Tag Archives: cider

There was a time when apples were a cash crop in the Fox Valley

It’s fall here in northern Illinois, and that means it’s apple season.

Most of us figure there’s nothing quite as American as a good, fresh crisp apple. But the fact is, the eating and cooking apples we enjoy so much these days are descended from European imports. Only the lowly crabapple is actually native to North America.

The wild, ancient ancestor of virtually all of today’s apple varieties originally evolved in the mountains of Central Asia in the area today occupied by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and the Xinjiang region of China. Apples appear to have been actually cultivated first in Turkey. Alexander the Great is generally given credit for introducing the fruit to Europe.

Although not native, apples were one of the first fruit crops brought to the New World by Europeans, who heavily relied on the fruit to produce cider for drinking and vinegar for food preservation, as well as a popular fruit for eating fresh.

The first apple seeds were brought across the Atlantic to North America by French Jesuits in the late sixteenth century. The religious separatists who settled Massachusetts starting in 1620 brought apple seeds and seedlings with them and immediately began planting orchards throughout the region when they arrived.

Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore

In the 1630s, Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore advised Maryland settlers to bring with them “kernalls of pears and apples, especially of Pipins, Pearmains and Deesons, for making thereafter of Cider and Perry.” Perry is a fermented drink made from pears. According to survey records of 1644, just ten years after Lord Baltimore’s decree, more than 90 percent of Maryland’s farms had apple orchards.

Pennsylvania’s German settlers, called Pennsylvania Dutch by their English neighbors, became famous for using apples to make a wide variety of food, including apple pie and apple butter.

In the early 1800s, John Chapman, a former resident of Massachusetts and Connecticut, began planting apple seedlings throughout Ohio and, eventually, Indiana. Looked upon with affection by the early settlers of those areas, the eccentric Chapman soon received his nickname, Johnny Appleseed. In addition to planting apple orchards from seeds retrieved from cider-making operations, Chapman also planted pennyroyal, catnip, and horehound on his tree-planting journeys. Besides planting orchards in unsettled areas, Chapman also regularly returned and pruned the trees to assure their productivity.

By planting the seeds instead of reproducing them by grafting (which he opposed on religious grounds), Chapman spread a huge variety of apple trees in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and as far west as eastern Illinois. Apples do not reproduce true from their seeds, meaning seeds from, say, a Pippin, do not necessarily produce Pippins. What Chapman really did was to spread a huge variety of apple rootstock all over the areas of the then fast-growing western frontier. As a result, when settlers did arrive, they could graft on desired varieties but they could also select the best of the varieties that grew from Chapman’s random seeding.

Here in Kendall County, like every other frontier community, apple trees were prized possessions, and joined cherry and plum trees in the orchards planted by the earliest settlers.

Elvirah Walker Shumway and her husband James emigrated from Massachusetts to Kendall County in 1847, settling near her brothers, Seth and Lauriston Walker, on a farm just east of the intersection of Douglas and Simons Road in Oswego Township. On their arrival, Elvirah discovered one of the hardships she had to endure on the Illinois frontier was a serious lack of apple trees with which to produce vinegar. She didn’t let that stop her, though, from preserving food by pickling. In a letter written to her sister back in Massachusetts in September 1847, she reported she had “two three gallon pots of pickles stewing—if you ask what I do for vinegar! Oh I use whiskey and water.” Which may help explain some of those wild pioneer parties.

Apples were grown to be eaten fresh, but also to be dried for use during the Fox Valley’s long winters. The fruit was also turned into apple butter, jelly, and cider.

As the 19th Century progressed, apples became fairly big business here in Kendall County and the rest of the region. On Nov. 14, 1872, the Kendall County Record reported that “Dr. J.A. Cook has shipped 1,750 bushels of apples from his farm in Fox this fall, and made 50 barrels of cider.”

Many farmers owned their own small cider presses, but for processing serious quantities of apples, steam powered presses were used to squeeze cider out of apples.

In 1884, Kendall County produced nearly 25,000 bushels of apples according to state agricultural officials.

