BOMONT — A 52-acre slice of West Virginia history goes on the auction block in rural Clay County on Saturday.
The former Mullins Farm near Bomont comes equipped with a 1984-vintage three-bedroom, 1 1/2-bathroom ranch house with full basement, free gas, and a large gas-powered generator capable of providing the entire building with electricity. On a small patch of bottom land surrounding the home, the fireplace and rock-lined well that served the original Mullins farmhouse can be seen.
But except for a roadside historical marker at the entrance to the farm, no trace remains of what was discovered here more than a century ago, leading to billions of dollars in domestic sales and international production that now stretches from Turkey to Tasmania.
It was here, in 1905, on a steep hillside towering over Porters Creek, that Anderson Mullins first laid eyes on a young tree bearing yellow apples a short distance uphill from the small, familiar grove of fruit trees he and his relatives had planted earlier.
Since none of the apple trees in the family orchard bore yellow fruit, Mullins speculated that the young tree must have sprouted from a seed carried to the site by a bird or another animal. Whatever its source, it was immediately apparent that the tree was special: When Mullins chomped into the gold-tinted apple, it was love at first bite.
“We like them so well that we think them almost as good as Delicious,” Mullins wrote in a letter accompanying a box of three of his “volunteer” tree’s apples, sent in 1914 to Missouri’s Stark Brothers Nursery, then as now, one of the nation’s biggest mail-order nurseries.
“No one here has anything like it,” Mullins wrote. “The apples are so rich that they will make apple butter without sugar. Please try them and write and tell me what you think of them.”
The “Delicious” Mullins was referring to in his note was a sweet, oblong-shaped red apple the Stark Brothers obtained the rights to exclusively produce in 1894, after an Iowa farmer, like Mullins, found an atypical apple tree seedling growing just off the fringe of his orchard and made samples of its tasty fruit available to the mail-order nursery. Not long after Paul and Lloyd Stark sampled Mullins’ apple, they had to re-name their 1894 sales stalwart the “Red Delicious” to differentiate it from Mullins’ apple, which they quickly patented and marketed as the Golden Delicious.
When the brothers opened the box containing Mullins’ apples, one of the first things they noticed was that the fruit, which arrived in April, remained in prime condition months after it was harvested, a time span that would have left many other varieties mushy to rotten. But even more striking was the fruit’s taste.
“We had never experienced such a spicy flavor before, especially from a yellow apple,” Paul Stark wrote of the Stark Brothers’ first taste-test of the Clay County apple. “With one in your hand, you can’t be sure whether you’re drinking champagne or eating an apple.”
When brother Lloyd sampled the apple, “almost instantly his jaw froze motionless and his eyes took on the appearance of one in a trance,” Paul Stark wrote. After years of searching for a tasty, durable yellow apple to give growers and consumers a new and exciting product, “our teeth have bitten into thousands of golden varieties in the hope of coming upon the Great Taste, the Supreme Golden Apple,” Stark wrote.
“What my brother was experiencing in that moment was the Great Taste. Here at last was the yellow apple for which our palates had hankered for a score of years,” he wrote, predicting that the Clay County variety could take its place as “the greatest yellow dessert apple in all the world.”
But before that could happen, Stark had to prove that the Clay County tree that produced the golden apples was a genuine seedling of an all-new variety. A trip to the Mullins farm was needed to examine the tree to make sure there no grafts, bud unions or other indications of human meddling. Also, Stark wanted to make sure the tree had a strong root system and was free of disease and insect infestations, and if it lived up to Mullins’ descriptions of its productivity.
In late September of 1914, Stark traveled by rail to Charleston, then boarded a train on a secondary line that took him as close as possible to the Mullins farm.
“This was desolate country back then,” said Roger Mullins of Mountaineer Auctions, as he prepared the home and outbuildings at the farm for Saturday’s sale. “He rode the train to Queen Shoals, and then hired someone to take him here by horse.”
Upon arriving at the farm, Stark found no one at the Mullins home, but spotted the hillside orchard nearby and scrambled up the slope to look for what would become known as the Golden Delicious Tree. When he arrived at the small orchard, he was disappointed to find a collection of “wild seedling trees, no two alike, only a few of ordinary quality and the great mass having the appearance of runts.”
After momentarily pondering an immediate return trip to Missouri, Stark turned uphill and spotted another small grove of apple trees, most of them leafless and barren of fruit.
“But gleaming forth from the midst of them, like a diamond amid straw, was one tree that seemed to have stepped fresh out of the Garden of Eden, it was so fresh and strong and vigorous,” with boughs that “were bending to the ground with an enormous crop of great golden apples.”
Stark picked one of the apples and ate it core and all as he watched Mullins amble up the hillside to greet him.
“That’s some apple!” Stark told the Clay County man after introducing himself, according to an article he wrote for a Stark Brothers mail-order catalog.
Stark paid the Mullins family $5,000 for the tree and the rights to reproduce it, and to acquire the small patch of land surrounding the anomaly, and returned to Missouri with a bundle of cuttings from the Golden Delicious Tree to graft to trees in his company’s apple orchard.
“Anderson Mullins and his brother Bewel, who had a farm on Dutch Ridge when Anderson sold the tree to the Stark Brothers, had traded farms several times over the years,” said Roger Mullins, who spent park of his childhood in the vicinity of the farm. Not long after Paul Stark returned to Missouri, the two brothers swapped farms again, and Bewel Mullins was hired by Stark Brothers to serve as caretaker of the Golden Delicious Tree, which they ordered enclosed in a large wood frame and wire mesh structure to keep people and critters out.
“My dad lived up a nearby hollow when the Stark Brothers bought the tree, and during drought years in the ‘20s, was hired to carry 5-gallon buckets of water up the hill to keep it healthy,” said Roger Mullins, who also spent part of his childhood in the vicinity of the farm, but is not related to the Mullins family of Golden Delicious fame.
The Golden Delicious mother tree reportedly continued to produce fruit into the early 1950s, but in 1958, a pair of WVU professors visited the farm and found the tree to be dead and surrounded by sections of rusty fencing.
By the time the West Virginia Legislature proclaimed the Golden Delicious apple the official state fruit, nearly 200 billion pounds of the apple were being harvested annually in the United States alone, according the resolution enabling the 1995 proclamation.
“I’ve climbed the hill looking for where I was told the tree should be, but can’t find a trace of it,” said Roger Mullins. “When the leaves are gone, I’ll go back up there with a metal detector to try to find fencing and nails. It’s a shame there’s nothing there to mark the site. There’s really not much left here that reflects back to the Mullins family and the tree.”
Two families have occupied the farm since it left Mullins family ownership several decades ago. The most recent occupant was Dewey Serls, who bought the farm in 1984 “and built a quasi-duplication of the original 40-by-40-foot farmhouse, cupola and all, right behind it, and then tore the old house down,” Mullens said.
Serls recently died, and Mountaineer Auctions was commissioned to auction the farm, home and its contents, starting at 10 a.m. Saturday.
The farm can be reached by crossing the Queen Shoals Bridge about four miles north of Clendenin and then following W.Va. Secondary Route 1/Queen Road about 6.5 miles to the farm. For more information about the farm and the contents of the farmhouse and outbuildings, visit www.mountaineerauctions.com or call 304-548-4056.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at
email@example.com, 304-348-5169 or follow
@rsteelhammer on Twitter.