The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Cider Run

By Russel E. Pangle © 1985

Issue: September, 1985

In the early fall of 1935 I made my first trip to the Cider Mill with my Grandad. I had waited patiently for as long as I could remember for my Grandad to ask me to go to the Cider Mill nestled between the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the steep rise of Calf Mountain northeast of Waynesboro, Virginia.

I was 9 years old on December 23, 1934 and I was much bigger than either of my two older brothers so I had a strong feeling that this would be the year when I would go to the Cider Mill with my dad and grandad.

Although the fishing was good in South River and my two brothers wanted me to help them dam up the creek that ran through the farm to make a swimming hole, I never left my grandad's side after school was out for the summer. In late June he finally told me I could go to the mill as soon as the apples were ready.

I wouldn't have to watch my two brothers climb up on the high wagon seats beside my dad and grandad and wave as they pulled out with the big wagons loaded with apples for the day long trip to the mill; this year I was going.

I watched the big yellow Johnstone and pale red Winesap apples form on the trees in Grandad's orchard and I tried to hurry them along by working extra hard keeping the weeds away from the trees. Five trips were required to furnish enough apples to make cider for us and our neighbors and to pay the mill owner who processed the apples on halves. I knew I would have five trips to the mill and one trip in late October to get the cider and bring it back to the farm.

My two brothers chose not to go to the mill that summer so I had my grandad and dad all to myself. The two massive, big footed, gray Belgian horses that Grandad drove were a wonder to watch when they bowed up their huge necks and leaned into the harness as they pulled the heavily loaded wagons. Dad always drove the team of big long eared Missouri mules who seemed to resent being made to follow the two Belgians.

I learned later on that the Belgians wouldn't work with the mules as a team. Grandad had tried one mule and one Belgian as a team and the big steel shod Belgian tried to kill the mule so they were kept apart in the pasture and the barnyard too.

Although I had to work hard at the mill cleaning the apples out of the wagons, I enjoyed the trip across the valley. Listening to Grandad's stories and eating Grandma's biscuit lunch at the mill that was surrounded by the ever changing Blue Ridge Mountains in the fall was all I could ask for. I looked forward to the trip to the mill to pick up the cider in late October.

Grandma let me wear my school clothes and packed us a special lunch when we went to get the cider. This was going to be the best trip of all. I wouldn't have to work at the mill and while the cider was being loaded I could go into the mill and look around.

Six big wooden barrels of cider were loaded on each wagon with an overhead hay boom. Grandad had an additional two small kegs put on his wagon. I heard him tell the mill owner that the two kegs would be put away to "stiffen up" a little.

Before we started down the mountain for home, Grandad reminded Dad to stay off the hard macadam road as much as possible. The big wide steel tires on the wagons caused them to vibrate rapidly on the hard surfaced roads and this wasn't good for the cider.

Grandad led the way down the mountain and when we reached the macadam road he kept to the shoulder of the road as much as possible.

We were two miles from home and on a gentle downhill slope of macadam road when I heard a dull explosion on my dad's wagon. I looked back and saw that the explosion had scared the mules and Dad was having a hard time holding them back. The two big mules had their ears pointed forward and were partially rearing up and jerking their heads down trying to get the bridle bit between their teeth. Dad was standing up, leaning back, sawing back and forth on the reins to keep the bits far back in their jaws.

The two Belgians became nervous and great ripples ran from their wide muscled backs from their shoulders to their haunches as they put their heads down and walked slightly faster.

"Get a good grip on the seat, Russ. If the mules try to come around us I don't know whether I can hold these two or not", Grandad said as he got a better grip on the reins and smiled.

"Hooold Bob. Hooold Bill," Grandad talked soothingly to the horses and calmed them down.

The mules were still rattling the traces, but Dad was holding good and everything was looking good when a double explosion came from Dad's wagon.

Before Grandad could set the bits back in the Belgian's jaws, they had grabbed them between their teeth and reached out into great running strides. I glanced back and saw the mules coming as fast as they could run. Dad was still sawing on the reins, but the mules ignored him. The exploding cider barrels had completely panicked both teams.

Both teams were lined out in the middle of the macadam now and running at full tilt. The mules were gaining on us and when they got close enough for me to see their bulging, fright filled red eyes, a barrel on Grandad's wagon blew its side bung and sprayed cider across the mules and into Dad's face.

The cider spray caused the mules to shy for a moment and Dad started to fall forward out of the wagon. He let go of the reins and grabbed the front board of the wagon to hold on. The explosion so near caused the Belgians to redouble their efforts and as the next couple of explosions came from Dad's wagon the horses easily pulled away from the mules. Both teams were now thoroughly panicked and running wild.

A ninety degree turn off of the macadam road into a rut dirt lane leading to Grandad's farm didn't slow either team. When Grandad saw that the big Belgians were going to turn he shouted, "Hold on, Sonny!"

I had a death grip on the wagon seat as we skidded around the turn and wiped out the gateposts. Grandad lost the reins in the turn and was holding on to me as the team headed for the barn. I could see my Grandma, all four feet ten inches of her, standing on the front porch of the farm house holding her apron up over her eyes.

Grandad got his foot on the brake handle as we swept by the house and the big rear wheels were dragging as we neared the barn. The Belgians slid to a stop at the barn door. I jumped off the wagon and looked back. The two mules were casually drinking from a watering trough about hundred feet from the farm house.

I couldn't see Dad so I started running toward his wagon, then I saw him. He was between the mules dipping his head in and out of the watering trough like dickey bird.

I noticed that Dad's wagon was empty and the only cider that Grandad had was in the two small kegs. I waited for my Grandad to explode.

While Dad and I walked the mule team up behind the Belgians, Grandad went to the back porch and got the old porcelain covered drinking dipper, then came back and turned one of the kegs on its side and knocked the bung out. He filled the dipper with cider and gave it to Dad.

Grandad went back to the Belgians and stroked their heads and patted them gently before turning them toward the big tree in the barnyard where he parked the wagons. He glanced at me with a half smile and said, "We'll try it again next year."