Fresh-pressed apples perfume the air at B.F. Clyde’s Cider Mill in Old Mystic, Conn. (pop. 3,025), where the Clyde family has squeezed the fruit into a popular beverage each fall since 1898.
“We have four generations working here,” says Amy Monk, 32, whose great-great-grandfather Benjamin Franklin Clyde started the cider business in 1881. “This mill is part of who we are.”
Before building his own mill, Clyde pressed apples at nearby mills to ferment into hard cider, a common alcoholic drink of the day. Clyde’s is the oldest producer of hard cider in the United States and operates the nation’s last steam-powered cider mill.
From September through December, the century-old machinery rumbles to life as John Bucklyn, 79, and his son-in-law, Harold Miner, 50, and grandson, Joshua Miner, 27, crush 50 tons of apples into cider each week. Customers linger inside the barn-like building and marvel at the surroundings: wooden plank floors, polished antique counter and dozens of crockery jugs hanging overhead. Farmers once swapped the jugs for cider.
An oil-fired steam engine powers the pulleys and belts that transport apples from a truck to the second story inside the mill, where they’re dropped into a grinder and chopped to bits. The apple pulp falls into a wooden rack lined with a strainer cloth, where a 100-ton wooden press squeezes out the juice. The juice flows into a refrigeration tank, is pasteurized and bottled upon purchase.
With the exception of pasteurization, a heating process started 10 years ago to destroy potentially harmful bacteria, “we do everything just the way it was 110 years ago,” Bucklyn says. The family-owned mill is such an outstanding example of the cider mills that dotted rural New England in the 1800s that it was designated a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1994.
Bucklyn’s grandmother, Abby Clyde, gave him the cider mill in 1946 when he graduated from high school. Likewise, Bucklyn and his wife, Barbara, passed the mill down to their daughter, Annette Miner, and her husband, Harold, in 1997. The next year, the Miners built a store and bakery next to the mill on the foundation of the Clydes’ home, which burned in the 1930s.
Family history and stories—such as feisty Grandma Clyde being arrested, though never charged, for bootlegging in the 1920s and navigating the country roads in a horse-drawn wagon on buying trips for cider apples—are cherished. Today, the Miners buy apples from orchards in the Hudson Valley region in New York, and each variety—whether Honey Crisp or Ginger Gold—produces a distinct flavor of cider.
About 20,000 gallons of sweet cider and 7,000 gallons of hard cider, which is aged for a year in oak barrels, are made and sold each season. Hard cider is sold in plastic half-gallon jugs for $9 and gallon jugs for $18.
On weekends, customers stand in long lines to buy sweet cider by the cup for 80 cents and in larger sizes, such as a gallon jug, for $5.25. Some folks sip their fresh cider and eat hot cider doughnuts and apple turnovers at picnic tables beside the spring-fed brook meandering through the property. “When you think ‘fall,’ you think of Clyde’s,” says customer Ada Elmer, 59, of Stonington, Conn. (pop. 1,032). For 35 years, she and her husband, Bob, have visited Clyde’s after church on Sundays to buy fresh cider. “It’s a part of life that hasn’t changed.”
Bob adds, “Clyde’s is a hand-me-down family business, the epitome of that.” He also admires the family’s work ethic.
The youngest worker, Sarah Monk, 8, rings up sales at the cash register and counts back change. Her mother, Amy, once stood on paint cans to reach the register and perform those same duties. Amy’s mother, Annette, 51, gets misty-eyed when she talks about her pride in being the current owner and caretaker of the family business. “My great-grandpa went to work every day and put his hands on that press,” she says while making a batch of doughnuts. “We’ll never change anything.”