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Mama Beam’s Famous Apple
James A. Galloway
September 20, 2002

This is the story of an apple variety that, during its heyday, was considered by leading pomologists to be the finest in North America.

Abraham Beam (1720-1799), brother of Rev. Martin Boehm, began planting an apple orchard on his property just north of Quarryville, PA in 1768. His wife, Barbara Herr Nissley Beam (1729-1822), started an herb and vegetable garden on the east side of their new house (built 1770), which she had fenced. Toward the north end of this enclosure was her garden gate, which figures as a centerpiece of this narrative.

Barbara not only loved her garden, but she also enjoyed the apple orchard, as the trees that Abraham had planted began bearing fruit. Barbara grafted two of their best trees, one onto the other, and planted the scion next to her garden gate about 1775. When this tree began producing, the word soon spread throughout the area that Mama Beam had a tree with the most delicious fruit anyone could imagine. People came from miles around hoping Mama Beam would offer them some of her apples from the tree by the gate. So, this new variety of apple became known as the “Gate apple” because of the tree’s location, and also the “Mama Beam,” in honor of Barbara.

The apple itself has a delightful flavor and a golden rind, on which there is a faint blush. It is an early winter apple and an equal favorite whether for cooking or eating in the natural state. The apple is unique in that it has alternating high and low ridges alternately sweet and sour. In 1986, Dorothy and I viewed several Gate apple trees being grown in Harrisonburg, VA by Dr. Elwood Fisher, professor of biology at James Madison University.

Today this apple is still being grown in volume in upstate New York. It is sold locally, since it does not survive shipping under present-day methods, as it bruises easily and loses color.

But, you may ask, how did the Gate/Mama Beam apple spread from its founding location to all of inhabited North America?

First, the apple was taken to Virginia by Jacob Nissley (1735-1832), the only son of Mama Beam by her first husband, Jacob Nissley, Sr.

Young Jacob (Jake) Nissley/Nessly married Elizabeth Groff (1752-1824) and from 1772 to 1785 the couple lived on a farm in Martic Twp., Lancaster Co., PA. With the influence of his wife, he decided to homestead in the panhandle of Virginia after scouting that area prior to 1784. In 1784 Jacob purchased an 800 acre tract located between the present-day towns of Newell and New Cumberland, WV (West Virginia became the 35th state by proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln in 1863). With 50 or 100 pounds borrowed from his father-in-law, he contracted to have a cabin built to be ready for his family when they arrived in Virginia in September of 1785. Their schedule was realized after crossing the Allegheny Mountains in Pennsylvania in a wagon loaded with all of their worldly goods and their seven children.

After arriving at their new home, Nissley and his daughter, Lucy, went over to the Ohio side of the river and there Jake cut his name and the date of his arrival in Virginia on the face of the rocks while Lucy held the canoe up to the rocks. For, as he said, they might be massacred and every vestige of them would be lost (peace with the Indians during this period was precarious). If so, some person would find the inscription in later years and learn the place of his settlement (this inscription is now under water due to the building of the New Cumberland locks on the Ohio River.

Over the years Jake Nissley/Nessly prospered from orchards that he began in the panhandle of Virginia, with the Gate apple being his premium product. Jake kept buying and adding land to his holdings. By 1799 he owned 2764 acres, with 1800 acres under cultivation, half being in orchards.

In 1795 Jake purchased 800 acres in Jefferson Co., OH and began orchards there. In 1796 Jake built a still-house and hired a distiller of good recommendation to convert much of his fruit into brandy in order to justify his large acreage. Because of the limited demand from the local market, Jake shipped fruits of all varieties, cider, and brandy by boat down the Ohio River to the Mississippi and thence as far as New Orleans.

It is said that during the spring apple blossom season that folks on excursion boats would come down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to view Nissley’s orchards, which ran for five miles along the Virginia side of the river and a shorter distance on the Ohio side. The trees presented a perfect ocean of snowy bloom, which was beyond description; as close to heaven as one can get on this earth. It is not pleasant to consider that the exigencies of manufacturing and commercialism have converted this terrestrial paradise into the sad condition in which we find it today.

