Aspetuck Valley Orchards & the Apple Barn

A personal account as written exclusively for the Historical Society of Easton by Noel Quinton.

Part One of a Two Part Series – The Orchards:

During the summer of 1973 countless games of ping-pong were played in our barn on a recently acquired table that filled the rear bay between my father’s potting room and my sister’s horse stall.  The Barn Swallows that nested overhead resented the intrusion and expressed their displeasure by routinely decorating the table as only they can.  The more time one spent in the barn the dingier it felt. One day, conditions finally motivated me to begin removing cobwebs.  After a few minutes of work, the temporary lighting I’d set up allowed me to detect the faint remains of a large block letter on the back wall.  Intrigued by this discovery, I swept the surface methodically, stepped back and stared at half a dozen irregularly-spaced letters, something like “ SP T  K    V  L  ”.  Nearly faded away, these were undoubtedly the remains of the words ASPETUCK VALLEY which someone had neatly painted many decades before.  I continued to search for more letters, but further investigation yielded nothing, and I grew concerned that I may have swept away some clues like a clumsy amateur archaeologist.

“Our” barn was owned by the local water supplier, the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company, as was “our” house, along with the Apple Barn, the retail sales building of Aspetuck Valley Orchards a half-mile to the north.  So too was every other house and barn on the stretch of Black Rock Turnpike between Norton Road and Silver Hill Road.  In the summer, our barn’s loft was filled with empty wooden boxes that would be removed in September and filled with the apple crop being harvested in the nearby Aspetuck Orchard.  I had often wondered if there was more to the connection between the orchard and our barn than just those boxes.  Why did the barn have a paved interior floor and a parking lot in front of it?  Might it have been the original sales building for Aspetuck Valley Orchards?  Now that I had discovered the letters on the back wall, I was even more curious about the barn’s previous uses.  My father was unable to account for what I had just discovered; he simply mentioned that our neighbor, Mr. Hubbell, would know all about it.

The Bradley-Hubbell House in 1946. The home of Franklin Hubbell for many years. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the years preceding construction of the reservoirs which flooded valleys northwest of its home city, the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company bought as many properties as possible within the watershed of each river it would dam.  By 1917, these acquisitions made BHC the majority landholder in several Fairfield County towns, prompting the company to fill a new position, Manager of Land Resources, by hiring Franklin Hubbell.  A recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts, young Mr. Hubbell soon settled in one of the company’s Black Rock Turnpike houses, the white center-chimney Colonial built by Aljah Bradley in 1816 and owned by his descendants until they sold it to BHC in 1912. (This is now known as the Bradley-Hubbell House and is part of the Historical Society of Easton’s collection. It has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places).

One can readily imagine Mr. Hubbell making a systematic inventory of BHC’s acreage, classifying the land according to the requirements and opportunities he observed.  Farms acquired by the company had open fields and pastures, so he planted numerous stands of evergreen seedlings to prevent soil erosion.  Wetlands in the watershed were simply left intact to continue functioning as natural sponges during periods of high rainfall and snowmelt.  Harvestable timber stood in BHC’s woodlands, in quantities sufficient to warrant the building of a sawmill behind the Wakeman-Osborn barn on Black Rock Turnpike (the one that I considered “our” barn decades later).  A used engine built by the White Motor Company was brought to the site from New York City to supply the mill’s power. It had previously run the air-conditioning at the Waldorf Astoria.  Close to Mr. Hubbell’s Easton home was an upland property known as Flirt Hill which he apparently explored very thoroughly.  Two miles of the Aspetuck Valley’s western edge was defined by the base of this curiously named prominence, which rose to an elevation of over 520 feet.  According to nineteenth-century maps there were no signs of settlement on its plateau, yet Franklin Hubbell saw significant potential for this tract.

1951 Aerial view of Aspetuck Valley Orchards on Flirt Hill. The Apple Barn can be seen at the middle right.

After studying Flirt Hill’s drainage, Mr. Hubbell concluded that much of the land was well-suited for agricultural purposes, specifically the central area which had no surface runoff.  Furthermore, the upper eastern slopes offered reduced exposure to winter winds and springtime frost, advantages which favored the planting of fruit trees.  Presumably, it was he who advanced the idea of establishing a commercial orchard on the property, and after receiving management approval, development began in the 1920s.  Under his direction work crews built an access road, cleared the large plot of land, planted many different varieties of apple, peach and pear trees, and built ancillary structures such as equipment sheds and water tanks.  A sloping hillside location on the east side of Black Rock Turnpike was chosen for the retail sales facility. The slope facilitated a “bank barn” layout with ground-floor access at two levels.  This arrangement allowed customers to easily enter the main floor from the west, while the cold-storage rooms beneath were naturally insulated by earth on three sides.  It’s quite possible that lumber used in the structure may have been sawn at BHC’s nearby mill from logs that originated in Easton.  Regardless of the source of its materials, the building was attractively designed, finished in classic Barn Red with white trim and given the logical name of Aspetuck Valley Orchards. Over time it became widely known simply as the Apple Barn.

