The change of each season often brings an urge for some sort of commemorating ritual. This autumn’s clear skies and bright colors reignited my own nostalgia for the apple cider pressings I enjoyed as a kid at the Alpenrose Dairy in the southwest Portland hills. So, I surfed around the web and discovered — sadly — that unless you know someone with a cider press and a load of apples, you might be out of luck.
Extending my search to Washington state, I learned that on the last Saturday in October, the Cedar Creek Grist Mill, east of Woodland, would be pressing “around 10,000 pounds of apples into the best drink on planet Earth.”
So, “Oregon Field Guide” photographer Michael Bendixen and I loaded the rig and headed north to check it out.
When we arrived, autumn sunlight poured through gaps in the deep green cedar canopy, illuminating the yellow maple leaves cut loose by a brisk breeze. Jeffrey Berry, whose family has lived in the area since 1879, greeted us with an invitation to sample a fresh apple from three gigantic bins.
“We get a mix of apples from a grower in Hood River,” he told us. This year’s mélange consisted of Jonagold, Gala and Honeycrisp. The combination of tart and sweet apples makes for the best blend, Berry says.
With our crispy snacks in hand, Berry led us across a picturesque covered bridge to the Cedar Creek Grist Mill. The weathered, wooden building sits on a rocky slope above its namesake creek, where fish jump the rushing falls that still turn the turbine that powers the mill. The sight stopped me in mid-chew.
The Cedar Creek Grist Mill was built in 1876 – while Custer was making his last stand — upstream from where Cedar Creek joins the North Fork Lewis River. It’s been in use for various purposes by a series of owners for most of the last century. Over the years, the old mill fell prey to weather, vandals and neglect.
In the 1960s, the Vancouver Historical Society succeeded in having the mill placed on the National Register of Historic Places. They also replaced the mill’s crumbling foundation.
By the ‘80s, a group of local residents formed the “Friends of the Cedar Creek Grist Mill.” Their first mission was to restore the mill to its previous glory and function. Teams of volunteers organized raffles and bazaars to raise funds and took up broad ax and adze to replace the original posts and beams by the traditional method. By the autumn of 1989, the mill was back to grinding wheat, just in time for Washington state’s centennial celebrations. Today, it’s the only water-powered, stone-grinding grain mill in its original structure in Washington state.
Though the mill still serves its original purpose, it survives today mainly as a working museum, fulfilling small milling orders and welcoming visitors, donations and volunteers.
“We had a local lady who grows blue corn,” says Berry. “She made blue-corn tamales with flour we milled for her.”
Once in awhile, someone will bring in some corn to be rough-milled, a process that produces chicken feed as well as the “mash” used for moonshine.
“I go ahead and do it and I don’t ask any questions,” Berry laughs.
The original building houses a water-powered turbine on the lower level and the main milling floor above. The open room is laced with an elaborate system of belts and cogs that drive the various contraptions. On this day, three apple presses stand alone in the space. However, in a few hours, the room will fill with hundreds of people who, like me, are looking for a taste of nostalgia — fresh-pressed apple cider.
Berry and a handful of local volunteers soon get to work on making the cider. The fruit is first cut into slices with a blade-fitted PVC pipe that can handle about half a dozen apples at a time.
As loads of apple thunk their way through the cutter, Carl Zietz cranks up the ancient horsepower. The lacework of belts that drives the machines begin to clunk and whir. Berry slowly feeds the slices into a grinder, beneath which porous wooden buckets wait to catch the juicy pulp.
Once full, the buckets are slid under the press, covered with a lid and pressed by means of a hand-cranked wheel till the frothy cider gushes out.
Everyone now heads to a side room, where gravity filters the cider one last time on its way to a round of cups.
“Cheers,” says Berry as cups are raised and the volunteers reward their labors with “the best drink on planet Earth.”
“2017 is a very good year,” declares Fred Schulz.
I have to agree. Though 2017 has proved to be a year of change and uncertainty, of record rainfall and epic wildfires, pausing to savor our local bounty in a setting both lovely and venerable makes for a sweet commemoration of the season’s turn.