As the weather begins to cool and Autumn arrives, Long Islanders jump into gear for a new season. The heat of the summer has hopefully passed us by, and we embrace our blue jeans, flannels, and sweaters. Our eyes sparkle at the sight of gourds and orange jack-o-lanterns, as well as trees turning beautiful reds and yellows. We all have our favorite Fall spots, orchards, and “haunted” locales, as we approach Halloween. We have also become obsessed with all things “pumpkin spiced”: Muffins, donuts, lattes, ice cream, and even beer. I recently told my history students that I flavored their history exam on the Gilded Age with “pumpkin spice”. I was promptly booed.
In the twenty-first century, these are the signs of Autumn, but in the nineteenth century, Americans were bringing in their harvests, and the Fall was the celebration of a successful crop yield from the summer (this is why Thanksgiving is an integral part of American life). The very orchards we now visit, and the pumpkins and gourds we are enamored with, were important to our forebears, because it was their livelihood.
One of the most important crops was the apple. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, apple trees dotted the American landscape, partly due to “Johnny Appleseed’s” efforts (Yes, he was real. It is true, look it up!). Apples were one of the most important crops of those eras. In rural Great Britain, farmers would even “Wassail” (shouting and singing) the apple tree in Autumn and Winter, hoping for a good crop in the future!
Apples were a versatile crop (and still are). They provided food (which could be prepared in many ways, and also be preserved (jams and butters, etc.)), they could provide vinegar (for preservation), but most importantly, for many early Americans, they could be turned into cider and brandy.
Apple cider was extremely popular and, frankly, necessary to eighteenth and nineteenth century Americans. The cider that Americans drank was “hard” or alcoholic, which began to ferment only a few days after pressing. It was a great way to preserve the successful apple crop (as was the distillation of corn to whiskey in other areas of the United States). Cider was served at most tables, and because of its alcoholic nature, was in fact cleaner and healthier than a lot of water during those times. Both adults and children consumed the beverage, and the alcoholic content was often not higher than 5% or 6%. It’s believed that Americans consumed ALOT of cider! In a way, it kept Americans both healthy and happy.
But why apple cider and not beer? Americans did grow the grains for beer (barley, wheat etc.), and they did brew beer. Unfortunately, some areas of the East Coast did not always produce substantial crop yields for successful brewing. Apples were a sturdier crop in that regard, and many farmers could plant orchards to help supplement their personal tastes and incomes. I remember reading somewhere, that only a few years before the duel, Alexander Hamilton was happy that he planted apples at his home in Harlem. Apple orchards and cider mills peppered the American landscape, and they did on Long Island as well. A painting by artist William Sidney Mount (native of Setauket) entitled “Cider Making” is a great insight into a mid-nineteenth cider press in action.
Like anything that has a big impact on culture, cider was appropriated by politicians as well. Our early founders used the beverage to gain political support at rallies and events, and the beverage helped fuel the American Revolution. In the Election of 1840, President William Henry Harrison ran with two campaign slogans; “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!” and “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” (look for Harrison Campaign posters in the Luyster Store at OBVR). The first successful Whig to take the White House, the Harrison campaign used “Hard Cider” to gain the support of rural votes. Harrison soundly beat Martin Van Buren, partly with the help of cider. Unfortunately for Harrison, his presidency was short-lived, and he died in office after developing an illness from the nasty weather at his inauguration. I guess an “apple a day”, didn’t keep the doctor away (sorry sorry!).
Old Bethpage Village does in fact have a cider mill/press. Located on the northern end of the property, near the Hewlett House, the Cider Mill and Press once operated and had demonstrations of nineteenth century cider-making. I remember smelling the apple vinegar as a kid, and seeing a lot of yellow jackets (I guess the insects know what’s good!). Although the Mill/Press is no longer operational, look for the building and the apple orchards near the Hewlett House. They are there for a reason!
So, what happened to cider’s popularity? As America approached the 1840s and 1850s, an increase in German immigration and westward expansion (better barley and wheat production in the west) would revolutionize the beer brewing industry in the United States. In addition, the growing temperance and prohibition movements in the country curtailed the cider industry. It is believed that between these two factors, the production and consumption of cider decreased significantly. Times change, beliefs change, and tastes change.
In modern times, pasteurization and refrigeration has allowed the sweeter non-alcoholic cider to become massively popular, especially as an Autumn treat. I was personally pleased a few weeks ago to see fresh cider at King Kullen. More recently though, “hard” cider has grown again to become popular. Whether dry or sweet, sparkling or straight, cider has made a comeback, especially amongst orchards, brewers, and wineries on Long Island and the Hudson Valley. It is also gluten-free (an added bonus for some!).
So, if you visit OBVR in the Autumn of Winter months, imagine a time when cider was king. A time when it was consumed like soda by the populace, and was a significant part of the American economic, social, and political life. Today visit your favorite local orchard or farm stand, and although it may be easier to get non-alcoholic cider, enjoy the fresh apple taste that once fueled the founding of America. That’s why for me when Autumn rolls around, I don’t crave a “pumpkin spiced” latte, I say, “Pass the Cider!”