If you’ve ever been to Himachal Pradesh, you must have had those juicy apples that are available in abundance all over the state in most times of the year. But do you know how organised apple cultivation was first started in Himachal? It was an American gentleman named Samuel Stokes who first introduced apple cultivation to the state.
Samuel Stokes was the son of a wealthy American businessman who was the founder of a leading elevator manufacturer–-the Stokes and Parish Machines Company in the United States. However, Young Samuel, instead of joining his father in their family business, turned towards helping the less fortunate in India.
Stokes arrived in India in 1904, as part of the Christian Quaker religious movement in order to fulfill his spiritual quest as a Christian missionary. He started his journey by nursing leprosy sufferers at the Sabathu Leper Home in the Solan district of Himachal. However, he soon realised that his alien white appearance was a deterrent to earning the trust of the locals. So he learnt the Pahadi dialect and started dressing up in traditional clothes.
Even though Stokes eventually moved away from his rehabilitation work, his love for the hills made him stay on in the country. After his father’s death in 1911, he returned to India, decided to leave the Quaker’s brotherhood and married a local Christian girl named Agnes.
It was then that he bought the tea estate land of Emma Matilda Bates, widow of an English forest officer and put his heart and soul into farming. He tried to enrich the farmland he has purchased by accessing scholarly resources unknown to the other villagers in this endeavour. He identified a new strain of apples developed by the Stark brothers of Louisiana, United States as being suitable to the Simla Hills and began cultivating them on his farm (Harmony Hall) in 1916. The resulting bumper crops, coupled with Samuel’s access to the white people who ran the export business in Delhi encouraged the other farmers to do as Samuel was doing. He helped them wholeheartedly in every way that he could.
By 1928, the apples from Harmony Hall had taken over the Himachal valleys, officially making Himachal the ‘Apple State of India’ owing to Stokes’ tremendous efforts. Stokes also set up a training school on his grounds to groom future horticulturists.
Apple cultivation was certainly not new to the Indian subcontinent. In fact, it originated in Central Asia more than 4000 years ago, in the area encompassing present-day Kazakhstan, Kyrgyztan, China, and Kashmir.
Stokes also left his mark on the freedom movement in the late 1920s, campaigning against begar, an unfair practice giving governing jagirdars free rein to exploit the locals for free labour in the Kumaon region. He also played an active role as a member of the Indian National Congress. He also signed the Congress manifesto calling upon Indians to give up government service and join the freedom movement, becoming the first and only American to do so. In 1932, he embraced Hinduism and changed his name to ‘Satyananda’. Inspired by the writings of Swami Dayananda Saraswati, founder of Arya Samaj, Stokes built a temple on his estate, known as the Paramjyoti temple.
When he died on 14 May, 1946, shortly before Indian Independence, he had emancipated the hills of Himachal from economic deprivation. The apple production in Himachal had touched 15000 boxes a year at that time and is today a flourishing international business worth crores, moving lakhs of tonnes of produce a year.
Stokes’ granddaughter tells his story in a book, An American in Gandhi’s India, which you can buy here.
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