Part 2 of a two-part series on the cider press. Part 1 was published last week.
The average American does not realize the importance of our Apple culture to the Colonial farmer, whose productivity was tied to the export commerce of the port of Philadelphia, where agricultural exports were responsible for feeding a starving world population. Although domestic apple butter and foodstuffs were consumed by natives; hard cider, whiskey, and alcoholic moonshine of a sort were trade items that brought farmers significant trade revenue by ship captains trading in all parts of the world.
In fact, it was more profitable for PA Dutch farmers to distill their crops of rye to whiskey than to earn a meager profit by selling rye bread and rye flour at their village markets. Thus, huge native apple cider presses were lucrative businesses for local farmers to engage in large quantities of vinegar and fermented moonshine recipes. One Oley Valley Colonial farmer listed among his exports: cider and “cider twice,” which may have been to confuse the tax authorities about the alcoholic content of the barrels of “cider twice!”
Shipped by frontier farmers, indeed, the Apple culture was our most important crop, perhaps a logo of our national culture. As seen in the folk saying as American as “Apple pie!” However, barrels of apple schnapps and moonshine were the product of these early American frontier cider presses.
In conversations with Alan Keyser, he informed me that the rare lever cider press which Dr. Shoemaker had set up in his PA Folklife Museum in Lancaster County (1960), was from the Depler farm in the Lycons Valley, one that was at least 30 feet long. It was taken down by the folklorist, Harry Stauffer who meticulously set it up for Dr. Shoemaker Folklife Museum along Route 30 in the 1960s, a wonderful example of early American cider making when farmers exported barrels of cider at the port of Philadelphia.
Old John Hoch whose Colonial farm at Hoch’s corner in the Oley Valley recalled that they too had a frontier lever cider press in which the Hochs made barrels of cider with an old-time farm cider press, hey very productive operation, which enabled the farmer to produce a large profit from his apple orchard.
Robert Bucher, a PA Dutch historian who was familiar with historic Colonial three-room log houses with central fireplace hearths, must have been excited when he first saw the Merkey farmhouse with its central fireplace, a traditional Germanic layout followed by frontier Dutchmen. However, the Merkey Colonial cider press, in original shape at the Merkey barn was more important since central fire places with Germanic five plate stoves were more typical in Berks County.
However, when I heard the new owner of the Merkey farm was getting rid of the farm buildings, I jumped at the chance to preserve our Berks County heritage by buying the Merkey log home and companion log kitchen for myself. Thereby, reassembling them on land I bought near Boyers’ Junction. Lucky for me, I met a Hamburg contractor who had been relocating buildings in the Blue Marsh Dam project of Berks County.
An avid contractor, he took down these log cabins and skillfully reassembled them in Rockland Township, the historic home of my Bieber maternal ancestors who had a sawmill on Bieber Creek, just a few miles away. This being one of the best restoration projects I have ever been associated with, The Philadelphia Inquirer did a special story about its restoration in 1983.
Richard Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.