220908ind History

Ancient machinery like the Rathbun apple mill and cider press shown above helped local families make cider in the 18th and 19th century.

Back in the 1700s and 1800s, cider making was serious business. You see, apple cider, just like cheese, dried and smoked meats, dried beans and hard corn, preserves, sturdy root crops and the like, were, in an age long before refrigeration, the staples, the “vital vittles” that allowed families to make it through those long New England winters.  

These nutritious foodstuffs, if stored properly in a root cellar or similar location, kept well and they’d be there to get you through ‘til spring came.

Ancient machinery like the Rathbun apple mill and cider press shown here, which was located a stone’s throw from “shift marriage corner” the spot where the towns of North Kingstown, South Kingstown, and Exeter intersected, were true community machines. Like the many grist mills that also dotted the rural landscape of the time, although they may have been owned and operated by one specific farm family, they were critical to the survival of all in the region. Folks 200 years ago may not have understood nutritional guidelines and food pyramids; they did know however, the hard and fast rule that to remain healthy you had to get fruits and vegetables into your diet somehow each winter.

Before a South County farm family could begin the process of turning their apples into cider, they’d first have to gather them all together. The vast majority of the apples used in cider making are the ones that fell to the ground, known then and now as “drops”. The gathering of drops was a true family affair, young and old alike would join in and load the drops into barrels or directly into the back of a wagon. This physically demanding task required not only a fair spell of bending and stooping, but also a modicum of caution because as anyone who has a fruit tree in their yard can tell you, where there’s drops there’s also bees and lots of them.

After you’ve got your drops squared away, you and every other farm family in the area would load up and head off to the Rathbun farm for grinding and pressing. As a general rule, cider making was a community affair simply because the Rathbun boys; born with the weighty monikers of Lorenzo Dow and Martin Van Buren Rathbun, but known as Dow and Van, or whoever was running your local cider press, had no intention of dropping everything to make cider at every beck and call, they had a farm to run.

Besides, cider-making time was a grand social affair; a chance to visit with neighbors, swap stories and recipes, break out a fiddle or two and tip back a jug full of last season’s cider – now mellowed and fermented just right into hard cider apple jack.

Once it was your turn, you’d be expected to help Dow and Van load your drops into the apple grinder, where they’d be ground into a coarse paste know as pomace. Both the grinder and the press were powered by a Rathbun mule. After grinding, your pomace would be layered into the press with clean straw until it was full. One of the Rathbun boys would then hitch the mule up to the bent end of the big beam atop the handmade wooden screwshaft and begin to walk it around operating the press.  

Before long, cider would be flowing into the troughs that surrounded the press, then drained into jugs and barrels saved each and every year for just this use. All the while, bees would be buzzing, lady folks would be chatting, younguns would sipping cider straight out of troughs through hollow lengths of straw they had prepared.

When your apples were all turned into cider it might be your neighbors turn next and you could relax and join in to all the goings-on occurring all round. When all was said and done, when every recipe was swapped, every story told, every last drop of apple jack consumed, and every jig danced you’d load your jugs and barrels of cider up, minus of course a pre-determined percentage called the “tole” which would belong to the Rathbun boys, and head on home bathed in the warm setting sun and the memories of a day well spent making apple cider. 

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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