Town's annual apple squeeze attracts cider lovers from far and wide

THE sound is familiar yet unique. It's a distinctive whirring, buzzing, and clattering - the unmistakable grinding of metal against metal. Ninety years ago, this sound was heard each fall in towns and farm communities throughout the United States.

Now it's being heard again one day a year in Steilacoom, Wash., as more than a dozen old-fashioned cider presses go to work on thousands of freshly picked apples.

Each fall, on a crisp, October Sunday, thousands of people descend on Steilacoom (pronounced STILL-a-kuhm) for the town's annual apple squeeze.

The public is invited to bring boxes and bags of apples to be pressed into golden-brown apple cider free of charge.

The apple squeeze is organized by the Steilacoom Historical Museum Association.

It was started 14 years ago by Harold Hellyer, a high school librarian who served on the association's board of directors.

``Owning a cider press, I realized it might relate to what we were doing as a historical society,'' he says. ``We needed an event that would get people involved.''

The presses are set up in a courtyard between a bank and Bair's Drug and Hardware Store, which first opened for business in 1895.

Cider lovers from all over the region bring containers of apples - stacked high on hand trucks and children's wagons - to be squeezed on the 13 antique presses and seven newer, electrified models.

Most of the devices belong to area residents, who bring them year after year to the apple squeeze.

Richard Gamas owns two presses that were manufactured around the turn of the century.

``I like antiques to begin with,'' he says, ``but a press is something you can also use. And it gets you together with people.''

Mr. Gamas shows first-time visitors that there's more to making cider than simply ``squeezing'' the apples.

To extract all the juice, the fruit is first ground or crushed into a pulpy substance called ``pomace.''

The visitors are encouraged to turn the large crank themselves, creating the unusual sound that fills the courtyard.

The pomace falls into a round, wooden tub that sits on a tray below the grinding mechanism. The squeezing is done by placing a removable lid on the tub and forcing it downward with a threaded handle.

The cider flows freely through the bottom of the slatted tub, over the tray, and into a bucket.

Gamas then strains it into gallon milk jugs, two-liter soft drink bottles, or whatever other containers are handy.

``It's better than the stuff you buy at the store,'' says eight-year-old Brian Reed of Tacoma, whose family has made a tradition of the apple squeeze.

Three-year-old Amanda McLean of Tacoma watched wide-eyed as her parents turned two pails of apples into three gallons of cider.

``We all got to help,'' says her mother, Kristine. ``It was a nice family thing to do.''

Sticky-fingered Raymond Heimbecker, 11, came away with a different impression.

``It's a good way to get juice,'' he says, ``but it's too messy.''

While the antique hand-presses give the event its old-fashioned flavor, the bulk of the cider is produced by the presses equipped with electric motors.

Several presses were built especially for the Steilacoom apple squeeze. ``I like apple cider and it looked like fun,'' says Keith Sutherland, who completed his press in a week. ``It was pretty easy to build.''

Cousins Milton Davidson and Tom Teevin added an electric motor to their family press several years ago.

``We did it three or four years by hand,'' Davidson explains, ``but when so many people started coming it got tiresome.

``It used to be just a town thing and we could stand around and talk. Now it's more like mass production.''

Steilacoom is Washington's oldest incorporated town, and it has been linked with apples and apple raising for well over a century.

Some of the earliest settlers brought apple trees here in the 1850s via wagon train, and one of the oldest orchards is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

``There are lots of old, old trees in Steilacoom that are still bearing fruit,'' says Museum Association director Joan Curtis.

The apple festival began as a modest affair in 1973, and has since grown into a regional apple festival involving more than 100 volunteers.

The Museum Association sells applesauce doughnuts, caramel apples, and thick slices of fresh-baked bread covered with apple butter.

Inside the newly restored town hall, visitors can buy commemorative sweat shirts and slices of apple pie a la mode with cinnamon sauce.

Would-be cider squeezers who arrive unprepared can purchase sacks of apples and plastic containers before stopping by the presses to have their new-bought apples squeezed.

And to those who are strictly spectators, already-squeezed cider is available to drink immediately by the glass or to tote away by jug.

More than 800 gallons were sold this year.

The profits support the Museum Association's operations, which include projects like restoring this apple town's historic old buildings.

But Mr. Hellyer emphasizes that the use of the cider presses will continue to be free.

``Not everything you do should be financially oriented,'' Hellyer says.

``When someone says, `I remember that sound' or `I remember that smell,' it brings back history. And it pleases me no end to see people enjoying themselves.''

The apple butter sold and served at the Steilacoom Apple Squeeze is prepared from this recipe: Apple Butter 7 cups tart apples, peeled and cored 3 to 31/2 cups sugar (to taste) 2 teaspoons cinnamon 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

Place apples in large kettle. Add water just to the point where you can see it through the apples. Cover and simmer until apples are soft and mushy. Add sugar and spices. Place kettle, uncovered, in a 250-degree F. oven.

The apple butter should be stirred and checked periodically. It will be ready in four to eight hours, depending on how thick and dark brown you like it.

Wash mason jars in boiling water. Ladle in hot apple butter. Seal lids and store jars in a cool place.

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