13 Apr

Remembering Tom Burford

By Ted Delaney

 

“My favorite apple was the last one I ate.”  — Tom Burford

 

Many longtime friends of Old City Cemetery were saddened to hear the news that Tom Burford passed away at English Meadows in Bedford, Virginia, on March 29, 2020, at age 84.

Tom—also known as “Professor Apple” or “Mr. Apple”—was legendary.  He was one of the most recognized heirloom apple experts in the world.  Tom traveled extensively throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia, consulting about apple culture, designing orchards, and lecturing on the history of our national fruit.  He gave programs and apple tastings at Monticello, Mt. Vernon, Old Sturbridge Village, and many other historic sites up and down the East Coast. Besides being a published author himself, Tom was frequently featured or quoted in national media, including the Washington Post, New York Times, Southern Living, and The Victory Garden.  As famous as Tom was, though, he never lost touch with his rural Amherst County roots, and he always remained down-to-earth and personable.

Tom was a gifted writer, storyteller, and public speaker.  He had a genteel, affable manner that could charm anyone. His encyclopedic memory for obscure apple varieties and trivia was equally matched by a knack for entertaining any audience with humor and wit.  A food columnist once wrote, “You can always depend on Tom for an eminently quotable zinger.”

The stars aligned when Tom Burford and Jane White crossed paths in the late 1990’s.  For over a decade Tom was closely associated with the Cemetery and was instrumental in its horticultural renaissance under Jane’s leadership.  Tom served on the Cemetery’s “Community Board of Advisors” from 1999 to 2005, and then on the reorganized Southern Memorial Association (SMA) Board of Directors from 2005 to 2011.

Tom advised Jane on many things, perhaps most notably the apple varieties in the Duval Holt Orchard and the other fruit trees planted on the hillside between the Station House and Comfort House.  The Holt Orchard is nearly 25 years old now, and each tree bears bushels of delicious fruit every fall (admittedly only enjoyed by squirrels, deer, and birds). Over the years Tom led numerous apple tastings and fruit tree grafting programs for the Cemetery, always drawing sell-out crowds.

When the Cemetery Center was expanded in 2003, Tom donated a large collection of his own books to form the nucleus of a horticultural research library.  Although the “Tom Burford Horticulture Library” was later absorbed into the Edith Lee Reading Room, his collection remains intact in the new space.

Tom’s expertise also intersected perfectly with Cemetery projects in the two well-known cookbooks published by the SMA: Food to Die For and Food to Live For (2004 and 2013).  In Food to Die For Tom contributed his recipe for “Lazarus Applejack.”  Author Jessica Ward was able to add a “bonus Apple Chapter” to Food to Live For thanks to Tom, which included his recipe for Apple Toddy and other interesting anecdotes.

Tom Burford has two planted memorials at Old City Cemetery.  When his final board term ended in 2011, SMA planted a rare ‘Harrison’ apple tree near the Holt Orchard in his honor.  When we asked Tom which variety we should plant, he immediately recommended ‘Harrison,’ which he joked should be inscribed on his tombstone in the fashion of “Mr. Jefferson.”  Tom was especially proud of rescuing the rare cider apple from extinction in the 1980’s and returning it to commerce and popularity among cider makers. When Tom discovered ‘Harrison,’ there was a single, dying tree on an old estate near Paramus, New Jersey.  He took a small segment of the old tree and budded six new trees. Those six turned into thousands, which he personally sent to cideries and orchards in Virginia, New England, the West Coast, France, Germany, and northern Italy.

The second memorial is one of the enormous Japanese Flowering Crabapple trees beside the Comfort House.  In 2016 the Tree Stewards of Greater Lynchburg adopted the 20 year-old tree in honor of Tom and his immense contributions to arboriculture in the Lynchburg area.

Here is a final thought from Tom himself, which seems especially appropriate today:

“If you have a bad day and you’re all stressed out, don’t pop pills. Take an apple. Go to a very quiet place and slowly slice that apple. Peel it, smell it. Lick the slice. Let the juices run. Taste it. And when you’ve finished eating that apple, much of your stress will be gone.” – Tom Burford, quoted by Matthew Zuras in 2014

 

For further reading:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/tom-burford-champion-of-the-heirloom-apple-dies-at-84/2020/04/03/99c7f116-75b2-11ea-87da-77a8136c1a6d_story.html

https://www.newsadvance.com/obituaries/burford-thomas-nelson/article_d54dd105-cf8f-556e-b92a-e1fed58ae817.html

https://www.cvilletomorrow.org/articles/tom-burford-a-father-of-virginia-cider-movement

https://www.vice.com/en_us/topic/tom-burford

https://www.newsadvance.com/news/local/apple-advocate-lynchburg-resident-sinks-teeth-into-fruit-s-history/article_872f23fa-45c8-5e01-a9e0-7d0db8cddf43.html

Apple tasting in the Confederate Section, November 4, 2001 (photo by Heather Olson)

 

Meeting of the Cemetery’s Community Board of Advisors, January 15, 2002

 

“Tom Burford Horticulture Library” in the Cemetery Center, 2003

 

Apple tree grafting workshop in the Cemetery Center, March 2, 2004

 

Tom Burford dressed as local undertaker George A. Diuguid, with Spence White as his son William D. Diuguid, in OCC’s Bicentennial Funeral Parade, October 29, 2006 (photo by Dolly Pugh)

 

Fruit tree pruning workshop at the Cemetery, January 27, 2007

 

Tom Burford, Jane B. White, and Peter Hatch at the Cemetery during a visit from Monticello’s Historic Landscape Institute, June 15, 2007

 

Tom Burford with Bill and Bonnie Morton at the Cemetery’s annual volunteer reception, December 16, 2007

 

Apple and cheese pairing in the Cemetery Center, October 19, 2008

 

Outgoing SMA board members Tom Burford, Cham Light, Nancy Marion, Margi Vaughan, and Rusty Hicks, August 17, 2011

 

Book signing for Apples of North America in the Edith Lee Reading Room, November 13, 2013

 

Book signing for Apples of North America in the Edith Lee Reading Room, November 13, 2013

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