Updated: Aug 24, 2022
For centuries, apples have been the most commonly grown and consumed fruit in the northern latitudes.
In 2006, a detailed and expansive examination of the local apple industry was researched and developed by Durand-Hedden Trustee Maria Morrison Heningburg and President Susan Newberry with the help of Township Historian John Crowell Bausmith, a descendant of the Crowell Cider Mill’s founders.
They uncovered a story that is as timeless and universal as Adam and Eve (although that may have been an apricot) and Greek mythology, as nationally idiomatic as Johnny Appleseed, and as locally focused as Maplewood’s Crowell Cider Mill, which for a century was known far and wide, along with cider mills in Newark, as among the best sources of cider in the country.
Beginnings of the Apple Industry
In 1666, when a group from Connecticut came to establish a settlement on the shores of the Passaic River (Newark), they found the highlands stretching west to the Watchung Mountain range “covered with wild apple trees that blossomed each spring,” according to Alan Siegel's history of Irvington.
The settlers improved the crabapple-like trees with grafts from Connecticut apple trees, and soon exported their produce as far as the West Indies.
Siegel writes, “Apples became a national symbol, and cider and beer became popular as a way of avoiding diseases like the plague that spread through drinking water. Apples were dried, candied, creamed, roasted, cidered, sauced, buttered, brandied and made into all sorts of cakes and pies.” Apples and cider vinegar were effective treatments for many ailments.
Describing Maplewood in 1796, John Durand, in his 1896 book about Asher B. Durand, wrote, “In Jefferson Village, where the well-known ‘Harrison’ and ‘Canfield’ apples grew, out of which the famous Newark cider was made, this was the principal natural beverage. Add to this ‘apple-jack’ distilled from cider and affording an excellent alcoholic drink.”
Henry Foster wrote of Life in the Valley in 1814, “This was a wonderful apple-growing section…. With small market for ripe fruit, there was a great one for dried apples, cider, vinegar and applejack or cider spirits, which in some quarters has borne the name of ‘Jersey lightning.’ The cider mill was always near at hand, one of which... was back of the Crowell house, at the corner of Parker Avenue and Valley Street. There were many distilleries, for the making of both cider spirits and rum.”
“New Jersey is the most celebrated cider making district in America,” wrote architect and tastemaker Andrew Jackson Downing in his 1849 book Fruits and Fruit Trees of America.
The Crowell Cider Mill
The Crowell Cider Mill was built on land first settled by Samuel Crowell before 1728, on property that was part of a 1714 land grant from the British Crown. The first documentation of the property was in 1728, when Parker Avenue was opened adjacent to it. Valley Street at the time was “just a crooked path through the fields.” The mill was passed down through the Crowell family until it was demolished in 1919.
The farmhouse stood in the area where the gas station is today opposite Columbia High School. The original mill was northwest of the house, and was moved south of it in 1843, during the ownership of Job Crowell and his wife Catherine Beach. An article in a Newark newspaper in 1919 noted that in the basement was a “sweep” or long pole, to which horses were attached. They went round in a circle, operating an upright shaft which ran to the hopper, furnishing power to grind the apples. Daniel Beach had invented and patented an apple-grinding machine, “an appliance much sought-after in those days.”
The ground floor was used for storing apples and casks, and there was room for a traveling threshing machine. “It was the custom for the Beach, Crowell and Brown families to bring their grain here to be threshed,” the article reports. “This was a sort of gala season and was looked forward to with considerable pleasure….In those days when apples were plentiful the mills were frequented by every one in this season. The ‘glass’ was always there and any one could help himself from the tub in front of the press.”
Isaac Newton Crowell, with his wife, Louise Freeman, owned and operated the mill from about 1850 to 1892, with the help of their son Edward in the later years. A steam engine replaced the horses in 1884.
The area was known as Vinegar Hill, as the mill’s biggest business was vinegar, made from well-fermented cider that went through a long, slow process of development in large vats in the cellar. Vinegar was a staple household product during most of the 100 years of the mill’s operation, used for pickling and preserving.
Isaac’s son Edward and his wife, Caroline Dodd, took over in about 1892 and operated the mill until Edward’s death in March 1919. A Newark Star-Eagle article on Dec. 30, 1919 began, “The end of 1919 finds Maplewood so dry that even the old cider mill has been closed.”
The closing of the mill in 1919 was widely mourned – it was praised in news accounts as a “landmark” and “one of the attractions of the Maplewood section.” The Crowell apple orchard was cut up into building lots, and as an observer noted in the 1940s, “Not a vestige remains today of farm, cider mill, fruit trees, stone fences or early American homestead.”
he Apple and Cider Open House at Durand-Hedden on Oct. 29, 2006 was attended by several hundred people. Local resident Tom Vilardi, dressed in 18th-century work clothes, brought an old cider press and helped visitors to try their hand at putting apples into the hopper and pressing them into cider. Mr. Vilardi also made hard cider, which visitors sampled.
Trustee Marilyn White led young visitors in playing apple games such as bobbing for apples, and helped them use an early mechanical paring device. Karen Fuchs-Gall helped visitors experience the flavors of less familiar heirloom apples such as Baldwin, Pippin and Rhode Island Greenings. Girl Scout Troop 230 enthusiastically assisted in all the activities.