This year, I've decided to sell two kinds of Red Delicious at our farmers market and I thought it a good opportunity to talk apple variety "strains" and to talk about the fascinating history of the apple they called "Delicious" - its rise to fame and its fall from favor. Most of the following is an oral history - I don't remember where I learned some of these details. The minutiae comes from wikipedia because I'm a farmer, not a journalist and I'm not willing to reference everything.
Up until the turn of the century, the Ben Davis apple was the national sensation - the most popular, most planted apple variety in the United States. What I was told about the Delicious apple is slightly different than what I'm reading in this the little wikipedia refresher linked above, so I'll tell you what I was told and you can put as much faith in it as you'd like. I was told there was contest for the best apple variety in the United States to coincide with the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. The winner was this sweet mottled apple called "Hawkeye" brought from Iowa by an older fellow named Jesse Hiatt (thanks, wikipedia). I was told Mr. Hiatt couldn't be located when the time came for him to claim his prize. With their eyes on this great new variety, Stark Brothers Nursery (still around today) held their own contest, hoping this "Hawkeye" would be submitted again. It was, they made Mr. Hiatt a great offer and began propogating and selling "Stark's Delicious" shortly after. Again, this is the version I was told. Starks claims on their website to have been selling Stark's Red Delicious since 1893, so take my version for what its worth.
The name of the apple was never intended to be "Red Delicious", you see. The name began merely as "Delicious" and has only more recently been called Red Delicious after the folks who discovered a "delicious" yellow fleshed apple growing wild in West Virginia decided to piggyback off of the success of "Delicious" by naming their fruit "Gold Delicious", necessitating the Starks variety and all future sports be called "Red Delicious" to avoid confusion. The perfectly red, perfectly conical fruits with the accentuated calex "bumps" is the result of years of selective breeding. You'll find the "Stark's Delicious" apple to be very tasty but not visually appealing fruit. Orchardists and plant breeders have selected for and taken cuttings from naturally occuring mutants or "sports" (also "strains") of this variety as long as the original has been around. Marketers discovered that consumers at that time were looking for dark colorand shape uniformity (which also packed better to ship). So these qualities were most preferred by breeders as they sought (like everyone else) to find a better Red Delicious. The rest of the story, you likely know already as a big apple fan, reading this blog. Color and shape were chosen ahead of flavor in development of new apple varieties. When customers proved that they would eat a mottled, bi-color apple if it tasted terrific (see 'Gala', 'Fuji', more recently 'Honeycrisp'), the Red Delicious have began a 'Ben Davis'-like slide down the fresh apple pecking order. For now, we still have a few "Stark's Delicious" trees in the ground. This is your chance to experience where this variety began before we remove these trees, never to be heard from again!
[update 9/10/14: We no longer grow "Hawkeye", for one. For second, this piece in The Atlantic relates a more complete version of the history Red Delicious despite their incorrect assertion that it's the most widely grown apple in the US. According to a recent report by US Apple, Gold Delicious is the most widely grown variety. I got no beef with Golds - they're pretty stellar, actually]