I was looking at the different types of apples at the farmers market the other day and I came across the Newtown Pippin, named, it’s said, for the fact that it originated and was grown along the banks of the Newtown Creek. The Newtown Creek! The vilest waterway this side of the Ganges. Now granted, I’m a sucker for that kind of provenance, but I mean, as long as it tastes like an apple wouldn’t you rather have an apple with a story than just an apple? (Incidentally the apple didn’t taste so good, ha!) By the way, don’t you love it how “elite” people like to call the farmers market elitist? As if buying food at a market from (somewhat) local farmers instead of at a giant corporate supermarket stocked with food from industrial farms – in which these “elite” people undoubtedly have some interest – represents the perversion from tradition and not the other way around? What I’m trying to say is: apples once grew along the Newtown Creek!
The first settlement in the Newtown area by the way (and apparently the first European settlement in Queens at all) was called Maspeth (or Maspat, or Mespat) and was actually settled by the English, though with a grant from the director-general of New Amsterdam Willem Kieft. The grant was issued in 1642 to the English minister Francis Doughty, and at 6,666 (Dutch) acres it included almost all of what today makes up western Queens. Doughty had recently been removed from his pastorate in Massachusetts for his radically liberal ideas (namely involving baptism – the hippie bastard) and was looking for a place where he could preach in freedom. Kieft was looking for settlers – any settlers, even English ones – to help open up Long Island, and so a deal was made. It didn’t last too long though. In 1643, just as the initial settlement of Maspeth had been established, an attack by Indians leveled the place (the hippie bastards). Doughty and his crew returned to New Amsterdam, though apparently he re-settled in Queens sometime later with a bit more success, before leaving the region for good in 1655 (as well as leaving a whole boat-load of tangents that we’ll have to return to some day).
By the time Doughty left New Amsterdam another attempt had been made to settle the land he’d been formerly granted, again by a group of English New Englanders. In 1652 they established “New Town” (as opposed to the “old town” of Maspeth) around the present-day intersection of Queens Boulevard and Broadway – though just to confuse things the Dutch referred to the same settlement as Middleburgh, and the English may have also officially referred to it as Hastings at some point. No matter; in 1661 Captain Samuel Moore built a house on the 80 acres he’d been granted in the area, supposedly in recognition of his father (Reverend John Moore’s) efforts in arranging the purchase of the entire Newtown land from the local Indians. Although again, another account says that Newtown was formally purchased by Governor Richard Nicolls in 1666 (after the English had won control over all of the New Netherlands), and that account even mentions the 3 Indians it was purchased from by name, so ya gotta think it might be truer (those names were Rocero, Westcoe and Pomwamken by the way). It was Samuel Moore’s brother Gershom Moore who was running the estate in the late 1600s or early 1700s when the Newtown Pippin apple was discovered on it (unless he was dead already – whatever, it was a long time ago and no body can really tell).
I say discovered by the way because the Newtown Pippin is an heirloom apple – a chance seedling, or “pippin” – that grew from an apple seed somewhere in the swampy land near Newtown Creek. I won’t go in to all the details about apple genetics because I don’t really understand them but suffice to say it’s pretty cool: the Newtown Pippin was a wild apple, not one bred by man. People ate it and thought it tasted pretty good and so they took cuttings from the tree to propagate the apple elsewhere (and please, if there’s any sciency-type people reading this, tell me what I’m getting wrong). The original tree died around 1805 at over 100 years of age, suffering from “excessive cutting and exhaustion,” but by then the Newtown’s fame had been assured. It was especially popular in the Piedmont region of Virginia, where it was also known as the Ablemarle Pippin, and was both praised and grown by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (or you know, probably praised by them and grown by their slaves, but whatever).
Reverend John Moore, the originally founder of the whole Moore Newtown dynasty, was the great-great-great-grandfather of Clement Clarke Moore, the poet and theologian best known for writing “The Night Before Christmas” (originally published as “A Visit from St. Nicholas”). Though born in New York City, in 1779, Clement spent much of his youth at the family estate in Newtown, and today the approximate site of the Moore family’s manor home is a park known as the Clement Clarke Moore Homestead (at 45th Ave. & Broadway). Suffice to say the neighborhood looks a little different now than it used to. Newtown Creek, named as you might imagine after the settlement of Newtown, looked a little different also – shallower and wider (wide enough to hold small islands apparently), with swamplands along its borders. It still probably wasn’t a body of water you would have wanted to go swimming in, but for different, not quite as toxic, reasons. Clement Clarke Moore might have witnessed some of the changes in his lifetime, as industry moved into the area and started using the creek as its dumping ground, though his death in 1863 meant that he missed the worst of it. By the 1890s is was so bad that when real estate magnate Cord Meyer Jr. developed property in Newtown he successfully pushed the U.S. Postmaster General to have its name changed to Elmhurst, to avoid the smelly connotations. Now that’s what you call an elitist.