In the garage where we’d taken the clothes line and lashed the wire handles of the bushel basket to the red wagon, it seemed a good idea. Actually, the line went from one handle of the basket under the bed of the wagon to the other wire handle. Buddy and I pulled the rope as tight as our 7th grade fingers allowed and made a couple of passes back and forth until we’d used up all the rope. Our knots didn’t really lash the basket into place – it slid around a bit, but being on wheels was such a big improvement that this detail didn’t seem too important. No longer would those wire handles bite through our hands!
Tugging on a pair of cotton work gloves, I pulled the wagon out of the garage, across the driveway and started up the hill into the orchard. Today was the third day of our little enterprise and the gloves were a symbol of our education in the business of picking cider apples. Initially, it had appeared to us a veritable gold mine. Fill up a basket with free apples, have my mom drive them to the cider mill and collect a dollar. The first afternoon we’d been doing great until I’d gotten stung. I’d picked up a drop, an apple that had dropped from the tree instead of been picked from a branch, and curled in a depression on the underside of it had been a yellow jacket. The sting was the beginning of a long and painful acquaintance with those apple loving nuisances. I went back to the house and my mother applied ice which eventually reduced the searing pain to a dull throbbing. We had a drink of water and after rummaging in the closet to find two pairs of gloves we went back out to finish gathering apples. Of course, the gloves were too big for our hands so it was harder to grip the apples and there was a fumbling as we cautiously peeked at the apple before we picked it up. Eventually, I developed a technique of nudging the apple with my sneaker, waiting before I picked it up to see if anything flew out.
Speaking of techniques, did I mention shaking? For a boy, shaking down apples was the height of the afternoon. You’d climb up to a big branch of the tree, then inch out nine or ten feet above the ground until you could feel the limb begin to tremble beneath you at which point you would rock back and forth sending a cascade of apples to the ground. Getting down was always tougher than up. You had to feel around with your feet until you could find a branch to lower yourself onto. On the ground, we would paw around in the grass and weeds gathering the apples. Searching for the apples, I began to recognize subtle differences in their coloration. There was a sheen of freshness on those we had just shaken down while the ones that had lain on the ground for a while had a cloudier hue and the rotten one were pasty and discolored.
So after the initial set back of the bee sting we had returned and filled the basket and discovered the real work was in the transportation. We were less than a hundred yards from my house and planned to store the apples in the garage until we’d gathered a load for my mother to drive to the cider mill. The full loaded basket was just impossible for us to move. It was too heavy for either of us to carry alone so we each took a side and tugged and slid it back to the house. As we stumbled alone, the wire handles of the basket were iron trap jaws that squeezed and gnawed at our hands until, with a pained grimace, we’d drop our side of the basket and apples would spill out. Pretty quick we realized we needed to coordinate our breaks and keep the basket level.
The second day we took two baskets. The plan was to only fill each three quarters full and make two trips. I was surprised to find that not every tree had a basket of apples scattered around it. Some trees had only tiny apples, some had barely any. Maybe one in five had enough to interest us, so we were a good distance up the hill when the baskets were ready. To my surprise hefting the nearly full baskets back to the garage was just as painful as the full ones, and we had two of them!
So the wagon was the panacea. We’d roll along in style. Perhaps axles hanging up on the tufts of grass, golden rod, and spirea as we pulled further out into the orchard might have suggested problems ahead, but it was a lovely warm afternoon and we were fresh out from a day of sitting in school. This afternoon would be great! We came upon a tree full of big Golden Delicious apples and in a trice had filled the basket and lined the bed of the wagon with extras. If we could get an extra load in today, we’d have five baskets to go to the cider mill tomorrow.
Eagerly, I started pulling the wagon down the hill. If the little four inch tires had trouble going over the ground before, under fifty pounds of apples they plowed furrows through the field. We pulled, tugged, pushed and panted until one wheel slid into a dip, the load pitched forward and spilled across the grass. Grimly, we righted the wagon, picked up the apples and struggled the rest of the way to the garage. We did make a second trip that day but it was with a basket and we only filled it half way.
My mom’s station wagon was big. With the back seats folded flat, we managed to cram the five bushels of apples in the back plus have a little room for one of my younger brothers to ride with them. Buddy and I got the front seats. A fifteen minute drive out of town along the river plain brought us to the little village where the cider mill was built into a hillside. We drove around the building and up a little hillock to the delivery entrance where a ten foot long conveyor with wheeled grocery style casters waited to receive apple crates. The proprietor, a genial man, open the wide shed doors, stepped out to appraise our apples and said they looked pretty good. He picked up some wooden apple crates, placed them on the rolling conveyor and dumped our baskets into them. Against the back of the building were stacks of apple crates, tucked three to a cube, three cubes high and three deep; probably enough to a hundred bushels or more. Clearly our little load was a small apple in his pie.
The mill owner was a husky, balding man in his late forties who moved a bushel of apples like I moved a bag of groceries. He invited us in to look at the cider mill. Its layout was actually very simple. The apples were dumped into a bin that emptied onto a conveyor lifting them up to a chute above the grinder which pulverized them into a glistening mash. At this point my memory gets a little fuzzy. I remember the mash getting wrapped in cheesecloth and multiple layers being placed beneath the press. I think each layer was covered with a gird of wood that would squeeze the apple pulp below it. What I don’t remember was what kept the pulp from squirting across the room. I do have an image of the hydraulic press inching down and the whole mass oozing juice into an enormous vat in the room below. When the pressing was finished and they took the pile apart, the pulp was fibrous and quite dry. I think it went to feed pigs and of course those pesky yellow jackets.
The final product, the cider, was delicious; golden brown, sweet with lots of pulp. I had to keep reminding myself that those wormy, brown apples we’d tossed in were only drops in the ocean. After a few days in the refrigerator it developed a zippy tang that complimented afternoon cookies very nicely. If this sweet snack didn’t feel like quite enough reward for our labor, the dollar a crate filled the hole.
Written by: John Treat - CCCD Board Supervisor & Treasurer