Hocking Hills Orchard, Logan
Visitors to Derek Mills’ orchard get a wide-ranging history lesson that’s a lot sweeter than what we learned in school.
Self-described “apple geek” Derek Mills has been obsessed with fruit for nearly 50 years. While growing up on an Air Force base in Puerto Rico, he came across an abandoned government tropical fruit farm, where he identified and labeled trees for his Eagle Scout badge. Decades later, Mills still retains that boyish enthusiasm for the subject.
As he walks the rows of 7,000 apple trees at his Hocking Hills Orchard in Logan, he can point to nearly any of the 1,600 varieties and recite its backstory. One tree is filled with the favorite apple of France’s King Louis XIV, an ugly and bumpy piece of fruit that contains more vitamin C than an orange. Another tree grows the Decio, the apple with the oldest lineage in Mills’ orchard, dating all the way back to 454 A.D.
“The Roman army brought along a wagon full of them as they marched to fight the Huns,” Mills says. “I love the idea of these ancient soldiers sitting around in a circle and eating almost the same exact apple [as in my orchard].”
George Washington’s Newtown Pippin and Thomas Jefferson’s Spitzenberg apples are huge hits with kids when Mills gives presentations to local schools. (And for good reason; the Newtown Pippin may be the best apple I’ve ever eaten.)
In the 1800s, more than 2,500 different apple varieties could be found commercially across the U.S. and Canada, Mills says. But with the rise of supermarket culture, now a dozen varieties make up 98 percent of the apples grown and sold commercially.
Orchard visitors pick their own fruit, looking for trees tagged with ribbon to indicate ripeness. Each group is armed with a sheet detailing the apples’ flavor and history. If people ask for a Granny Smith or Fuji apple, Mills jokingly advises them to head to another orchard. His lone Red Delicious tree is next to four of the green-and-red-striped Hawkeye variety, the forefather of the Red Delicious.
“They bred and cross-bred all the flavor out of the Red Delicious apples,” Mill says. “I tell people to take a bite of a Red Delicious, then reach behind them and try a Hawkeye. People are shocked by how much better the Hawkeye tastes. We don’t even harvest the Red Delicious. We let them fall from the trees so the deer can eat them.”
Orchard located at Four Seasons Cabins; 14435 Nickel Plate Rd., Logan 43138, 614/570-9859, hockinghillsorchard.com