I’m sorry to report that Chug Wilson passed away peacefully on Saturday. Chug and his wife Joyce started Wilson’s Orchard back in 1980 after retiring from his family’s sporting goods business.
I first met Chug in 2000. Coming from a commercial apple background, I was a bit taken aback by what I saw in his orchard. People were welcomed to use the orchard as their personal park, even driving their cars in and amongst the trees. Their slogan was “Take a Walk, Eat an Apple” which seemed to me to be a good way to lose a lot of fruit. But as I came to know Chug, Joyce and Wilson’s Orchard, it became evident that the business they created was fiercely popular with their customers, both because of the beautiful setting they had chosen and the fruit they grew.
He and Joyce started with the simple, but commonly overlooked notion that the apple varieties which they grew should be selected based on their flavor, not how they looked or shipped. With no experience in orcharding, Chug was not bound to apples which sold well or which his Dad had planted. Instead, he bought trees of all the interesting varieties he could find and planted them out in a test orchard.
Once those trees produced fruit, he and Joyce tasted each one and decided which to propagate for their larger orchard. As a result, Wilson’s Orchard is now populated with apple varieties which are unique in many ways but united by one key characteristic: great flavor.
Chug was a natural marketer. He delighted in telling customers his take on the various apples they grew, alongside tales of alligators in Rapid Creek and Robin Hood’s secret hideout. As apple season approached, he was a regular front page feature on the local newspaper with his photogenic straw hat and wide smile.
To know Chug was to hear many a story: of his early days in Iowa City, how Burgundy was a better apple than Jonathan, of the Dingleberry Brother’s still buried on the property. All delivered with a twinkle in his eye and a peppering of understated humor.