Modern Day Jeffersonians

From time to time, I will profile one person who embodies a uniquely Jeffersonian quality—someone with an inquisitive spirit, a Renaissance personality, or a willingness to question accepted truths. Or someone who works in an area that fascinated Jefferson—which doesn’t narrow things down very much. He loved books, wine, architecture, classical and folk music, walking, tinkering with inventions, wine, democracy, and tomatoes.  

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Our inaugural Modern Day Jeffersonian is an easy pick: Tom Burford, aka “Professor Apple.” Burford has spent parts of seven decades cultivating apples, researching their provenance, and searching for lost varieties.

“My family goes back here to 1715, and I say that on the sacred mountain,” he told me once.  He grew up at Tobacco Row Mountains near Poplar Forest.


I’ve had the chance to speak with Burford several times at the apple tastings he hosted for over two decades at Monticello (he was a key participant in the replanting of orchards that Jefferson once maintained. Even better, I downed a glass of cider with him at Albemarle CiderWorks,, where he has consulted over the years. Each time we spoke, Burford let me in on a few more of his pomological secrets.


 “The Great Depression was very hard on my family,” he told me. “At 17, I went to UVa.  My family hoped I wouldn’t study horticulture.  Instead I studied Philosophy, then returned to the mountain.  My family had been growing apples since 1715.  I had no choice.”

Since then, Burford hasn’t flagged in his quest to bring back the old flavors. Tasting an heirloom apple is a “mind-boggling experience for people who go to the supermarket and only see six varieties,” he said.  Forget about those large, pretty-looking Red Delicious apples coated in wax. Look for the smaller, misshapen fruits that our ancestors ate, he told me. And eat your chosen apple when it reaches its “zenith of its flavor” —just before it rots.

Years ago, Burford helped track down the lost Harrison apple, known for its “sprightly” dryness. His workhorse apple has always been Albemarle Pippin, the sweetly tart mainstay of the orchards of both the Jeffersons and Burfords. He also loves the complex Esposus Spitzenburg, Jefferson’s favorite dessert apple.

And, like his father before him, he has been on a never-ending quest for Jefferson’s favorite cider apple, the Taliaferro, which Jefferson thought tasted like “silky Champagne.” Every now and then he’ll get a lead on a candidate, some scrawny tree in a forgotten orchard, and he’ll go to check it out. Even at the age of 79, when I last spoke with him a few years ago, he was still receiving calls to investigate a Taliaferro pretender. (The mystery of this lost apple might finally be solved:’s-mystery-apple).

Like Jefferson, Tom Burford’s inquisitive spirit has never flagged on his scientific quest for the sublime. “My favorite apple is the last one I ate,” he told me. And for that, Mr. Burford, you receive this first recognition of a Modern Day Jeffersonian. Perhaps in your honor, as well as that of the man who inspired it, we should call it a Tommy.

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Do you know a modern day Jeffersonian?  Are you one? 

Drop me a line. You might just find your nominee featured on my website and Facebook page.

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