By Kristin Fox
This month, the first-ever, public Native American apple orchard, the Barbara McRae Cherokee Heritage Apple Trail, was dedicated and opened to the public. The McRae Apple Trail is located along the Little Tennessee River at the half-mile marker on the Macon County Greenway when entered from the Big Bear Park Pavilion within walking distance of the Noquisiyi Mound.
The project, which began as a vision of former Vice Mayor and local historian McRae, was made possible in part by a grant from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Partnership, the largest donor of the project. Other partners in the project were the Percy B. Ferebee Fund, Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, Mountain True, Friends of the Greenway and Horne Creek Living Historical Farm.
McRae imagined an apple orchard to honor the original residents of this area and highlight their contribution to modern food and lifestyle. Barbara passed away in March 2021 and the Nikwasi Initiative Board of Directors voted to honor her vision by naming this orchard path the “Barbra McRae Cherokee Heritage Apple Trail.”
The apple trail is one of many projects of the Nikwasi Initiative whose mission is to preserve, protect and promote culture and heritage in the original homeland of the Cherokee people. The Nikwasi Initiative was founded to promote, interpret and link cultural and historic sites, such as the Noquisiyi and Cowee mounds along a Cherokee Cultural Corridor, along with raising awareness and funds to pursue those efforts and exploring more opportunities, such as the apple trail, for collaboration between the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and local communities.
“The goal of the apple trail is to honor the Cherokee farmers that developed these fruit trees; honor farmers of today, Cherokee and non-Cherokee, who bring fruits, vegetables and nourishment to society to help sustain our bodies; and to honor Barbra McRae to keep her dream for this place alive,” said Elaine Eisenbraun, Nikwasi Initiative’s Executive Director.
“This is a story for and of all of us,” added Eisenbraun. “How special is it to plant a tree, and these trees, with their roots in history and their branches going up to teach the world how people can come together, I think are the most magical trees that there could be.”
“Most people don’t realize how engaged the Cherokee people before removal were in terms of developing new apple varieties and peaches,” she added. “The Cherokee are amazing scientists; they are observant and responds to their own observations. That is how these apple trees that are planted in the orchard got developed.”
“You could you imagine the heartache not only of giving up home and family to be sent to Indian territory but to give up these apples that they developed,” said Eisenbraun. “The good news is that some were preserved, and we have them here in this orchard.”
On March 5, 2022, the Nikwasi Initiative with help from partner organizations and volunteers planted nine apple trees and two peach trees, most of them cultivators developed by Cherokee farmers. These varieties include Cullasaga, Junaluska, Horse and Cling Peaches, creating a link to history that will provide visitors with fun and engaging ways to learn and maybe the chance to enjoy a nice crisp apple too.
There are over 2,500 types of apples growing in the United States; several of those varieties were developed by the Cherokee people who lived in the southern Appalachians before their removal to Oklahoma.
The Cherokee farmers were quick to adopt domestic fruit tree cultivation as soon as the produce arrived on the continent. Thanks to research by McRae, we know that apple husbandry and breeding were common around Noquisiyi, and growers were very focused on their craft, developing new cultivars that proved desirable to orchardists. Some of those varieties include Junaluska, Alarka, Beecher, and Nickajack.
“This orchard didn’t get here by Johnny Appleseed tossing seeds around,” said Eisenbraun. “It took a lot of work, it took Barbra’s vision, followed by a plan, a lot of red tape with the government, cultural surveys, digging research, but most of all the really dedicated amazing volunteers who came out here and helped get these trees in.”
A grand opening including a ribbon cutting ceremony with the Franklin Chamber of Commerce was held at the orchard earlier in the month. In addition to keynote speakers, the crowd was entertained with music by John Duncan and served several different apple treats by Food for Adventures. One of the special guests for the grand opening was McRae’s son, Sam McRae.
Visitors to the orchard are greeted with McRae’s smiling face on the marker at the beginning of the apple trail as if she is looking down on us with cheerful expression on her face.
“Every now and then, a community is graced with the magic of a very special person,” stated on the trail sign. “Barbra McRae brought kindness, wisdom and goodwill to everyone she met in these mountains. She was the Vice Mayor of Franklin, Editor of the Franklin Press, and an outstanding member of the Nikwasi Initiative. After you walk along the trail, please share what you have learned about Cherokee Heritage Apples with other peoples that everyone can learn about this culture, just as Barbra envisioned.”
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