Savoring Southern apples

Digital research projects in a senior seminar in Southern Studies illuminate the history, stories, locations and culture of Southern apples. Students at UNC-Chapel Hill are the first to explore a new collection of papers on Southern apples in Wilson Library.

Line of apples on wooden deck
Photo by Diane Flynt

Apples. Apple butter and biscuits. Fried apple pies. Fermented apple cider. The celebration of the Southern apple was on mouth-watering display at a recent end-of-class gathering in Wilson Library.

Students in Elizabeth Engelhardt’s senior seminar in Southern Studies showcased their digital research projects on Southern apples on a big screen at the front of the room. Apple enthusiasts — growers, festival organizers, researchers, chefs, cidery and nursery owners — nibbled on treats as they gathered to mark the official acquisition of the “Creighton Lee Calhoun Papers on Southern Apples, 1970s-2010” in the Southern Historical Collection. Ann Marie Thornton of James Creek Cidery organized the food donations, which included contributions from James Beard award-winning chef Andrea Reusing, owner of Lantern restaurant.

Lee Calhoun, the evening’s special guest, wrote the definitive history of Southern Apple varieties, Old Southern Apples: A Comprehensive History and Description of Varieties for Collectors, Growers and Fruit Enthusiasts.

After the first edition of his book was published in 1995, Calhoun received hundreds of letters from apple enthusiasts, which he collected in a 400-page-plus notebook. He also helped to establish the Southern Heritage Apple Orchard at Horne Creek Farm, a North Carolina historical site. The orchard has more than 400 varieties of Southern apple trees.

Students spent the spring transcribing the contents of the binder (which was also digitized by the library), and they developed cutting-edge team research projects to make the collection more accessible to the public. They created two mapping projects that explore both the stories of the people and the apples; a third project highlights recipes made with Southern apples. They also completed individual research projects.

Engelhardt said she asked students to go on a “research adventure” with her over the course of a semester, and she was impressed with their ambitious undertaking.

“The digital projects they have begun carry so much potential to make this collection visible. We’ve used the best of our digital humanities capabilities to showcase the stories of culture surrounding Southern apples,” said Engelhardt, the John Shelton Reed Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies and interim senior associate dean for fine arts and humanities in the College of Arts & Sciences. “Lee built his life around his love of apples and his love of mentoring, and we want people to know that this collection is open to the citizens of the state and the world.”

“It’s also no small task to transcribe a notebook, she added, “but that is the work we have to do as researchers. You have to have good information to begin.”

Read the rest of the story on the College of Arts & Sciences website.