When I think of cider, I find a refrain from a record on the old Edison phonograph dancing around in my head. “On the hill, where they made sweet cider, those evening bells would chime, I always remember that golden September, sweet cider time when you were mine.” That was one of Dad’s favorite tunes. I have no idea who wrote it, or sang it, but it surely describes the joy of fall and drinking real fresh cider.
On Muddy Creek, in the early twenties, we had a small commercial orchard of about 12 acres. Most of the trees were Winesap, with some Grimes Golden, Ben Davis and Willowtwigs thrown in. There were a few Early June and some transparent apples that were used for apple “sass,” but these were not really very satisfying for the apple connoisseur.
There is surely a lot of work associated with the growing of apples, more than you can imagine: The starting of the orchard, setting out the trees, fending off rabbits (whose taste for fresh tender apple tree bark seems insatiable), and Jersey cows, who relish the tender tips of the newly set trees and manage to find a hole in the fence somewhere, just as the first spring leaves are emerging. These are only a few of the risks in starting an orchard.
Apple trees are much like your kids: You never get ’em growed. It is a constant worry and fight to keep the bugs, the scale and the animals from getting the crop first. Dad found, and traded for, a sprayer on wheels with a wooden tank that held about 150 gallons of water and arsenic in lead solution. The one lung engine, when it would run, pumped this solution under high pressure through long hoses with bamboo-covered pipe nozzles. We sprayed two or three times in the spring, and never gave thought to the overspray that covered us with the lead solution. I never heard of anyone suffering ill effects from such spraying, so I guess we were just plumb lucky.
During the winter months, pruning was a big and necessary chore to keep the water sprouts down and the non-producing limbs from taking over the trees. During the cold season, the trees needed to be sprayed with used cylinder oil to kill the scale, and while the ground was frozen, and the barn needed cleaning out, the trees got a good dose of fertilizer.
Uncounted myriads of tummy aches have resulted from eating green apples. After a long winter of feeding on tasteless apple “hole” preserved by Ben Davis, even walnut-size green apples have a deadly attraction for all, especially growing boys.
The early maturing apples go out quickly. These were the ones that Dad let me peddle from the buck-board in Millerville and Applegate. Those that were not sold to eagerly waiting neighbors were made into applesauce. When freshly made, and still warm from the stove, apple “sass” that is heaped high over a huge hunk of fresh, homemade bread, spread generously with equally fresh churned butter, will give you a dish well worth a king’s ransom. I have made many a meal on such and lust for a repeat.
The fall maturing crop is the real harvest. Since most of our trees were Winesap, Dad cooked up a deal with the Vincennes produce man to take whole wagon loads of them at a time, packed in barrels. The typical wooden apple barrel held about 2-1/2 bushels of apples and was then the standard wholesale container. These had wooden hoops and a flat head that was pressed into place with a special clamping tool.
The entire Piper gang was recruited to pick the apples when they were ready. One year, Dad had the Tucker family working for us on the farm, and the whole passel of Tucker boys helped in the picking, too. There were the twins, Carl and Clyde, and young Floyd, along with Dad and anyone else that could be recruited. The common gunny sack with a piece of binder twine tied around an apple in opposite corners made a very passable picking container. When it was swung over the shoulder and under the left arm, you could climb a ladder, pick about as much as you could carry, and when you emptied the bag, move the ladder to another spot.
As the apples were picked, they were emptied into a wagon bed and then sorted by hand and placed into barrels in neat rows. When the barrel was full, and the top layer beautifully arranged, the head was put on. This was a round, flat, wooden lid that was pressed into the grooved sides with a special press. The top hoop was then nailed into place and the barrel loaded onto a flat wagon to await the Vincennes dealer. I still have an invoice showing that Dad was paid two and a half dollars a barrel for the Winesap crop in 1920.
Picking apples was a job for the grown-ups, but the young’ns could make themselves useful and earn some spending money at the same time, by collecting the “drops,” or fallen apples. These they added to the accumulating pile of culls and seconds under each tree. This was some thing they could do even better than the big folks, for they were built closer to the ground and didn’t need to bend down so far to reach the apples. It really didn’t matter if there were blemishes and bruises on the apples, and as far as I remember, no one complained about worms, either.
When all the picking was done, and the final barrel loaded on to the wagon, then these cider apples were picked up and loaded into wagon box and then hauled to the cider mill. This was the commercial mill over on old Route 12, west of the Sumner and Chancey Road. It sat in the fence corner right across from the Pete Buzzard farm. I don’t know who operated it, but they did a land office business with the local growers who had any great number of apples to process. The smaller cider presses were used only on the family-sized orchards. Grinding a wagon-load of apples by hand could be quite a chore.
This big mill also cooked down large batches of the peeled fruit into apple butter using the fresh-squeezed cider as a base.
I well remember riding over there on a load of apples: The wagon, drawn by the mules, Kate and Jack; that distinctive smell of fresh apples, some a bit past ripe, following us down the road; hundreds of honey bees buzzing and feeding on the sweet, squashed apple juice, too busy to give us humans a mind.
This mill was a horse-powered one, as were most in those days. A docile team of horses walked round and round in a circle pulling a long wooden sweep that, in turn, spun the cylinders in the mill. As the apples were fed into the hopper, they were crushed and fell into huge, slatted containers that held perhaps two bushel or so of pulverized fruit. When the containers were full, the horses stopped to rest and a flat block of wood was inserted on top of the crushed mass. A two-inch-thick steel screw press was then turned down, forcing the sweet apple juice out of the mass.
A tin cup hung on a nail driven into a post nearby. This was for sampling and all participants did so quite liberally, some to their regret, for sweet cider may cause what is commonly called “the barnyard trots.”
The juice ran through pipes into a wood barrel or a huge, tin tank. A cider barrel holds 55 gallons of juice and has a three-inch hole on the side so that it can be filled. When each of them were full, the bung was driven into place and the full barrel was rolled onto the wagon for the trip home.
Fresh cider will stay fresh and sweet for several days, but will progressively get harder, and harder, and harder. The flavor is distinctive, and as the kick gets stronger, it gets even more flavor as it ferments and fruit sugar turns into alcohol, and then into acetic acid, until it reaches the ultimate product: Apple cider vinegar. FC
The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.