Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cider: The Real and Symbolic

[A shorter version of this appeared in Bend of the River, October, 2010]

Cider may not be the beverage of choice that it once was. There are so many sugary drinks, and hard ones, too, than there once were. But cider, the milled apple beverage that we associate with autumn and Halloween, has a special place in the memory of Ohioans. It was once the only way to use up the products of thousands of farm orchards all across the state. It also once sent an Ohioan to the White House, however briefly. For that reason, cider is worth recollecting.

My father can remember cider as it was made in the days before World War II. In his hometown of New Riegel in Seneca County, all the farmers would bring into town apples and pears from their farm orchards. The proprietor of the local cider mill was a man named Alvin “Allie” Marks. In a small building between a sheet metal shop and a blacksmith shop, Marks ran a cider mill in the fall. My grandfather would bring his pears (pear cider is called “perry.) to Marks, who would process them in his mill. The mill was powered by a one-cylinder gasoline engine referred to as a “one-lunger.” It made an irregular loud popping noise which could be heard all over town. There was never any question whether the cider mill was open, as the popping could be heard all over town.

In earlier times, horses provided the motive power for cider milling, as this recollection from Whitehouse illustrates:

“…I would go down from town to the Junction of the Obee and the Eber roads where Martin Weckerly's folks lived in a log house, every Saturday and drive the horse to grind the apples for the Weckerly boys' first cider mill. The cylinder grinder was a cut off an oak pole with spikes driven in to smash the apples and an iron rod for an axle.…. I used to go down to Weckerly's big cider and saw mill and work till midnight, just for the fun of being with Jake and John and Will Weckerly and Frank Doren and having all the rambo [apple variety] cider we could drink. And those German boys starting with a cider mill added a saw mill, a planning mill, vinegar works and made apple jelly by the barrel and whatnot.” [A.J. Bradley, Early Whitehouse History, 1937.]

Certainly cider is not just a rural phenomenon. Toledo had its cider mills in the past. T.B. Hine, Victor Gladieux, and the Berger Brothers all milled cider in 1888. Vinegar is one of the most common byproducts of milling cider. Before the days of refrigeration, cider would inevitably become either vinegar or turn hard. Hard cider, an alcoholic beverage, may not be to everyone’s taste, but in frontier Ohio it was usually the only cider to be had. It was a powerful drink, and became a powerful weapon.

In 1835, a farmer in Oxford, Ohio named William French wrote:

“I have . . . more than 300 barrels of cyder. I sell early cider at 1 dollar [and] late cyder $3.25…:

With large surpluses, frontier Ohio’s apple crop was larger than home consumption could handle. Everyone knew cider, and as the Bradley account mentions, there was a festive cachet to cider. When the Whig Party was casting around for a suitable presidential candidate in 1840, they passed on men like Henry Clay, who had a long political career to criticize. Instead they ran William Henry Harrison, a retired general from North Bend, Ohio.

Harrison was living a life of rustic retirement on his farm. When a politician suggested he be pensioned off and spend his days drinking hard cider in a log cabin, the Whigs seized on the image. It was political gold. In an era when the common man had more experience drinking hard cider than understanding tariff questions, they rallied round Harrison as a man of the people. The Whigs pushed hard to reinforce Harrison’s rustic image, serving free, mind-addling hard cider at every rally.

General Harrison, whose farm more closely resembled a plantation than a frontier clearing, made cider from his orchard, but was in fact a teetotaler. But he willingly let his handlers make him a frontiersman, and he rode a wave of hard cider to the White House, where he promptly died of pneumonia.

Cider, however, cannot be blamed for Harrison’s short term. In fact the Whigs use of cider can be perfectly understood today. In our time, cider has both a real value (a tasty drink) and a symbolic one (fall and harvest) just as it had a symbolic one for Harrison’s contemporaries (pioneer fortitude). Keep that in mind next time you quaff some cider.