Northern Spy

One of the most famous of all American apples, Northern Spy originated in East Bloomfield, NY, about 1800. A bronze plaque marks the site of the original tree of this former commercial giant, still a renowned Maine favorite. It is poorly colored in the shade and mostly covered with pink and light red stripes when grown in the sun.

An all-purpose variety, Northern Spy is well-balanced, crisp and juicy with the ideal apple taste.  The large fruit does everything well; it is good fresh eating, makes an excellent pie (be sure to cook it long enough), keeps extremely well in common storage (even if the tender skin bruises), and is popular amongst cider makers.  Every year we hear at least a few cooks declare that if the pie "wasn't made with Spy, it's not worth eating".

There has been much speculation as to the origin of the odd name.  In addition to Northern Spy there are now several apples with “spy” as part of the name, though the use of the word “spy” should not be confused with the use of other words that regularly show up in apple names such as “pearmain” or “pippin” or “russet”.  The use of the word spy in Red Spy, Spigold and Novaspy refer to Northern Spy parentage.  In the apple Prairie Spy, the use of “spy” refers to its resemblance to Northern Spy.  So where did the Northern Spy name originate?  Some years ago an article in the North American Fruit Explorers magazine, Pomona, attempted to sort out the name’s origin.  We reprint it here in part:

Naming the Northern Spy

By Conrad D. Gemmer

More than fifty years ago I found a short one-paragraph letter to the editor in an obscure gardening magazine dated about 1853, and paraphrased as follows:

                                                                                               Rochester, N.Y.

       To the Editor,

       In reply to Mrs. B who inquired about the naming of the Northern Spy apple, everybody around here knows that the Northern Spy apple was named for the “hero” of that notorious dime store novel The Northern Spy, but nobody will come out and admit it.

       Yours truly,


The book The Northern Spy was written anonymously, published sub-rosa, and circulated among radical hard-core abolitionists circa 1830.  The “Northern Spy” set up a series of safe houses from Virginia through Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York State for runaway slaves to escape to Canada.  He went south, presented himself as a slave catcher, and asked the plantation owners to permit him to talk with the slaves in order to find out how they escaped.  Instead, he told the slaves about his own escape route.  He advocated killing any Federal marshal who caught a runaway slave. He and his abolitionist friends lured slave catchers into an ambush, robbed and killed them. He, in turn, was killed in the first battle of the “War to Free the Slaves,” in Manassas, Virginia, of all places, but thirty years before the fact. I have never seen a copy of The Northern Spy.  All this information I have compiled over fifty years.  My grandmother, age twelve when Lincoln was shot, had an old paperback book, Civil War Anecdotes that we kids thumbed to death.  A southern contributor complained that TheNorthern Spy was a cause of the Civil War, as well as was Uncle Tom’s Cabin! It was a blueprint for the underground railroad, had a chilling effect on law enforcement and slave catchers, and encouraged the abolitionists, she said.

The Northern Spy apple originated on the farm of Herman Chapin, East Bloomfield, NY, near Rochester, from a seed planted about 1800.  The original Northern Spy waskilled by mice or rabbits before it bloomed.  A brother-in-law, Roswell Humphrey, on an adjoining farm, took up root sprouts and fruited it.  A seedling apple tree takes about 7 to 10 years to bloom.  With the setback and the slow-bearing habit of the Northern Spy apple, it probably did not bloom until about 1825.  By 1830 it was in production and named.  The Northern Spy apple was a local variety for 10 to 12 years so the name did not matter.  It got out about 1840 and first appeared in print in 1844 in the Magazine of Horticulture.  Thus they were stuck with the name.