Iowa man collects, restores antique cider presses
You might say that Joe Wurth was, uh, pressed into his first experience with a cider press. The Marcus, Iowa, man had never laid hands on a press (sometimes called a mill) until a friend asked him to help restore her family’s antique. That favor has since evolved into a full-fledged collection and hobby for Joe and his family.
It started simply enough. While building birdhouses for his young sons to place around the yard, Joe began to develop woodworking skills. Before long, he advanced to more complicated projects, things like picture frames and jewelry boxes.
Then a co-worker took notice and asked a favor. Her family had a long tradition of making cider every fall, but hadn’t made a batch for a few years, she said, because “a couple of boards” on their antique cider press needed to be replaced. “She knew I had just purchased a table saw,” Joe says, “and asked if I would consider cutting the boards needed to make the press functional again.”
Joe went to look at the cider press the following weekend. He expected to see an antique with a few rough edges. Instead, he found a basket case. “It was a pile of iron with the remains of two rotting legs,” Joe remembers. “My friend’s father looked at me with a smile and said, ‘Well, let’s get this stuff loaded up!’ Before I knew it, the iron parts were in the back of my pickup. As I headed back home, I wondered how it had all happened.”
Joe didn’t know it at the time, but that first press was a large one capable of producing 600 gallons of juice in a day. “It weighed close to 500 pounds,” he recalls. “It took four of us to load it in the pickup when it was all restored. That project was my baptism.”
Joe spent most of that summer restoring the antique cider press. Pleased with his first effort, he hatched a plan. “I started wishing I had a press of my own,” he says. That fall, Joe and his wife attended a Missouri farm sale where they purchased a single-tub press manufactured by Red Cross Mfg. Co., Bluffton, Ind.
Once home, Joe headed back to the workshop. Before long, the Wurth family had a new seasonal pastime. “Once I got it restored, we used that press every fall while our boys were at home,” Joe says. “Even after the boys left home, my wife and I continued making cider every fall with that old press.”
When he retired several years ago from a career in education, Joe immersed himself in his hobby. He still has that first Red Cross press, but he’s added 16 more antique cider presses (and one wine press) in varied sizes.
Cider presses were produced in two basic styles: the one-tub press and the two-tub press. “The one-tub press required only two people to complete all the operations,” Joe says. “A new single-tub press advertised in the 1918 Bingham Hardware Co. catalog sold for $12.50 ($190 today). It was described as being capable of producing between one and two barrels of cider in a day. The press weighed 145 pounds.”
Two-tub presses were offered in three sizes. The junior press weighed about 200 pounds and produced two to four barrels of cider per day. The medium press weighed about 250 pounds and produced three to six barrels per day. The senior model weighed between 400 and 500 pounds, and was capable of producing six to eight barrels of cider in one day.
Cider press design varies little from model to model. Apples are fed into a hopper that sits over the top of a cylinder lined with teeth. The teeth chop and shred the apples. Right below the cylinder are two counter-rotating cylinder heads designed to squeeze the chopped fruit, releasing its juice. A slatted wooden bucket sits below the squeeze cylinders to catch the crushed fruit. Once the bucket is full, it is moved to the front of the press. A press plate is placed on top; a threaded rod presses the plate tight against the fruit, causing juice to flow out of the bucket and into a container.
“Making cider is usually, at a minimum, a three-person process,” Joe says. “One person dumps apples into the hopper. The second person turns a hand crank that chops and squeezes the apples. The third person tightens the press plate to extract juice from the pulpy apple pieces.”
Antique cider presses are rarely found in good condition. Consequently, Joe has restored six of the pieces in his collection. “Some of the presses have original wood that can be reused,” he says. “But most of them need to be completely rebuilt.”
When Joe tackles a restoration project, he conducts extensive research. “The Internet is a great resource for pictures of cider presses,” he says. “I keep copies of photos to use as a reference. Paint patterns on the same model often changed throughout the years, so it’s helpful to have photos.” He also relies on friends experienced with old iron and woodworking for tips, suggestions and hands-on help.
Authentic restoration is his goal. “I always attempt to put back as much of the original press into the restoration as possible,” Joe says, “even down to cleaning and reusing original nuts, bolts and screws whenever I can. My restored presses should last at least another 100 years. At the same time, I want to make each one better and more usable by today’s standards. I use a food-safe product on any wood or metal that juice comes in contact with. I don’t think there was much concern about that when the presses were originally manufactured.”
Joe is aware of just two other cider press collectors. One lives in Kentucky; the other is in Indiana. “But I’m sure there are other collectors,” he says. “I’ve become pretty good at asking people if they know of anyone who has a cider press. Most people have never seen a cider press so they don’t really know what you’re talking about. I watch farm sale bills and have found some Internet auction sites that give me leads.”
It’s no surprise that Joe has been able to find antique cider presses in his home state. Iowa was once the second leading apple producer in the nation. The state’s apple harvest peaked at 9.5 million bushels in 1911. “That all changed by 1940,” Joe says. “An Armistice Day freeze and blizzard on Nov. 11, 1940 destroyed many of Iowa’s apple orchards.” In that historic storm, temperatures plunged from the mid-50s to single digits in just a few hours. Winds of 50 to 80 mph carved 20-foot drifts out of a 17-inch snowfall. In 1941, Iowa’s apple production was only 15 percent of the 1940 crop; the state’s apple industry never recovered.
History like that comes to life through Joe’s restored presses. He’s placed several pieces from his collection in a local museum, helping area residents better understand the state’s early ag economy and traditional farm practices. On a more personal level, Joe’s family gathers each fall to press apples with restored antiques at their own “Cider Daze” tradition.
“Making cider with a cider press brings families together,” Joe says. “I enjoy showing the presses to people and seeing their reaction to them. Many have never seen a cider press and don’t know how they work. It’s also very rewarding to put life back into the presses.”
Interested in restoring a press of your own? Look in your own backyard. “Ask around and you may get a lead,” Joe says. “Someone nearby may have a press sitting in a barn or machine shed. In recent years, scrap metal sales have been profitable enough that presses have probably been sold by people who may not have realized what they had. My reward is getting the presses back into condition so they can be used for the purpose for which they were intended.” FC
For more information: Joe Wurth, (712) 376-2655; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. Email her at email@example.com.
Read more about the history of apple cider in The Enduring Appeal of Apple Cider.