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PROFILE: A true Rome beauty

PROCTORVILLE — They were “democrats” that did good. That’s what Joel Gillett called those six seedlings he found among his 200 grafted apple trees.

He gave them to his son Alanson Gillett saying, “Here I will give you these little democrats. Set them out.”

At least that’s the tale. Whether true or not Alanson did what he was told and planted the castoffs, probably not imagining much if anything would happened.

“He planted them, but it was Joel’s brother’s son, Horatio Nelson Gillett, who saw the apples and thought this looks like a good thing,” according to Dan Rapp.

That was the beginning of the Rome Beauty apple that is still produced today.

Rapp, a descendant of the Gillett’s through his mother’s side, has researched the story of the Rome Beauty apple, putting some of his findings into the genealogy department at the Briggs Library.

The trees that Joel put out had come from the Rufus Putnam nursery at Marietta, where the Gillett clan had lived for a while before settling in Rome Township.

Joel, his brothers, and their families hailed from Milford, Conn., then moved to the Finger Lakes in New York before heading south to warmer climes.

“They came down on the Allegheny River on a raft,” Rapp said.

But when they discovered Lawrence County, Ohio, the intrepid farmers decided this was home.

Some of the Gillett family homes were along the Ohio River, near where Fairland East Elementary School, is today. That’s the site of the first small orchard of Rome Beauty apples that was planted and tended by Horatio Nelson, the entrepreneur of the family.

“Joel Gillett, one of our pioneer farmers, landed in Quaker Bottom, near where L.D. Morrison, now lives, bringing with him 200 grafted apple trees bought of Mr. Putnam near Marietta,” according to a letter from the grandson of Alanson’s sister, that appeared in the Ironton Register’s agricultural column in 1887.

“On or about the 8th of May 1817 he set out the apple trees and while preparing them for setting he found some sprouts out from the roots which he cut or sawed off, so as not to injure the roots of the good trees.

“Alanson set them on the upper side of where the grafted trees had been set,” the article continues. “These sprouts grew very rapidly and the third year they had apples and one proved to be so choice that Capt H.N (Horatio Nelson) Gillett cut some scions from this tree and grafted and also named the first Rome Beauty or Gillett’s Seedling. This was in the year 1821 or 1822. The name Gillett’s Seedling, as Gillett brought the trees to our bottom and Rome for our township. The name was a new one, the old township name being Center.”

It was an irony that those seedlings turned out at all, because, according to Rapp, such plants often produce an inferior apple.

“It takes three to five years for apple trees to start producing,” Rapp said. “The first fruit (from those seedlings) were bright red and uniformly round apples. They weren’t the best eating apples, but they were real good for making pies and excellent for storage.”

In 10 years H.N. Gillett had a small orchard that was producing the apples that could be easily shipped as far as New York or New Orleans and remain fresh.

“He did that and he kept doing that and a good friend named Thomas Gardiner, saw how well he was doing and decided it was a good cash crop,” Rapp said. “After this fruit started working out for him, he became a wealthy man. It was hard work.”

Over the next generations, others in the family maintained or expanded the apple business, including U.T. Cox who delved into the use of fungicides. That led to Ironton becoming for several decades one of the state’s largest apple producers.

“(His work with the fungicides) led to wealthy people in Ironton buying land and having apple plantations,” Rapp said.