A vision grows and falls: Longtime apple orchard in Winthrop terminated

·11 min read

Oct. 23—WINTHROP — There were doubters in the 1970s when Edward Joseph Carr decided he was going to plant an apple orchard on his property here along County Route 49 in a region not usually associated the fruit being able to thrive.

But at his core, Mr. Carr is a man with a vision, cultivated through years of diverse experience working at a multitude of tasks ranging from serving in the Navy, as a New York State trooper to the founder of a vending company, which remains in the family.

But at age 96, and 44 years after his Brookdale Apple Orchard opened, the public has picked its final fruit at the site, a tradition branching back to generations for some families who have visited, picked, chomped and laughed in the cool autumn air.

It's a bittersweet development for Mr. Carr.

Earlier this month, the approximately 600 apple trees at Brookdale were all chopped down and burned. State-of-nature factors conspired to make the orchard no longer sustainable. A late frost this spring killed many of the apple buds, resulting in little to no crop. The frail, old trees had also become problematic to take care of.

"I knew it was time," Mr. Carr said. "I'm 96 and can't do any manual work. My balance is not that good. I worked up until May/June this year, but it was time to go. Time for the trees to go. It was time to quit. The timing, the trees, the harvest — the whole nine yards."

Margaret, ("Margie") his wife of 70 years, agreed it was time for her husband to let the orchard go. Mr. Carr managed the orchard with the help of family but did most of the work on his own. Occasionally, he would hire locals including the Amish, to help with pruning, cleaning up and picking. The family routinely gave away apples, especially to those who could not afford fresh fruit.

"He certainly enjoyed it for 44 years," Mrs. Carr said. "He loved being out there. I don't know what he's going to do for entertainment at this point, but he'll probably find something."

It all began with one tree.

The Carrs purchased their land in the late 1950s and built a house on it in 1967. The 50-acre property contained a small, deserted home that had been owned by a Civil War veteran.

"On the lawn was a beautiful apple tree," Mr. Carr said. "They were beautiful apples. We couldn't keep thieves away from it." He sent a specimen from the tree to agriculture experts in Canada, "somewhere on the Great Lakes."

The apple was identified as a "St. Lawrence" variety.

According to the New England Apple Association, the St. Lawrence apple was introduced in the 1800s. The apple, not good for baking, is described by the association as "a strikingly beautiful heirloom, with a light green base overlaid with red striping." It has a crisp texture and lemony taste. "The history of St. Lawrence is unclear. Being an early-season apple, this variety is best eaten soon after harvest and is not a good candidate for storage," the association's website says.

Mr. Carr wrote back to the expert and told him he was interested in starting an orchard. He was advised to stick to the "known varieties."

"He wished me luck and said maybe I could do something," Mr. Carr said.

He was further encouraged after he contacted New York State agriculture officials and received some background on apples being grown in the Plattsburgh area.

According to the New York State Apple Association, there are more than 50,000 apple-growing acres in six regions of the state: the Champlain Valley, Eastern Hudson Valley, Western Hudson Valley, Central N.Y., Lake Country and the Niagara Frontier. With more than 11 million apple trees, New York is the second-largest apple producing state in the country.

"So I prepared my land for planting apple trees and a year later bought my apples trees from a downstate nursery," Mr. Carr said.

That nursery, Wafler, in Wolcott, Wayne County, has been a family business for nearly 60 years.

"So I planted 500 trees," Mr. Carr said. "And the rest is history."

He began selling apples about four years after the trees took root. The first bountiful year of production was in 1985 and the business eventually developed into a U-pick operation, with St. Lawrence, Honey Crisp, McIntosh, Cortland and Liberty varieties among the picks. At one time, Brookdale Orchard had 1,000 trees. According to Times files, in 1985 the orchard produced nearly 700 bushels of fruit. The headline on that report stated, "Apple Grower Shows Doubters."

"We also went into the cider business," Mr. Carr said. "We made cider for six years. The state made it difficult when you had to pasteurize your cider to sell it at stores and that. They found a bottle of cider at a store near here, in town that wasn't pasteurized. They came on to me like gang busters."

In January of 2007, a state law went into effect that called for mandatory pasteurization or ultraviolet treatment of all apple cider produced in New York.

"I'm not saying pasteurization is bad," Mr. Carr said. "A lot of little producers were put out by that pasteurization."

A commitment honored

Among well-wishers for the Carrs in recent weeks has been State Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, who represents the 47th District.

"Joseph and Margaret were looking forward to another successful season," Sen. Griffo said in a news release following a visit to the orchard. "Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans. I appreciate their commitment to agriculture, Joseph's service to our nation and the family's long and successful history as a small business owner in St. Lawrence County."

Mr. Carr said that when he decided to quit the orchard, he couldn't leave the trees in the ground.

"They would have been a mess within two years," he said.

With the help of neighbor Dale Thompson, the trees were chopped and burned, a task they finished on Oct. 12.

The Carrs are the parents of fraternal twins Lynn and Ed Carr and have dozens of grandchildren, including Allison M. McGahay, a Lake Placid-based lawyer who specializes in several areas, including real estate. The Carrs raised Mrs. McGahay since she was a little girl.

