Letters from a Conservative Farmer — The Old Red Mill
I have before me a cookbook, The View from Grandma’s Kitchen, given to us by Vesta Kempton. Since it has a 1978 copyright, and we moved to Canada from Vermont in 1971, Vesta must have mailed it to us. Her inscription, “Lest we forget our mill,” is a testimony to her regard for us and our friendship over the years. The book features a drawing of the mill, a description of cider pressing, and a recipe for making one of its most unusual products, boiled cider, of which Jim and Vesta Kempton were once the only producers in Vermont.
Circumstances led us to meeting them during the 1960s when we were running a small private school for boys who couldn’t be educated in regular schools (don’t ask; just accept it as a given). We had five boys who lived with us in addition to our four children. We had driven about the countryside for several days, gathering apples. There were a number of empty farms in the area, and it was surprising how many apple trees were left to drop their fruit in the grass. We soon gathered a truck full of apples, far too many to be processed in our small hand press, so I set forth one morning heading south where I knew there were commercial presses. I stopped at a few beside the road, but they were no more than larger versions of my own hand-operated mill.
In South Northfield, I came to the Old Red Mill. There was a stand beside the road that sold cider and apples and, down by the creek, perhaps 30 yards away, was the mill. There I met Jim Kempton, ready to do business. I had to carry the bags of apples up a short steep stairway to a small room with an opening in its floor, into which I poured the apples until Jim closed the opening with a sliding door. The apples fell through a chipper onto a rack covered by a nylon cloth. Jim folded the ends of the cloth over the apples, put another cloth-covered rack on top of it and reopened the sliding door.
This procedure continued until Jim had a sufficient stack of chopped apples (about 10 bushels of apples), then he began pressing the racks upward, pressing out the juice. It took about one bushel to make three to four gallons of cider. When that was done and he had pressed the last bit of juice, he released the pressure, lowered the stack of pressed apples, and then shook the pressed apples, or pomace, out the window into the stream. When I was present, I shook the pressed apples into boxes and carried them home to feed the pigs.
The whole procedure was such a happy arrangement for both of us that I often went there whether or not I had apples. We helped him gather and press apples and we ate at each other’s houses. Just before we left for Canada, we drove down to say goodbye and found Jim and Vesta desperately trying to press apples and at the same time boil down cider to make the rich syrupy boiled cider that they sold to manufacturers of mincemeat. Of course, we had to pitch in. All the children and students helped with the pressing while I boiled the cider to make the syrup. The whole enterprise was a fitting farewell.
The Old Red Mill, I later learned, had a long history. The water-powered mill, which drew power from the Sunny Brook that borders the property, was built in 1898 at a time when there was a well-established water power industry in Northfield. It was used as grist mill and feed store. In the 1930s, a water-powered cider press was added to the original building. By the mid 1940s the mill was shut down until Jim and Vesta bought it at an auction in 1944. They operated it as a grist mill and also made shingles until sometime in the 1940s, when demand declined. They were still producing cider and boiled cider when we met them. As I calculate, they probably retired a few years before the cookbook was published in the late 1970s.
The line drawing in the cookbook is a faithful rendition of the Old Red Mill as I recall it: a simple one-and-a-half-story clapboard structure with a distinctive cupola-like tower projecting from the south gable end. The stand was to one side and featured baskets of apples, jars of syrup, and pumpkins in season. It is no longer operated as a mill, but the building still stands.
Boiled cider is now widely available, sometimes even mixed with maple syrup. If you get yourself some, try this boiled cider pie.
Boiled Cider Pie
1 cup boiled cider syrup (if you can’t find it or want to make your own, boil down 4 cups fresh cider in a heavy saucepan until you have a cup of syrup)
3 eggs, separated
1½ tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1 pastry shell
Combine cider, egg yolks, sugar, milk, flour, and melted butter. Fold in beaten egg whites. Roll out chilled pie dough, enough for a bottom crust. Bake at 450 degrees F. for 10 minutes, then at 325 degrees F. for 30 minutes.
Adapted from The View from Grandma’s Kitchen, Janet Beyer, Phyllis Higgins, 1978. *