Antique Water-Powered Equipment Keeps New York Cider Mill Going

1870s Lesner water turbine waterwheel powers century-old equipment at Fly Creek Cider Mill & Orchard

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The Fly Creek Cider Mill & Orchard, near Cooperstown, N.Y., puts vintage equipment to work, including nearly 100-year-old pieces.

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At the Fly Creek Cider Mill & Orchard, near Cooperstown, N.Y., vintage equipment is put to work.

Each year, more than 20,000 gallons of cider are pressed there, using century-old equipment.

“There are easier ways to make cider than with this old equipment,” says Bill Michaels, who owns the mill with his wife, Brenda. “But then we’d lose our uniqueness.”

Fly Creek, notable for its extremely fast flow, has generated power for mills for more than 150 years. A cider press was first operated at what is now known as the Fly Creek Cider Mill in 1856. Equipment used there today was manufactured just 20 years later, in the mid-1870s.

1870s Lesner water turbine provides power

The mill’s power source is a belt-driven Lesner water turbine waterwheel manufactured by Wm. B. Wemple & Sons in Fultonville, N.Y., in the early 1870s. It is typical of waterwheels used in that era in mills and canal locks throughout central New York.

Prior to 1948, Fly Creek’s Lesner is thought to have been used by the Aqueduct Assn. (later known as the Cooperstown Water Co. Waterworks). It also once powered an extensive woodworking operation, including a wood lathe, planer and jigsaw. Barrel bungs were turned on the wood lathe, and lumber was finished on a planer 3 feet wide. (Even the sawdust was used: In the early days it was used to insulate ice harvested from the mill pond in the winter.) Comprehensive restorations of the turbine were conducted in 1969 and 1991.

The turbine, located 12 feet beneath the center of the mill, is activated by water piped in from the mill pond to a holding tank. As water drops from the tank into the turbine, the turbine begins to spin, setting the cider press’s pump in motion via belt drives. The pump generates up to 2,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, a fairly genteel pace in comparison to modern equipment. Still, the system has its merits.

“One of the unique things about this is that it is both water powered and water hydraulic,” Bill says.

Should the water level drop, the mill’s back-up power source kicks in – a 1924 25 hp Waterloo Boy Type T gas engine.

Pressed into service: Boomer & Boschert cider press

The mill’s Boomer & Boschert cider press, which dates to 1889, is housed on the second floor. Whole, washed apples are run up an elevator to the second floor, dropped through a grinder and processed.

That mixture (referred to as “pomace”) is poured into wooden tubs. Each tub holds four bushels (or about 250 pounds) of chopped apples. The filled tubs then move to the press on a rotating turntable.

The pomace is dumped into a rack assembly called a “cheese” by using a hand crane. A full, 8-layer cheese generates as much as 100 gallons of cider. The press applies 2,000 pounds of direct pressure on the layers, with sheets of nylon acting as filters. In about 20 minutes, fresh cider flows into a cold storage bulk tank.

Cider mill offers more

The Fly Creek Cider Mill is a diverse operation. In addition to apples and cider, home-aged cheddar cheese, snacks and gifts (the gift shop is located in a room that once housed a gristmill), the mill also features a variety of mechanical antiques. A gauge from the mill’s original Boomer & Boschert press is on display, as are seven single-cylinder stationary engines. Four antique hand-operated cider presses have also been preserved and put on display.

Other pieces of vintage equipment, however, are far from retirement. Two antique Deere tractors – a 1940 AW and a 1939 H – are used on a daily basis. Other displays include a collection of antique apple parers, 50 ducks and geese, more than two dozen exotic chickens, and a variety of novelties.

Mill revitalized in 1960s

Bill’s parents, Charles and Barbara Michaels, purchased the mill in 1962. Bill considers them to be the cider mill’s founders.

“The mill hadn’t been run for 20 years when my folks bought it,” Bill said.

The building housing the press was constructed in 1856. When the Michaels purchased the operation, they opted for restoration rather than modernization. In the process, they created a local attraction and tradition. Today, free tours allow visitors an up-close look at cider pressing.

“Most of our customers come from urban areas,” Bill said. “We’re trying to give them a taste of the farm. People come here and watch this museum work in its natural state.” FC

For more information: The Fly Creek Cider Mill & Orchard, 288 Goose St., Fly Creek, NY 13337; (607) 547-9692; www.flycreekcidermill.com. Group tours available by appointment; open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily from mid-June through December. An antique tractor show is held annually in September, and an antique engine show is held annually in August.