We've got a secret to share: Old Orchard Road and the area surrounding it was once overgrown with orchards.
Perhaps that goes without saying, but what many might not realize is the extent to which Vincennes was once a fruit-producing paradise.
According to historian George E. Greene's "History of Old Vincennes and Knox County,” the lush and fruity landscape was the talk of practically every visitor who traveled through town during its first hundred years or so.
One of those visitors, Count Volney, identified by Greene as a “distinguished French traveler,” stayed in Vincennes for a few days in 1796. In his accounts of his travels, Count Volney refers to the town as a garden spot that reminded him of the vine-clad provinces of France.
“He says the village on all sides was surrounded by the most luxurious vineyards from which abundance of the purest wines were made by the villagers, and that the prairies adjoining the village were covered with the finest fruit he ever saw,” Greene wrote in his book, which was published in 1911. “This condition as to the fruit orchards continued in the lower prairies until within the memory of men still living.”
The land around Old Orchard Road, in the area known as Burnet Heights, was once owned and farmed by Henry Vanderburgh, the first judge of the Indiana Territory and for whom Vanderburgh County is named. His home there, Bellevue, was described by Greene as a “beautiful country villa.”
The land eventually was bought by Stephen Burnett, spelled with two t's. According to a history of Burnet Heights written by famed local lawyer Samuel B. Judah in 1916, Burnett purchased about 300 acres in 1853 and started cultivating orchards there.
By that point, orchards were a big business here in Indiana's first city.
“He supplied trees for people in the 1850s and '60s. The latest fad was having hedge apples around your garden,” local historian Richard Day said. “So he was responsible for providing the hedge apple bushes, which have to be trimmed back or they get out of control and turn into hedge apple trees that bombard people with hedge apples.”
Burnett supplied other fruit trees and bushes from his nursery. According to Judah's history, he planted a large orchard of apple trees on the east side of his property, which contained “many large trees with fine fruit.”
Old Orchard Road, Judah wrote, took its name from that particular orchard.
At the rear of that apple orchard was a large peach orchard as well, Judah wrote. Burnett also had large plantations of young fruit trees and acres of strawberries and raspberries.
“The grounds were kept in fine order and well fenced,” Judah wrote.
The illustrated 1880 Knox County Atlas also lists Burnett as an active fruit grower and dealer in fruit and ornamental trees.
Apparently, according to the atlas, Burnett also kept “constantly on hand pure grape wine, for communion and medicinal purposes,” and made pure apple and wine vinegar as well.
Burnett died in 1885, according to Judah, and in 1911, Old Orchard Road was opened up and improved.
But by the time Greene penned his own history the vineyards and orchards on the outer edges of Vincennes had disappeared.
They were replaced, he wrote, by wheat and corn fields.