Almost as well known as the Mabel Sprague House, located at 216 Morgan Avenue in Johnston, Rhode Island, is a beautiful old tree on the property, known as a ‘wealthy apple tree.’ Anthony Ricci, owner of the house now known as the Andrew Harris House (the name shown on its plaque), recently hosted an event on the property to try to ensure a future for this tree. The event, held on May 6, was sponsored by the Neutaconkanut Hill Conservancy, Inc. [NHC], the Providence Parks Department, The Rhode Island Tree Council, and the Blackstone Heritage Corridor.
The tree, dating back to at least 1880 (it appears in a photo dated that year), has been hallowed out over the years, causing concern for its future. According to Ricci, an NHC board member, the tree is self-pollinating and insect resistant, which may have contributed to its longevity. The groups held an apple grafting workshop during which 30 grafts were created.
“It doesn’t have too many years left,” said Ricci of the tree. Ricci spent several years renovating the house, built in 1768, and has been preserving the surrounding grounds, which include a two-seater outhouse, a barn and a blacksmith shop.
The “Special Walk & Talk” event also featured a talk by John Campanini of the R.I. Tree Council, who described “the perils of heirloom apple trees and efforts to perpetuate their diversity and bounty.” A guided walk to Hipses Rock (an original boundary point of lands given to Roger Williams) and a historical cemetery, also located on the grounds, was offered to participants,
as well as a tour of the recently renovated blacksmith shop.
Despite its age and condition, the apple tree continues to produce fruit every two years, and members of the Johnston Historical Society have made pies from the tree’s apples in past years. The apples themselves are said to taste tart, when uncooked.
The home’s prior owner, Mabel Atwood Sprague who was born in 1913 and last of the Harris and Atwood families, was a longtime member of the Johnston Historical Society before her death in November of 2006. She had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Johnston and the surrounding area.
And if one special tree wasn’t enough, a white mulberry tree on the property was also named to the 2017 Rhode Island Champion Tree list by the Rhode Island Tree Council.
[with photos by Beth Hurd]