The life of Jacob Nissley/Nessly, the panhandle pioneer, and his wife Elizabeth Groff is a story itself and perhaps I will relate that tale another time.

Elizabeth Nissley died August 6, 1824 and afterwards Jake moved away. He went to Ohio and lived with his daughter, Lucy, where he died November 3, 1832. Both are buried in the Nissley/Nessly graveyard behind the Methodist church that Jake built in 1826 and had deeded to the Methodists.

Let me now take you to the next chapter in the spread of the Gate/Mama Beam apple. We go back to about the same period of time that Jacob Nissley was establishing himself in the Virginia panhandle. Two grown sons of Abraham and Barbara Herr Nissley Beam (Mama Beam) left Lancaster Co., PA and migrated to and settled on farms in Belmont Co., OH. Of course, they both brought scions of their mother’s tree with them. They always referred to the apple as the “Mama Beam,” while Jake always referred to the apple as the “Gate.” Over the years the apple also began to be known as the “Belmont,” since it was growing in abundance there. Between 1840 and 1845, controversies arose among the fruit men of Ohio concerning the origin and the name of this apple. This was solved when it was determined that the Beam brothers in Belmont Co., OH and Jake Nissley, the panhandle pioneer of Virginia were half-brothers, and all sons of

Mama Beam, and that all had brought scions of their mother’s tree to their respective orchards (to this day we cannot document the first names of the two Beam brothers who settled in Belmont Co., OH.

Scions of this tree had been shipped to Boston, MA, where it was presented before the Massachusetts Horticulture Society by C. Olmstead, Esq. as the “Belmont.” By 1845 the apple known as the “Belmont” was being grown in the state of New York. In 1847, at the Ohio Fruit Growers convention, held at Columbus, OH, it was decided that the name “Belmont” was to be used when discussing this apple, as by 1847, it was generally known and recognized by that name. The North American Pomological convention of 1848 was held in Buffalo, NY and as the apple came under discussion, it was designated as the “Belmont,” which name is now universally recognized by fruit men. But by whatever name it is called, it still remains a fact that it all began with Mama Beam at her garden gate. It will always be the “Mama Beam” apple to me!

Our story now turns to a man called Johnny Appleseed (actually John Chapman), born in Springfield, MA in 1775. At age 26 he arrived in Wellsburg, VA and from there traveled to the Ohio River and crossed into Ohio about four miles below Steubenville. Here he spent the night and the next day he planted his first batch of apple seeds, which he carried in leather pouches. He was urged to remain there, but he declined, saying “They are starting orchards up the river on the Virginia side (Jacob Nissley) and talk of improving apples by grafting. They cannot improve the apple in that way - that is only a device of man, and it is wicked to cut up trees in that way. The correct method is to select good seeds and plant them in good ground, and God only can improve the apples.”

I have included John Chapman in this story, even though he was not a Beam descendant because he was a contemporary of Jake Nissley and the Beam brothers. They, each in their own way, contributed to the advance of apple husbandry, even though Chapman and Nissley were at complete odds as to how to go about doing this.

Johnny Appleseed never met Jake Nissley, he wanted to give him a wide berth. Jake had a sixteen-year head start on Johnny in establishing himself in the entire Ohio River valley, so Johnny decided to go further west, where cattle would not destroy his orchards. There his fruit would be ready to sell to the settlers as they arrived. So we may say, that to a great extent, the areas where Johnny Appleseed operated were determined by Jake Nissley and the Beam brothers. It is generally agreed that the great advantage of the Nissley nursery to the Ohio River valley was that it enabled the farmers to secure improved fruit trees with a process more certain than the Chapman methods.

So, in 1801, Johnny Appleseed headed west and found that cider mills around Marietta, OH ended up with buckets of seed after processing juice from the fruit. Johnny bought bushels of seed for next to nothing. He carried this seed to open fields and just started planting apple orchards. To have apples growing everywhere in the wilderness, that was his dream.

For the next forty-six years, Johnny Appleseed roamed the rivers and streams of Ohio and Indiana, seeking rich bottom land in open fields to sow his seeds, so that orchards would be in abundance when the settlers arrived.

