By Laura Walker
ST. HENRY -- In one squish, the Pruden family's 100-plus-year-old apple press produces 135 gallons of cider.
The old, wooden press is layered with up to 50 bushels of apples at one time. If running non-stop all day, it can make 7,500 gallons of cider.
Local residents now can see the historic press in action while the Pruden family of Rockford has it up and running on the weekends at Niekamp's Farm and Flea Market along U.S. 127.
Helen Pruden said her grandfather, Matt Metzger, first saw the press when he was getting his sorghum milled to molasses. This was the last year, 1926, for the sorghum mill to process and he wanted some molasses.
He asked about the press, and they said, "If you can get it out of here, you can have it." He took them up on the deal, and John and Helen Pruden added it to their possessions in the mid- 1970s. They have used the press, built by Hydraulic Press Co., Mount Gilead, every year since. When it was built, the press weighed about 8,500 pounds. It now weighs in around 12,000 pounds because some wooden parts have been replaced with steel. When purchased new, before 1898, the cider press cost $495 or $782 with the apple elevator and accessories.
This year is the first time the family is taking the press on the road. The press, which has been inside a barn on the family farm since the mid-1970s, has been moved onto a trailer.
Since the days of all wooden presses, health regulations have changed. The press is updated with motors, plastic, stainless steel and synthetic cloths.
Over the years many parts of the press may have changed but one thing has not. The cider is still the same as it was when Grandpa Metzger ran the press, Helen Pruden says.
Heating and pasteurizing changes the flavor of cider, so the Pruden family opted for the ultraviolet light treating process. This process gets the same results, without the change in taste, they say.
Cider purchased at the site of pressing is not required to be treated, she explained. They do not add anything to the cider, making it an all natural product, which is hard to find these days.
They explain natural cider will keep for maybe two weeks, depending on the refrigeration temperature. The colder it is kept, the longer it will keep, John Pruden said.
His wife suggests freezing the cider, making sure to leave an air space for expansion. She warns people to thaw cider slowly in the sink or refrigerator and shake to mix before drinking. She says frozen cider is just as good as cider two days after pressing.
"This is the best it is going to be," she says of two-day-old cider. Her husband and son agree, explaining this is when the sugars mature.
Different apples give cider a different taste, they say.
"The larger the mix of apples, the better the cider," John Pruden says. Pure apple cider cannot have any pears included in the pressing, but adding a few makes the best cider, his wife says.
The Pruden family drinks cider year round, not just in the fall. When questioned about recipes, they say everyone has a favorite for hot spiced cider. A popular and simple recipe is dropping a cinnamon ball into the pot while heating the cider.