Snow blankets our yard this morning revealing last night’s deer tracks like exclamation points in pen and ink on a sheet of white paper. Autumn has passed, and the deer paw the snow under each of our apple trees eating the last of Black Oxfords, Golden Delicious, Haralson, and Orange Pippin apples that have fallen from now-bare branches.
Years ago, Dad gave us the broken remains of a cider press from the McCollough farm. Actually, it was only half a cider press. The apple chipper with its large flywheel and crank was missing. But the cast iron cross arm and greasy acme screw were intact as were the cast iron tub and collecting tray. The American chestnut frame was weakened by dry rot and worm holes. Our kids were members of a 4-H club and our young apple trees were bearing bushels of juicy fruit, so we resurrected the old McCollough cider press. The wooden frame was replaced with rock maple cut from a nearby woodlot and we purchased a new apple grinder and flywheel.
Pressing apples became an autumn 4-H tradition for nearly two decades, just like Dad said it was on the McCollough farm. Making cider is hard work, and keeps a passel of energetic children busy. As our kids got older, they brought college friends home to experience the tradition. Now they are grown and living in southern Maine and Denmark. We will resume the tradition with our grandchildren.
Pressing cider alone this fall was not nearly as fun as it was in the past, but the sounds and smells brought back memories of the cider pressing parties. Cadmium red maple leaves sailed against a cerulean sky. Great V’s of geese winged south cackled among themselves as they argued about where to rest for the evening. The last of the year’s yellow jackets vied to get drunk on the sweet, sticky nectar pouring from the press. Acorns rolled like marbles underfoot.
The 4-H cider parties were lots of fun. The boys competed with each other to see if they could grind enough apples to fill the galvanized tub and pressing bag without stopping. The rock-hard Chestnut apples were a challenge! Girls and boys chased each other around the yard and took turns tightened the acme screw until hands could turn it no further. A birch log was used like a lever to tighten the screw even tighter. These were interesting lessons in physics, and there was always conjecture on how the job could be made easier. The final ounces of concentrated cider were always the best. Kids rushed in with glasses to get the first cascade of the caramel-colored nectar flowing from the cider press. In a good apple year, we pressed dozens of bushels of apples, and the 4-H families went home with gallons of homemade cider.
I found the vendue list for settling Captain John McCollough’s estate in the probate records at the Butler County courthouse (chapter 18 in the book). Captain John died in 1847 with many debts and without a will. The McCollough family had to settle his debts or they risked losing the farm. They made a painful decision to sell most of the contents of the McCollough homestead. Among the list of items, was a “the one half of an apple mill” that was purchased by David McCollough, Captain John and Elizabeth’s youngest son. Could this be the same cider mill that is in use today?
Both sweet and hard cider were important commodities in the early 1800s. In his will in 1797, Gerhardt Fiscus (Captain John’s grandfather) specified that his orchard and cider would be used to support his wife Magdalena. The Fiscus family still tells the story of Gerhardt bringing apple trees from Germany when he immigrated in 1744 (page 133 in the book). Gerhardt must have passed his love of apples and cider to Captain John who also maintained an orchard on this farm in Chicora.
Cider making in 1825 was not much different than today. Geese flew overhead. Blue jays gathered acorns. Yellow jackets got drunk on fermented apples. Barrels of apple pomace were fed to the sheep and pigs. The McCollough, Wick, Deets, and Kreidler boys and girls chased each other and competed to be the first to fill their mug with golden cider pouring from the press.