John Chapman was an eccentric in everything that he did. He never married and always lived alone. He liked to eat alone and he preferred to eat outside. Usually each meal consisted of only one item, like corn mash, apples, or cattail roots. He preferred fruit and nuts to meat, fish, milk, or cheese.

Johnny took to sleeping in a hammock, a practice he learned from some Indians. The Indians considered him something of a medicine man and left him alone. He took to wearing a cooking pot on his head as a hat to fend off the rain, although he also used it as a cooking pot. As you can imagine, he was quite a sight in his tree hammock, with long hair, a beard, a pot on his head, but happy as a king. Forests, and especially apple groves, were his kingdom. He regarded comfort more than style and thought it wrong to spend money for clothing just to make a fine appearance. He went barefooted not only in summer but often in cold weather and a coffee sack with neck and armholes cut in it was worn as a coat.

In later years Johnny spent much of the winter season in a crude log cabin in Richland Co., OH or in another near Ft. Wayne, IN, where he had purchased some land. He lived most of his life by bartering for food or shoes and used what monies he obtained by selling trees to buy seed at the cider mills. Johnny died of a fever caused by exposure on March 11, 1845 and was buried in David Archer’s graveyard, 2 ½ miles north of Ft. Wayne, IN.

After Jacob Nissley’s death, his orchards went into decline and a parasite wiped out the Mama Beam/Gate/Belmont trees, except where intense spraying was conducted. But Johnny Appleseed’s orchards thrived. So Chapman has become a legend and Jake’s fame has faded, except among his descendants.

Johnny Appleseed, the eccentric who cared for his fellow man and nature, but thought little about his own welfare, is always thought of whenever apple culture is discussed. Jake Nissley, the panhandle pioneer, was the darling of horticulturists in his time, was an affluent, influential, and astute businessman, but is now all but forgotten.

To finish the sage of Mama Beam’s famous apple, I return to the year 1788 when Abraham and Barbara Beam sold their Lancaster Co., PA farm and relocated to Black Creek, Ontario, Canada, taking their apple scions with them. I have no record of how extensive their orchards were in Canada. Dorothy and I visited Bob Campbell (a descendant of Abraham Beam) and his wife, Shirley, several times during the mid 1980s. The Campbells were living on a portion of Abraham’s original land grant of 240 acres. A Mama Beam tree was growing in Bob’s yard, but barely alive the first time we viewed it. It was the last to survive, but 200 years of life is pretty good for a fruit tree, but still sad to lose. Perhaps it is now growing in that “Great Orchard in the Sky.”

Abraham Beam died at his home in 1799 and was buried in his front yard, that portion of which is now under the Niagara Parkway. After her husband’s death, Barbara, after having lived in Canada for eleven years, was anxious to see the rest of her family in Pennsylvania. So, Mama Beam returned to visit them and never returned to Canada. She lived with her daughter (sister of Jake Nissley) and son-in-law, Jacob Beam (older brother of Rev. Henry Boehm). Mama Beam

died in Paradise, PA in 1822. The following is her interesting obituary as printed in the Paradise Hornet, the local newspaper:

Died on Sunday morning, 24th inst. in Strasburg Township, Lancaster County - - Mrs. Barbara Beam, widow of Abraham Beam, deceased, aged 93 years and 10 months. She has lived to see the fifth generation, and what is more extraordinary, could see to read well without spectacles. March 30, 1822

Ohio Lands - A Short History,” Thomas A. Burke, 1987
“Buckeye Legends,” Michael Jay Katz, 1994
“History of the Panhandle, West Virginia,” J. H. Newton, G. G. Nichols, A. G. Sprankle, 1879 “History of Hancock County Virginia and West Virginia,” Jack Welsh, 1963
“Mennonite Research Journal,” article by Wilmer Swope on Jacob Nissley/Nessly “History of Belmont and Jefferson Counties of Ohio,” Caldwell, 1880
“Twentieth Century of Stubenville and History of Jefferson County, Ohio,” Joseph Boyle, 1910 “Twenty-third Annual Report of the Waterloo Historical Society,” 1935