Mr. Carr said he will be turning the property over to Mrs. McGahay, as the executor of the estate. He's not sure what will become of it, but has doubts it will contain an orchard.

"We don't think it'd be fruitful to even try to do that," Mr. Carr said. "It's a very limited market if you were ever going to try to sell it as an orchard."

But Mrs. McGahay, who grew up on the orchard and worked it every season including pruning this past May, added, "I would never say never about the land becoming a future orchard. It is a possibility and it would be much easier this time around."

The Carrs said what they will miss most in running the orchard is seeing the children rush out of cars and to the trees.

"It was just their excitement and being out there and their reluctance to leave," Mrs. Carr said. "We were so busy, with so many people out there. I wish I could speak to each one of them."

Many patrons, Mrs. Carr said, are having a hard time believing the orchard is finished.

"We received many phone calls this summer and fall," Mrs. Carr said. "I've thanked each of them and some of them couldn't believe it. They said they weren't going to come out here and drive by because they could not believe that the orchard where they came as children and came to bring their children and they were bringing their grandchildren here — the thought of it not being here anymore was very hurtful for them."

Mrs. Carr, who worked several years as a psychologist at Massena Central School, added, "It's been a good time."

a life of adventures

The apple orchard was just one adventurous enterprise undertaken by Mr. Carr, a native of Turin, Lewis County. He was the valedictorian of the Class of 1943 at Turin High School.

"My wife told me not to tell you how small my class was," Mr. Carr said. "But do you wanna know? Take a guess!"

The answer: three.

"I usually don't tell people that," Mr. Carr said. "But I would have been the valedictorian anyway, if there had been 50 in there."

A conversation with Mr. Carr is sprinkled with his phrase, "Do you want to hear a story about that?" More than a dozen minutes into an interview for this story, he shared a couple of yarns before finally saying, "OK — now let's go into our interview."

After graduating from Turin High School, Mr. Carr joined the Navy in 1943, a few days after his 18th birthday. He had basic training at Bainbridge Naval Base at Port Deposit, Md. He was assigned as an electrician aboard at barge in Panama Bay. He was discharged in January of 1946.

In the spring of 1946, he and a friend drove to Alaska via the Alcan (Alaska-Canadian) Highway, which opened in 1942.

"I wanted to see what it was like up there," Mr. Carr said. He found work at Ladd Army Airfield in Fairbanks as an electrician. And yes, he has stories about the trip, ranging from a borrowed barge to get his vehicle across a lake, a drunk who bummed a ride back to Milwaukee, to when he thought his car was stolen. But it was only raced to a local fire station in White Horse in Canada's Yukon territory from a hotel parking lot because its front seat caught fire.

He returned from Alaska in the fall of 1946 and a year later, he became a New York state trooper, assigned to Troop B.

"I got married one day in 1951 and 10 days later, I took off for El Paso, Texas," he said.

He had planned to become a Border Patrol officer, but his wife was battling an illness at the time back home and Mr. Carr was on his way to being assigned to Brownsville, Texas. He resigned from the Border Patrol.

"I couldn't leave her, abandon her or whatever you want to call it," Mr. Carr said. "Plus, I didn't like it down there anyway."

He returned to his job as a state trooper, where in total, he served for four years.

He worked at Alcoa for a few years in its "cost/time" accounting department. He quit that job in 1958 he said to focus on his vending business which he began in 1953 — the year he purchased his first jukebox.

"A friend of Margie's (her sister's husband) brought my first one up in back of his Cadillac," he said.

Mr. Carr said he was 62 when he gave operation of the vending company, Carr Vending, to his son.

At one time, Mar Carr said, his vending machine business was very lucrative. "The bread and butter was the jukeboxes," he said.

He recalled a particular jukebox at a Massena diner that was popular during the construction of the Seaway. He split its proceeds, in quarters — $300 — with the diner's owner every two weeks.

"You can imagine what that looked like at the time, when men were working for $50 a week," Mr. Carr said.

Mrs. Carr also has a few stories, including sharing how she met her husband.

"My aunt, who lived in Massena, had come to our home," she said. "We lived part way between Potsdam and Massena — my sister and I with my mother."

One day, while her aunt was backing out of their driveway after visiting, she collided with another vehicle. The State Police were summoned and Mr. Carr, a trooper at the time, responded.

"My mother really liked him," Mrs. Carr said. "She told him that she had two daughters. I think she was trying to unload us. I was 21 at the time, a senior in college."

She and "Joe" went out a couple of times.

"I really didn't like him very well," she said. "I thought he was rather bossy and arrogant."

That fall, after graduating, she was teaching secondary English at the Canton School District. Joe called her one night while she was preparing report cards.

"He looked better than report cards," Mrs. Carr said. "So we went out, hit it off at the time and we were married five months later."

"We've been married going on 71 years," she said, and added with a laugh: "We still have an argument most days."

But not when it comes to their orchard.

"We hate to see it go. But everything is in its own time," she said.

Times archive librarian Kelly Burdick contributed to this report.

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