The Old Men of the Mountain by John R. Williams
This Tuesday (8-27-13) was the day to shuffle off to Rensselaerville, and it wasn’t raining or snowing, but there was elevation fog in spots which maintained the weather conditions for the ride to the Hilltown Cafe in the hills of Rensselaerville. The OFs are sure the weather is saved just for the Tuesday when it is the Old Men of the Mountain’s turn to attack the Hilltown Cafe.
This morning the OFs were talking about cows getting drunk on apples. Some of the OFs had the same experience and it is when cows eat lots of apples that have some degree of rottenness, and alcohol is already forming in the apple. One OF told how his father told the (at the time YFs) OF and his brothers to clear the orchard of the fallen apples because he was going to pasture the cows there.
Reasonable request ─ so the YFs went at it. The OF said they had quite a collection of rag bags on a wagon to put the apples in. The YFs filled rag bag after rag bag and dragged them to the stone wall fence that separated the orchard from the farm road that went down to the creek and fields out back, and then they set these bags on the other side of the fence.
The cows were then let into the orchard ─ but did they graze on the grass? No! These cows went right to the stone wall fence and ate apples out of the rag bags like eating grain at the manger. When the cows were brought into the barnyard to be milked they were drunk out of their minds, because the apples had a chance to ferment in the rag bags and were just about pre-apple jack. The mooing was not just Moo, but moOOooOO..OOooo, then they would start over and most of them were doing the same thing mooing like some animal sing-along.
The lead cow would walk up to the barn door, and not go in the barn; it would stagger around and try again. The other cows would just wobble from side to side and wait for the lead cow to go in, and still it did not. The YF’s father was going nuts, hollering at the cows, hollering at the kids, then hollering at the cows again. Finally one cow went through the door but it wasn’t the lead cow. The other cows followed but once in the barn they were confused as to which was their stanchion and so they just milled around inside the barn, pooping all over the place with runny, awful smelling excrement. There were a couple of pluses to this, the cow barn was in need of being white-washed anyway, and the bedding straw was a couple of days old, because the cows had no intention of using the gutter.
Once the cows were in the stanchions and milking began another experience started. The cows never stopped swishing their manure-soaked tails, and getting swatted in the back and face with one of these things is no fun. The milk had a weird aroma. It was three days before the milk could be shipped. The OF said that as YFs, they did what their father told them to do, he never told them what to do with the apples once they were in the bags and out of the orchard.
Another OF had the same experience but not quite to the degree of the above. Their cows ate the apples off the ground and the ones that again were starting to rot were ready to go into pre-applejack so the cows became a little tipsy and were laying down under the trees with stupid looks on their faces.
A couple of OFs mentioned that they have their cider presses ready to roll and then they will actually press cider as the apples become ready. One has an old wooden press, and the other has a more modern stainless steel press. Other OFs could remember pressing cider with the old wooden ones and a large hand crank that drove a screw to press the apples. The apples that got the cows drunk with the pre-apple jack led to stories of the real stuff.
One OF told the story of making applejack, and he made it by leaving the cider in the keg until it froze solid. Only it doesn’t freeze solid. As it keeps freezing the alcohol content keeps increasing and that doesn’t freeze. The keg had a copper tube going to the center that had screw caps on it. One cap was on the outside of the keg and one on the inside so that no fluid would get in the tube. When the keg was sufficiently frozen the plugs were unscrewed and out came applejack. Proof content of the alcohol is anybody’s guess, only whatever alcohol content it was that applejack was potent. Some OFs used the skimming process where the ice on top was skimmed off and the jack would freeze again. The skimming was done until how much ice was formed on the top led to what the alcohol content might be. The more ice the lower the alcohol content.
The brother of one OF was building a new house up on the side of a hill with quite a drive going up to where the house was being built. When they were pouring the foundation for the house and the pour was finished, the OF’s brother invited the last concrete truck driver in for a break before he went back to the plant. The OF said his brother offered the truck driver a sip of his home made apple jack. (The tube to the center of the keg-type apple jack is how it was made.) By the way, applejack looks like crystal clear water.
The OF said his sister-in-law said she didn’t think this was a good idea, but the OF’s brother said, “Hey, just a spoonful won’t hurt.” The truck driver took the spoonful and commented on how smooth and good it was and asked if he could have another sip. The OF’s brother got a glass and gave the driver a quarter of a glass full, and the driver sat at the table and slowly drank the applejack as they just sat around the table and talked about the job. The truck driver then said he thought he should be getting back and went to get up and found he couldn’t move.
Applejack has that way of sneaking up on the drinker. The concrete truck driver forced his way up by pushing on the table so hard it almost flipped, then he stumbled, semi-walked and finally crawled his way to the truck. The OF’s brother said he should wait awhile before heading out. All the while the OF’s sister-in-law was jawing at them both, with a whole bunch of ‘I told you so’s’ and ‘you are going to get the man killed.’
The truck driver never made it down the driveway, he drove the truck off the side of the driveway and it rolled over, wheels in the air. The driver was not hurt because the whole event happened in slow motion. The concrete company had to send out a huge wrecker to right the truck, which really wasn’t hurt because once it was back on its wheels they were able to drive it back to the plant, but not with the truck driver that delivered the load of concrete. He still had trouble standing up. To top it off the OF said his brother said the tow truck operator said, “I want some of what he had.” The sister-in-law threw up her hands and went back in the house.
This happened all because of a simple little glass of apple jack. An apple a day will keep the doctor away, but the OFs said three or four bags of apples squeezed and fermented and nothing added, just apples, will BRING the doctor in a hurry. Or worse yet, even only half-way to jack can cause the farmer to lose three or four days pay from the milk check.
Other topics of the day were Christmas gifts, and kids, and how hard it is to break traditions once the kids get older.
Talk then resumed around Lyme disease (again) and also retirements out the window when the recession hit in the 80s, NY State, and local taxes, and legislators who just don’t care, because if a home owner gets ticked and says he will move out of the state, someone will buy his house and nothing changes, so the legislators say ‘so what, go’. Plus other topics, like always, and those OMOTM that traveled to the Hilltown Cafe in Rensselaerville to participate in these conversations were: (There are so many names here that it could be the column by itself.) Bob Benac, Jack Benac, Herb Swabota, Art Frament, Roger Fairchild, Jay Taylor, Bill Krause, George Washburn, Robie Osterman, John Rossmann, Frank Pauli, Harold Guest, Roger Chapman, Miner Stevens, Jim Heiser, Glenn Patterson, Mark Traver, Henry Whipple, Bill Rice, Mace Porter, Gary Porter, Lou Schenck, Jack Norray, Ken Hughes, Steve McDonald , Duane Wagenbaugh, Bob Lassome, Rich Donnelly, Joe Lobier, Ted Willsey, Gerry Chartier, Harold Grippen, Mike Willsey, Elwood Vanderbilt, Jim Rissacher, and me.