This weekend is Apple Day in Paintsville, Kentucky. Officially, it’s the Kentucky Apple Festival, but everyone calls it Apple Day.
It’s basically a county fair. There’s a carnival and a parade and a lot of food, like apple pie, caramel apples and apple butter. There aren’t really a lot of orchards in Johnson County, but there are a few, and every year, the farmer with the best apples is proclaimed the Apple King.
When I was 8 years old, my Great Uncle Cecil was Apple King because of his Minerva apples.
Cecil was Granny’s brother. He and Aunt Minerva never had kids, but people adopted them as surrogate grandparents. They lived in a log house they built themselves on a small farm up a hollow near a place called Meally.
They bickered a lot. Minerva was a little hard of hearing, and Cecil sort of mumbled. He’d say something, she wouldn’t understand him, so he’d say it louder and louder until she understood or accused him of yelling at her, but they loved each other deeply.
Cecil was kind of a hacker in the DIY-sense of the word. He loved taking things apart and seeing how they worked and trying to make them do things they weren’t meant to do. He tinkered with old radios and model trains, and he tinkered with his apple trees.
I don’t know a lot about horticulture, but he would take stems from one kind of apple tree and graft them onto another one, and after many years, he came up with a hybrid he called the Minerva apple.
Minerva apples were yellow and big and perfect — crisp, not mushy, and a little more sweet than tart. When he finally entered the Minerva apple in the Apple Day contest, the other farmers didn’t have a chance.
I don’t remember the last time I had a Minerva apple. As he and Minerva got older, Cecil let his orchard go, and, one year, there simply weren’t any more.
Minerva passed away in 1995, and Cecil died in 1999. I went to see him a few months before he died. He was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and watching CNN on the little TV in the corner. We were making small talk, and I asked how he came up with the Minerva apple.
He grinned but wouldn’t tell me, because, really, those apples were always just Minerva’s apples.