Cider itself, long a staple of the American diet, was served both fresh and fermented. Cider appeared on the table in virtually every American household in the first half of the 19th Century, as a good tasting and mildly alcoholic beverage enjoyed by all members of the family, no matter how young. Cider was also safer to drink than the water available in most of the era’s towns and villages.

After fermenting, hard cider was sometimes distilled into hard liquor. More often it was simply processed into applejack during the winter by allowing a keg of fermented cider to freeze, driving the alcohol to the center. The center was then tapped, producing a strong alcoholic drink.

Vinegar was the other major product made from apple cider. Since vinegar was one of the primary food preserving tools of early householders (everything from meat to vegetables to eggs were pickled in vinegar), its manufacture was an important early industry.

Besides merely reproducing popular varieties of apple trees, at least one Kendall County farmer developed his own variety. Smith G. Minkler, who farmed along what is now Minkler Road in Oswego and NaAuSay townships, perfected the Minkler Apple, and it proved to be a favorite of local orchardists. As a young man, Minkler received his first seedlings as payment for helping break prairie sod for early Kendall County entrepreneur Peter Specie. Specie apparently got the seedlings from the Detroit area’s French settlements.

Today, the Kendall County Historical Society still has a few Minkler apple trees at the Lyon Farm and Village, and there are a few Minkler apple trees still growing on area farmsteads.

Some of the apples Minkler produced were giants. The Kendall County Record reported in the fall of 1881 that apples weighing a pound each and measuring 14 inches in circumference were being picked in the Minkler orchards.

In January of 1889, Minkler printed a “Plea for an Old Orchard” in the Record. He urged county farmers to prune their trees, “plow the ground shallow” in their orchards, and then apply manure to feed the trees. “The orchard is the most abused piece of ground on the farm,” Minkler complained. “You expect it to produce a crop of apples, a crop of hay, and a pasture besides, and make no return to the land.”

A nice selection of Minkler apples from Eastman’s Antique Apples, Wheeler, Michigan. Minklers are large, juicy, and crisp, good for both eating and cider.

Apples harvested each fall were either pressed on-site in individual orchards or taken to the many local cider-pressing businesses. In the Oswego area, a number of pressing operations were in operation in the late 1800s, including at the Wormley farm on Ill. Route 31 and the Wayne farm on Ill. Route 71. In addition, Oswego businessman David Hall had two presses in operation in 1889. All were powered by small stationary steam engines.

All those apples grown in farm orchards had to be hauled to the presses by the wagonload for processing, and that offered numerous opportunities for mischief-inclined youngsters. From the Oct. 23, 1889 Record: “Owing to the making of much cider now, many loads of apples are being carried through town and whenever one is spied by the small boys, they swarm upon it filling their pockets, biting into a few, and then pelting each other with them so that the streets are strewn with apples. This raiding upon their loads causes farmers to get through town as quick as possible and Monday, as Charles Stiefbold was coming along at a trot with a load upon wish some boys jumped and by some means let down the end board, a patent device, and the first thing the owner knew was that most of the apples were strewn along the street the length of a block or more. As fathers don’t exercise the least control over their boys on the street, the formation of a society for such control would be much in order.

The cider-making season usually ran from September through November. Here’s what the Nov. 11, 1891 Record had to say about that year’s cider season in Oswego: “The end of cider making has not been reached. David Hall has made over 1,500 barrels so far…John Wormley, with his celebrated cider press, has managed to make about 1,700 barrels this season. The largest amount of cider to the bushel was made for S.B. English—from 50 bushels of Minkler apples, 252 gallons of cider was extracted.”

Much of the cider pressed locally went to make vinegar. David M. Haight, who owned the general store at the northeast comer of Washington Street (Route 34) and Main Street in Oswego, operated a large vinegar fermenting room in his store basement. One of Haight’s vinegar jugs is in the collections of the Little White School Museum in Oswego.

Nowadays, many county residents have an apple tree or two on their property, but the days when thousands of gallons of cider were processed from local trees is long gone.

This fall, some hardy folks will still press fresh cider from local apples while the rest of us pick up a gallon or so at the grocery store or a farmer’s market while we reflect on the days when the Wormleys, the Waynes, and the Halls made apples one of the county’s commercial mainstays.


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