Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Sweet Ida’s Cider, an Autumn Delight

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By Phil James

Albemarle County Deputy Mac Sandridge prepared to dump a barrel of mash while an A.B.C. revenue officer destroyed an illegal still in the backwoods of late-1950s Albemarle County. The various jars intended for the moonshiner’s hooch included a glass jug bearing an Ida’s Sweet Apple Cider label (visible in the lower LH corner, topped by a dented-up tin cup.) (Photo courtesy of Mac Sandridge). Additional photographs accompany the print version of this article.
Albemarle County Deputy Mac Sandridge prepared to dump a barrel of mash while an A.B.C. revenue officer destroyed an illegal still in the backwoods of late-1950s Albemarle County. The various jars intended for the moonshiner’s hooch included a glass jug bearing an Ida’s Sweet Apple Cider label (visible in the lower LH corner, topped by a dented-up tin cup.) (Photo courtesy of Mac Sandridge). Additional photographs accompany the print version of this article.

Autumn delights!

Those blessed to live in close proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia would respond, “Indeed!” Our senses are at once entreated to Stop. Look. Smell. Taste. Experience. Now! Time’s a-wasting. Come on: this won’t last for long!

Few could imagine their favorite fall festival without the colors, aromas and tastes of the princely apple, served up in numerous delectable forms. For many, the season’s first whiff of wood smoke comes from the open fire beneath a kettle of bubbling hot apple butter. And, oftentimes, nearby is an antique cider mill and press, its operators putting the squeeze on an oozing hopper of the season’s tastiest varieties, their efforts rewarded by a steady trickle of fresh, sweet apple cider.

Who, then, could blame songwriter Eddie Leonard when, in 1903, he associated the delicious natural cider nectar of this wonder-filled season with that special someone his heart yearned for:

“Ida! Sweet as apple cider,

Sweeter than all I know,

Come out! in the silv’ry Moonlight,

Of love we’ll whisper, so soft and low!”

The slopes of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains have long produced award-winning apples, but it was not always so. Early European visitors in the New World found only the common crabapple growing here. Word was relayed back to the old country to bring seeds and scions so that orchards could be established on the farms and along trade routes. An important byproduct of these early orchards was apple cider, an inexpensive and easily produced substitute for highly-taxed imported coffees and teas.

In Colonial America, the cider produced was of necessity a hard, or alcoholic cider, a staple libation to arriving Englanders who brought with them the equipment necessary for its production. As Americans planned westward migrations in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, rustic entrepreneurs such as John Chapman, popularly known as Johnny Appleseed, went ahead establishing nurseries of apple trees to sell to the homesteaders.

By the mid-19th century, apples were being grown for profitable export trade. Great orchards were planted and many laborers were employed in their cultivation. A good many of those workers likely fit the description of Giles Winterborne, a principal character in Thomas Hardy’s 1886 novel The Woodlanders:

“He looked and smelt like Autumn’s very brother, his face being sunburnt to wheat-colour, his eyes blue as corn-flowers, his sleeves and leggings dyed with fruit-stains, his hands clammy with the sweet juice of apples, his hat sprinkled with pips, and everywhere about him the sweet atmosphere of cider which at its first return each season has such an indescribable fascination for those who have been born and bred among the orchards.” — What a guy!

Squeezing several cheeses of minced apples at a time in a hand-operated press met the juice needs of individual families, but to meet the needs of a growing industrialized and more urban society, large-scale mechanization was needed. Throughout the apple growing belts, usually along rail corridors, large-scale producers of products derived from bulk fruits came into being.

In 1905, the Crozet Cider Company was established. Their incorporation statement described their business as “for the manufacture of cider, vinegar, preserves, jellies and canned and evaporated fruits and the selling of same.” In a short while they advertised for sale “Pure Albemarle Apple Cider” in carload lots or barrels: “The genuine is the best and that is made in Albemarle County, out of apples and not chemicals. Ask your doctor if the genuine is good for your family’s health. Ask your soda fountain for our cider. Ask for our goods and take no substitute.”

Born and raised in early-1900s Sugar Hollow in western Albemarle County, Emory Wyant recalled his several-miles-long walk to Sugar Hollow School. His father Hiram operated a blacksmith shop adjacent to their home and a stave mill near the first bridge. The Hollow’s one-room schoolhouse was within sight of bridge number three. Just upstream from the second bridge, Emory’s uncle John Via operated a grist mill.

“I always remember Uncle John would sometimes call over to us when we walked passed his house across the river,” Emory said. “’Have a little cider; it’ll make your belly wider.’”

Likely, Uncle John’s cider was a little (or a lot) on the hard side. And, just for the record, Emory’s mother Cornelia allowed absolutely no alcoholic beverages in her home. Sweet cider is fresh, raw, unfiltered juice from apples. It has a short shelf-life in this form, before the naturally occurring yeasts begin to do their thing, converting the sweet juice into a more tart alcoholic drink. That process can be slowed by pasteurizing. No doubt, John and Emory both knew that his offer was only a tease, lest the wrath of Mother be visited on John’s house and Emory’s backside.

Many an unsuspecting autumn guest has gladly received a welcoming cup of sweet or “soft” cider, and discovered mid-sip that the shelf-life for the soft designation had previously expired and nature was taking its course. Involuntarily pursed lips and raised eyebrows usually alerted the host to the faux pas.

So, when the “delightful” season has arrived, you will do well to make haste to your favorite trusted purveyor of that soft sweet nectar of autumn. And don’t delay, because now you know that the “genuine” stuff won’t last for long. Perhaps you, too, will be joining in with ol’ Eddie Leonard, singing, “Ida, sweet as apple cider, I love you Ida, ‘deed I do!”

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook!  Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987.  Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2013 Phil James