By BARRY ADAMS
Wisconsin State Journal
NEW BERLIN (AP) — This is where you can taste true artifacts of history.
They can be tart, sweet or somewhere in between.
A few have hints of pineapple, vanilla, apricot, strawberry or grapefruit. Most come with red, yellow and green skins.
The Wisconsin State Journal reports that there are over 160 varieties of apples that hang from the more than 1,300 trees that make up Weston’s Antique Apple Orchards. As the name suggests, many of the varieties grown here on Prospect Hill along West National Avenue have a remarkable past.
Two of the best stories at the orchard, though, come from a pair of octogenarian siblings who are the heart and soul of the farm, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996 and given as a donation to the city of New Berlin in 2004.
The orchard is operated as a nonprofit entity, and Ken Weston and his sister, Genevieve Weston, are making sure that its history and apples are being preserved.
“I haven’t lost my enthusiasm, but I’ve lost my mobility,” Genevieve, 87, said, as she sat on a metal folding chair in the orchard’s more than 100-year-old barn. “This is my world. I love the farm.”
Ken, 88, roams the orchard on a Kubota, zero-turn lawn mower, and Genevieve uses a four-wheeled electric scooter. When they’re not in the orchard, they use walkers for assistance. Despite their disabilities, their minds remain sharp – as can be seen when they talk about apples.
“It’s not a great flavor but it’s not bad. I keep it because it’s historically interesting,” Ken said while looking over a Tomato apple tree that was planted in 1936. “When I was a child, I would wander through (the orchard) in the dark. They looked like giants.”
The general impetus behind the orchard is to preserve antique apple varieties that generally predate the widespread use of refrigerated box cars.
Beginning in the 1940s, refrigeration allowed apples that were “transportation-hardy” to be shipped greater distances, which led to a decline in the number of varieties that were for sale, Weston said.
The orchard is part of the Prospect Hill Settlement District, a collection of historic structures and properties in New Berlin, in southeastern Waukesha County. Besides the barn, its neighboring farmhouse and the orchard, the district includes the former Freewill Baptist Church, which was built in 1859 and restored to its original state after being destroyed by arson in 1985. The other structures there include barns and houses from the 1800s, a red schoolhouse built in 1863 and later converted to a cheese plant, the Meidenbauer log cabin and a tower that was part of the Milwaukee Children’s Hospital from 1930 to 1955.
The orchard’s barn was built in 1906, originally to house dairy cows. But when Ken and Genevieve’s grandfather, William Marckwardt, moved to the property, he and his brother Henry, used the barn’s basement for an aluminum and brass foundry where they made barrel staves and metal handheld nutcrackers. William Marckwardt purchased the farm in 1931. In 1936, his daughter Alice and her husband, Harvey Weston, who had moved to the farm from Milwaukee with their two young children, began adding to a small apple orchard already on the property.
“My father at first was in the chicken business but, of course, that was no good at all because people were stealing the chickens and so we got into the orchard business,” Genevieve said. “This was during the Depression, and they weren’t getting money (in Milwaukee). They were getting script instead of money so they came out here. My mother always liked apples as a little girl.”
Genevieve Weston graduated from UW-Madison and taught elementary school for about seven years before returning to the farm to help on the orchard. Today, she spends three afternoons a week at the West Allis Farmers Market with Dave Scott, an employee who loads and drives a pickup truck loaded with nearly two dozen different varieties of apples displayed in wooden crates and with half-gallon jugs of apple cider made from a mixture of apple varieties.
Weston sits in a chair and collects money and weighs apples, and is quick to tell anyone who will listen what she knows about the taste and texture of the fruit. She’s been coming to the market for over 50 years.
“People used to like early apples, now they only go for the hard, crunchy apples. They don’t like soft apples anymore,” said Weston, who wore a purple John Deere sweatshirt that was partially covered by her long, white hair. “We have wonderful helpers, as you can see.
“Without these helpers, I don’t know what we would do.”
The orchard produces between 3,000 and 4,000 bushels of apples a year, which are also sold at Riverwest Co-op Grocery & Cafe in Milwaukee, at the farm on Sundays and since the 1970s, at the Dane County Farmers Market. That stand is now run by Ken Weston’s daughter, also named Genevieve. The orchard also offers classes on grafting, integrated pest management and pruning, and grows other fruits including cherries, plums, pears and peaches.
For Ken Weston, the orchard has become a second career. After graduating from Waukesha High School in 1947, he headed to UW-Madison, where for a time he lived in a room at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Monroe Street and earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in mathematics. He taught at Notre Dame and Marquette universities and, in 1973, joined the academic staff at UW-Parkside in Kenosha County.
Weston, who almost died five years ago from an inflamed gallbladder, recalls both using a sickle when he was young to cut the grass in the orchard and hauling rocks in a rickety wheelbarrow because his father refused to buy modern machinery. Now, even with the farm’s modern lifts, tractors and other equipment, the orchard owners have remained true to their original goal.
“The wide variety of flavors of apples beats just about any other fruit,” said Weston. “We’re adding apple varieties all the time. This place is very special to me.”