Consolidated School, Kingston, Kings County, NB ca. 1900 Photo courtesy of the

Threats of violence and disease were unrelenting company for the entire 6 years Abigail remained in Lloyd’s Neck. Sadly, it took a tragic toll on the young family, Abigail’s baby brother George, who had been born in the immediate months following his father’s flight from Redding, died at Lloyds Neck, NY in 1780.

In April 1783, with the hope of a crown victory long since gone, the Lyon family along with other Lloyd’s Neck Loyalists embarked the ship Union for Nova Scotia, several weeks later they arrived at Parr town at the mouth of the Saint John River. Eventually, they and a sizable number of former Loyalist refugees made their way to the land they had been granted at what would become known as the Kingston Peninsula, founding the first Loyalist settlement in Nova Scotia (New Brunswick).

The Kingston Peninsula, a fertile isthmus of land between the St John River and the Kennebecasis River represented opportunity but also struggle and hardship. There were houses to build, land to cultivate and apple seeds to plant…

Lower Kingston, Kings County, New Brunswick. c. 1905 Photo courtesy of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick Image # P61-184.

Abigail and Mary Rose drank and made apple cider, but they also harvested and prepared apples, those with a sweet taste, and good texture, were made into condiments and desserts for their families. Apple sauce, apple butter, pies, tarts, dumplings and brown bettys all made appearance. The My Mother’s Cookbooks recipe for Apple brown betty is a healthier version than the traditional flour, butter, sugar crumb topping. Traditional betty recipes eventually, because of the lack of availability of wheat flour, became ‘crisps’ with the substitution of oats… Abigail and Mary Rose used what they had available, so this combination recipe is close to their experience.

My Mother’s Cookbooks

Apple Brown Betty:

8 tart apples, remove the core, peel and slice
1/2 c raisins (optional)
1/2 c honey
1/2 c apple cider, apple juice, apple tea or water
1/4 c brown sugar
3 Tbsp all purpose flour
1 tsp cinnamon
3/4 c rolled oats
1/2 c whole wheat flour
1/4 c honey
4 Tbsp butter, margarine or lard
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F;
2) Combine filling ingredients in a bowl, toss to combine and place in a greased 7″ x 11″ baking pan;
3) Combine dry ingredients in a bowl, cut in fat, sprinkle mixture over the apples and bake for 45-50 minutes.

Don’t miss this week’s release of Fanny Frugal Food Hacks – Fat Fancy?

References and Resources

  1. Silk and Spice routes: routes#:~:text=The%20Spice%20Routes%2C%20also%20known,across%20the%20Mediterranean%20to%20Europe.
  2. Apple Cider vinegar – Apple cider has long been viewed by historians as the reason why new settlers to North America brought apple seeds with them from Europe. It is true that fermented drinking cider was already well entrenched in European society by the mid 1600s and it took until prohibition to take cider out of daily use. Apple cider was also needed to make apple cider vinegar, an additional step of fermentation and the cider became vinegar. Apple cider vinegar had many uses, as a condiment, a health remedy, a cleaning agent and most importantly to preserve food, vegetables particularly.
  3. The British Crown’s decision to found a fortified settlement in Nova Scotia was unilateral, driven by competition with France, and severed a peace treaty with Mi’kmaq peoples. Raids by Mi’kmaq and their allies the Acadians but supplied out of Louisbourg by the French, were met with retaliation and escalation. The conflict is known as Father Le Loutre’s War. Who was Father LeLoutre?
  4. Stoney Beach, Kings County, Nova Scotia is located near Port Royal on the Annapolis River, about 3 km from Melanson’s Settlement. Melanson’s Settlement was settled by Acadians Charles Melanson and his wife Marie Dugas about 1664. The community of Melanson and related families was a sizable settlement until the forced expulsion from their lands in 1755. For more information on Charles and Marie Melanson:
  5. Lloyds Neck, Long Island, New York was home to one of the largest Loyalist refuge camps in New York. Part of the area is now a state park:
  6. Loyalists related resources: At Library and Archives Canada –
    The Loyalist refugee ship Union
    On Hepzibeth Betts Lyon (by Stephen Davis Lyon descendant)
  7. Apples:
    Propagation of Apple trees using grafting:
One of the wild apple tree on the MacNeil homestead, Irish Cove, Cape Breton ca. 2014 Elizabeth Morrison

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