It is a chilly evening in the first week of November. A north wind on a bright clear day scatters leaves and sends a hint of cold coming our way. Two colleagues have come over for a cider experiment; I’ve never processed pears before.
In the feel of that wind, I suggest that we do our milling inside the garage. It is not hard to convince them. While I change clothes upstairs, they unload their pears and jugs, then come inside and wait for me. They are standing in the kitchen when I go back down.
While both have a fair amount of experience at making homemade wine, neither of them has seen an old-time hand-cranked cider mill before. They are instantly impressed. “Well, would you look at that!” one exclaims. “How old is it?”
“Dad bought it used before I was born,” I tell them. It is the only estimate of its age I have. My guess is that it is around seventy-five years old, give or take a decade or two.
It is a study of rugged yet elegant simplicity: heavy frame, a wooden millhead with six steel cutters embedded, cranked by a long arm spinning the small center-mounted gear turns the millhead. A heavy flywheel on the opposite side of the wooden hopper maintains momentum. As the fruit drops into the hopper, the blades grind it into pulp, which drops into a round, slatted wooden crate that rests on a slatted base.
After a quick rinse of the primary working surfaces, I prompt my friends, “Well, let’s get started.” I grab the handle and begin spinning the cutterhead. The first of my guests starts dropping pears into the hopper, a few at a time. Bits of fruit fly out of the hopper, occasionally hitting me in the face.
Almost as soon as the grinding begins, juice starts to drain from the collector pan into the waiting dishpan. Both of these pear-bearers marvel at how quickly the mill works. “Wow! That’s definitely a lot faster than doing this all by hand.”
When the bucket crate is full of pulp, I slide it forward, under the press. A thick threaded steel shaft has a crank at the upper end and a round wooden press plate at the lower end. As I spin the crank, the press plate fits into the crate. Juice erupts from between the slats, runs into the collector and spills through the screen into the pan. While one holds a plastic jug steady, I lift the dishpan, tilt it toward one corner and pour the juice into the screened funnel, watching the flow of the clear amber liquid.
The pulp has been compressed into a heavy clump. I pull out the crate and carry it out of the garage. I flip it upside down and bump it hard against the ground at the base of the white birch and the mass slides out. Then I tap the base slide against the trunk to clear a few pieces of pulp from between the slats. We start the next batch.
In less than an hour, we have processed five gallons of juice. I hose down the cider mill, set the crates and pan against the wall to drain. I accept the offered sample of the fruits of our labor and am surprised at how well I like it. It is the first time that I have ever drunk fresh pear juice. The flavor is lighter than I expected and sweeter, a fine finish for a good evening.
My guests have loaded their wares and thank me, again. They drive off into the darkening dusk of a clear Kansas night. I carry my share of the spoils into the house, set the jug on the counter. I remember early autumns of my adolescence, helping make cider on the farm and in Kelvie Nicholson’s orchard, swapping turns at the heavy crank.
Tonight, for the first time, I miss my Dad.