Cutting lumber at the BHC sawmill on Black Rock Turnpike c.1951

After devoting forty-five years to watershed management and orchard operation, Mr. Hubbell retired in 1962 and BHC then selected Richard Quinton, my father, to be his replacement.  Once the baton was in his hands, Dad endeavored to build upon the orchard’s fine reputation and long-standing popularity.  One of the first investments he made, around 1965, was to install a rugged fence around the orchard’s perimeter, its height determined by the remarkable leaping ability of deer.  Prior to installation of the fence, deer would resort to nibbling the bark of apple trees in harsh winters and the ones that were girdled would not survive.  Dropped antlers were commonly found in the orchard before the fence was installed, but not afterward.  For several years after the building of the fence, youngsters from Samuel Staples Elementary School were taken on a field trip to the orchard and Apple Barn during the busy autumn months.

The orchard got a new neighbor to the north in 1966 when the Golf Club at Aspetuck completed construction of an eighteen-hole course.  Later renamed The Connecticut Golf Club to avoid confusion with Aspetuck Valley Country Club in Weston, the golf-only club in Easton was founded by Lawrence Wein, then one of the partners who owned the Empire State Building.  Although the course was built on property lying between the Aspetuck River and the Saugatuck Reservoir, it does not sit in a reservoir watershed since it drains into Hawleys’ Brook which in turn flows into the Saugatuck River below the Samuel P. Senior Dam.  Decades later, the topography of the land surrounding Hawleys’ Brook made it possible for BHC to designate it as a surplus non-watershed parcel which came to be known as Trout Brook Valley.  Having been the first Easton representative on the board of the Aspetuck Land Trust, my father was understandably pleased at the outcome of the difficult, but ultimately successful campaign to prevent TBV from being developed into a golf course and upscale residential lots.

As original blocks of apple trees neared the end of their productive years in the 1960s, some were removed to create space for newer varieties that had a favorable trait such as better taste, earlier harvest time or more eye appeal.  Being mindful of future harvesting costs, the scions were grafted to Malling-Merton dwarfing rootstock to limit the eventual size of the mature trees, and in the early 1970s some experimental high-density rows were planted using a trellis support system.  In those years some of the vacant plots were converted to production of field crops to support an earlier opening date at the Apple Barn.  Selections ranging from tomatoes to Casaba and Crenshaw melons were grown using several cultivation techniques that were fairly new at the time such as drip irrigation, black plastic mulch for moisture and weed control, and early planting of long-season crops under clear plastic tents.  For many years, orchard production was directed by Easton native Joe Trup, Jr. in whose memory the access road was named.

Every orchard year began with pruning, a laborious but essential task that kept the trees vigorous and had to be completed while the trees were dormant.  Warmer temperatures would then bring the orchard to life with the spectacle of seemingly endless blossoms, necessitating the rental of honeybees to perform the crucial job of cross-pollinating the flowers.  Arrival of the hives was signaled by the presence of white boxes stacked along the orchard roads.  As an impressionable youngster, it was enlightening to learn how insects feared by so many, performed a simple job that was mutually beneficial, in fact essential, to orchardist and apiarist alike. 

All fruit trees are susceptible to frost damage during the spring flowering, especially in years when a stretch of unseasonably warm weather may encourage earlier-than-normal flowering.  Once the tender buds are out, they can be killed with just an hour or two of exposure to slightly sub-freezing temperatures.  I remember walking through row after row of peaches and nectarines in the months after a late frost and being confronted by a distressing sight – so few developing fruits that there was no point in counting them.

