Back forty or more years ago when I was growing up on a small family dairy farm, I lived a lifestyle that was another generation older for that point in time. Although that way of living seems today as though it’s been dead for a generation or more, many aspects of it live on today in the Potomac Highlands region of West Virginia. That’s why we chose to retire here. It feels right to live out my old age in a place that surrounds me with people who understand that lifestyle and honor certain aspects of it. No one wants to die thinking he or she is the last person in the world who remembers the things that were special to them in their childhood. There’s just no dignity in that. Many of those memories remain fresh in my mind, and it just doesn’t seem possible that they could be so far in the past and rejected by a society that acts as though it has no living memory of anything that happened more than two computer generations ago. I suspect some of you reading this post understand how I feel.
One of those old memories that always comes to mind when the first cold, crisp fall breeze arrives is apple picking. Our family would spend a day picking fresh MacIntosh apples in a small commercial orchard less than a mile from our house, behind the old two-room Farwell School. All of us kids would scramble up the apple trees to see who could pick the highest apple. If one of us fell in the attempt, we just dusted ourselves off and climbed another tree. The game rules did not allow for any crying. It was a time when simple things like that were a fun and memorable break from the daily chores that drove our life on the farm. I can even remember when kids attending the school proved their metal by climbing up the rear stone wall of the building during recess to jump over the fence and steal some apples without getting caught by the teachers.
We visited that old orchard for several years before it was abandoned and sold. Then, for a few subsequent years, we visited a local water-powered cider mill to buy a few gallons of fresh apple cider. I found that trip to be even more exciting that the orchard. The sounds of that mill would capture my attention and remain ingrained in my mind. There was the splashing sound of water tumbling over the waterwheel that powered the mill, the clattering and clacking noise made by the large wooden pegs and gears that drove the big fruit press, and the groans made by the old timber axles that drove the press. While these sounds were quite loud, they weren’t offensive to the ear. For me, they fueled a sense of awe and wonder to learn how it all worked. However, it was the overwhelming scent of the antique wood soaked with apple juice that stands out most clearly in my mind. We always found the cider to be affordable for our budget, probably because it was not always the primary source of income for the mill. Most of those old mills made far more money producing applejack – a highly fermented form of apple wine that was often referred to then as New England or New Hampshire moonshine.
While I no longer have access to a cider mill, I decided to buy a fruit press for our retirement farm operation so we could make our own fresh apple cider each fall. We had planted a small orchard of apple trees to provide a source of apples, but our trees have struggled to produce useful fruit because of the red cedar blight that we cannot control. Instead, we purchase apple culls and drops from a Mennonite fruit farm in nearby Rockingham County, Virginia. These apples are fine (and less expensive) for producing cider, even though they have bruises and blemishes that make them less commercially desirable for customers seeking fresh apples for eating or baking. We simply cut out the blemishes and run them through our hand-operated fruit grinder and press to produce the cider we desire to make.
This year, we decided to share the cider-making experience with some of our local friends, Bonnie and Wayne Ours and Dale and Merrily Carroll (who now own our first dairy goat kid, Essie). We also invited Marina Barnett, the WHSV-TV reporter who filmed the news segment about our dairy issues, to join us. During the filming, she expressed an interest in learning how we make our cider, and I jumped at the chance to encourage a member of the younger generation to learn this simple traditional lifestyle skill.
We all gathered here at Peeper Pond Farm yesterday morning to process three 40-pound boxes of apples into nearly six gallons of fresh cider. The air was as cool and breezy as I recalled from my childhood days of apple picking. I explained the process to Marina and showed her how the press worked. We then began cutting up the apples, crushing them into pulp, and pressing the pulp into cider. Marina eagerly participated in all aspects of the process as we all took turns operating the fruit press. Throughout the process, we shared stories and laughed freely at our blunders. After two hours of work making the cider, we enjoyed a warm meal of soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. I can honestly report that a good time was had by all. After all the conversations we shared about the traditional ways of living, Marina decided she wanted to return again and learn how we make goat milk soap. We are looking forward to her next visit and hope we can find other ways to share our knowledge of the “old ways.”
Passing on these time-honored lifestyle folkways to the next generation was one of our primary aspirations for our retirement homestead farm operation here at Peeper Pond Farm. We feel honored by Marina’s interest in learning them and giving them relevance in the twenty-first century. Many may feel that these practices are outdated or a waste of time, but to us they are a cherished tradition that helps us understand how our ancestors lived and where the basic products we consume come from. When you stop to think about it, most of us are less than four generations removed from ancestors who knew these skills and made these products for themselves. That makes them part of our shared cultural heritage. With all the interest in genealogical research, isn’t it as important to understand how our ancestors lived as it is to know who they were? Doesn’t our human curiosity extend that far? We hope you’ll want to learn these experiences for yourself and learn the value of self-reliance. If the interest captures your imagination, please consider giving us a call. You’ll find us eager to satisfy your interest, and who knows, perhaps you’ll also discover what fun the adventure can be.