Decades ago, almost every Midwestern farm had an orchard, or at least a few apple trees. Today, most of those fruit trees have disappeared, but the tools used to preserve the apples have become collectibles.
Raymond and Vertie Carlson, Ottawa, Ill., have been collecting apple collectibles: peelers, apple corers and apple slicers for more than 20 years. They now have 54 different items.
"It's getting to the point now where you almost have to get them from other collectors," said Raymond. "It's hard to find something you don't already have."
Most apple collectibles and peelers are found in the Eastern U.S. because that is where they were manufactured, Raymond said. Some of his fellow collectors even use modern technology, going online to locate the old-fashioned collectibles. The Carlsons' interest in apple peelers dates to the time when a local organization decided to sponsor an old-time festival and asked Raymond and Vertie to cook apple butter. The Carlsons had an old kettle to cook the apples in, and they also had a special apple peeler. The kettle, more than 100 years old, once belonged to Vertie's grandmother. The peeler is not that old, but it came with a special story.
In 1973, the Carlsons had stopped at an antique store in Wisconsin, and Raymond asked the proprietor if she had any apple peelers in stock. Luckily, she had just bought one, and Raymond bought it from her. He soaked and scrubbed the peeler to get it in usable condition, and that's when he noticed a wire holding the peeler together.
That wire brought back an unhappy memory. When Raymond was a child, his parents had borrowed a neighbor's apple peeler. While carrying it, Raymond stumbled and fell, and it cracked. His Dad wired the peeler back together. It was later sold at an auction in 1928, but Raymond, now 82, is convinced he now owns that very peeler that had moved just "50 miles down the road" in the following years.
The Carlsons' first experience cooking apple butter, and talking to people about the old-fashioned task, was so successful that they continue to give demonstrations at about five folk and harvest festivals each year. They also give talks at nursing homes and schools.
In 1988, when they cooked apple butter at the Illinois State Fair, they had a distinguished audience: President and Mrs. Bush observed the process, and sampled the Carlsons' apple butter.
For hygiene reasons, the Carlsons don't give samples of the apple butter they cook on-site, but they do offer samples of their home-cooked apple butter.
"We probably run through about 50 bushels of apples a year," Raymond said. They usually make their apple butter without sugar.
The Carlsons cook Paula Reds, Macintosh and Jonathan apples.
"I like Old-Fashioned Duchess apples," Raymond said, "but we can't get them."
The apple peelers in their collection come in a variety of styles. Some operate like turntables; others like lathes.
"One has nine gears, and will pare pears, peaches and apples," Raymond said.
Raymond is especially proud that they own one of the two known slicers manufactured by the Butt Company, which also produces hinges. They found the rare piece at a Florida flea market.
"One click of the wrist, and it slices an apple in seven pieces," he said.
The Carlsons belong to the International Society for Apple Parer Enthusiasts, and they attend the group's conventions held every other year. "We have made close friends with people all over the country," Raymond said. In fact, a few "groupies" look them up every year at annual festivals.
But one of Raymond's favorite fans was a boy who looked at an 1865 apple peeler and asked, "Did you buy it brand new?" FC
For more information: Raymond and Vertie Carlson, 1202 W. Main Street, Ottawa, IL 61350.