Jamaican workers harvesting apples at the BHC Aspetuck Valley Orchard on Flirt Hill

As different varieties began to ripen in late summer, a temporary harvesting crew arrived at the orchard each day to pick the crop at piece rate (by the box).  Local workers were joined by seasonal pickers from Jamaica who were renowned for their speed.  Regardless of who picked the crop, the tools of the trade were simple but effective. Kidney-shaped buckets with a canvas skirt that functioned both as the bottom of the bucket while it was being filled and as an unloading chute when it was emptied were used.  At each tree, pickers climbed tripod ladders to gather fruit from the upper branches, then reached less-accessible places from tapered “spike” ladders set into a trustworthy Y-shaped crotch found in the interior limbs.  Most desirable to the workers were branches that could be picked while standing: the ones that held the proverbial “low-hanging fruit”.  Loaded buckets would be gently emptied into bushel boxes which were filled to maximize box capacity, and hence storage space, but not over-filled to the point where fruit would be bruised when the boxes were stacked.  Anyone who has ever picked apples for a day likely remembers several things: poison ivy guarding the tree trunks, yellow jackets hovering around overripe fallen fruit, neck strain from full buckets and the feeling of ladder rungs under their feet.

1949 Apple harvest at the Aspetuck Valley Orchards on Flirt Hill in Easton

Just as a watershed is drained by the downhill flow of water through progressively fewer but larger channels, so too did the apples travel through the orchard to the Apple Barn on Black Rock Turnpike.  Typically, 96 boxes at a time were stacked on a trailer hitched to a gray Ford N-series tractor.  The loads first trundled down the dozens and dozens of narrow rows between trees, then rolled along the graveled interior roads and finally proceeded down the access road that traversed the northeastern slope of Flirt Hill.  Prior to 1970, when a separate orchard parcel off Freeborn Road was still in production, apples harvested from that lot had to be hauled down Freeborn’s precipitous slope.  If you’ve driven down that hill, imagine navigating the 90-degree corner while being pushed by a two-ton load.  It’s no wonder the tractor cautiously proceeded in lowest gear, relying on engine braking to make a controlled descent.  (It’s also not surprising that instead of plowing that end of Freeborn Road in the winters of the early ‘60s, the town simply closed the road by placing sawhorses across it when the first snow fell).

As each trailer-load arrived at the Apple Barn, the cargo was taken into the cold-storage rooms beneath and behind the retail space.  Strategically placed conveyor rollers reduced the effort required to get the boxes to the desired section but nonetheless stacking the boxes was a strenuous task, and one that was not done without forethought.  To the extent possible, boxes were methodically arranged in ways that would allow access to the right varieties at the right time in the coming months.  In the aptly named box shop, a separate building just to the north, the essential wooden containers were assembled and repaired.

Workers in 1949 using the conveyor belts to move boxes in the lower level of the Apple Barn.

Despite being only four years old when my father first took me to the Apple Barn in the fall of 1962, the experience left me with the impression that I’d always feel comfortable there.  Dad led me past stacks of fruit in containers that had odd names like peck and half-bushel. Whether they were square, oblong, round and squatty, or tall and tapered, they were all made of wood.  He introduced me to the smiling adults working there that day and then finally led me to the place I most wanted to see, a special ground-level room at the north end of the building.  I had tasted my first glass of cider just a few weeks before and now I eagerly anticipated watching apples get smooshed by a big machine and turned into my new favorite beverage.  When we got to the cider room I was disappointed to hear that the day’s pressing had been completed, but I was still fascinated by the huge press, the racks and cheesecloth, and the men in rubber overalls who hosed down everything in sight.  As we left, I decided the Apple Barn was a really neat place, and I was proud that my father had something to do with it.

During that first visit, someone may have mentioned that Aspetuck Valley Orchards was quite a popular business, but I hardly understood what that meant.  My grasp of the significance changed a few months later when my father brought home a copy of the New Yorker magazine.  Westport artist Garrett Price had drawn his impression of the hectic scene in front of the Apple Barn during a fall weekend and his artwork was featured on the cover of the November 10th issue.  Although I couldn’t comprehend why the New Yorker was any more important than Highlights, my father insisted that this event was a Big Deal.  After observing his excitement, I finally started to realize that the Apple Barn wasn’t simply a fruit stand located a half-mile up the road from where we lived.

November 10, 1962 Cover of the New Yorker magazine by artist Garrett Price.

NEXT UP: Part Two: The Apple Barn

Sources consulted by the author:

Frederick W. Beers: Easton map from the Atlas of Fairfield County, 1867

United States Geological Survey: Danbury, CT topographic sheet, surveyed 1889

The Golf Club at Aspetuck. Jerry Mason, editor. The Ridge Press, Inc.  New York, 1974

Untitled notes on family history [draft]: Patricia Hubbell Hornstein to Deborah Hornstein Alexander Hereld, no date.

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