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- History

There is much we do not know about the history of making apple butter.  No one knows for sure where the idea came from or how the custom started in Ohio.  It might have come from the blue Ridge Mountains from the south.  Or it might have been introduced by the pioneers from Pennsylvania who had come along near the end of the American Revolution.  No one knows for sure.  One thing we do know for sure is that apple butter making was a part of early pioneer life.  What was true in early Virginia and Pennsylvania was certainly true in early Ohio.

Nearly every farm participated in one way or another in apple butter boiling.  After the corn had been cut and wrapped in shocks, pumpkins gathered into heaps, and the grapes were all picked, the people's minds turned to making apple butter.  It was an exciting time of the year.  The excitement of seeing the landscape change to the beautiful colors of autumn made people think about the spirit of parties and along with parties came apple butter making.

Farmers from miles around would gather at one farm for the occasion.  Four or five days before the boilings, invitations were usually sent out. Usually the invitations were carried by word of mouth from farm to farm.

Hams were boiled, chickens roasted and fried, salt rising corn bread would be baked along with cakes and pies.  Butter was churned and stored beside crocks of rich buttermilk in spring houses.  Glass chimneys of all the oil lamps were washed and polished and the lamps filled for the apple butter day.  There was outside work to be done also.  Men hitched up their light spring wagons and drove over the fields and hills collecting sweet apples because on early farms not all the apple trees were planted near one another.  In fact, before 1775, apple trees were not confined to orderly orchards at all, but likely to be anywhere on thousands of acres and even in the middle of a woods.  The men had to gather the apples wherever they were. 

The old copper kettles were taken down from storage in the barn or perhaps in the loft over the smoke house.  They had to be scoured and cleaned usually with vinegar and salt.  The cleaning made even the dirtiest kettle look just like new.  Originally the early people made apple butter in brass kettles, but later copper was used almost exclusively. There was the wood that had to be cut and gathered.  Piles and piles of wood were needed because they knew the fire and sometimes many fires had to be kept going the entire day to make sure the apple butter making was a success.

On the day that the apple butter was to be made, everybody had to get up very early, in fact, the old saying was "if you hear the rooster crowing, you have overslept."  There was much work that needed to be done, and in the old days the way of making apple butter made it even more necessary to get up early.

In the old days apple butter was never sweetened with anything except the natural flavor of the boiled down cider.  To boil down cider to sugar took many gallons of cider and long, long hours of cooking.

Apple butter making day was exciting for the children as well as the adults and the youngsters begged to stay home from school to participate in the excitement. Sometimes they were permitted to stay home, but usually they had to go to school. However, when school was over they did not take their time getting home. They ran all the way hoping that some of the fun would still be going on and usually it was.

Most of the old recipes followed the same procedure. At one fire they filled the kettle with the cider, and they boiled it down until half of the cider was gone and then they dumped in the quartered apples. Several pennies were sometimes added to help keep the butter from sticking on the bottom of the kettle. At fire #2 they would be pre-heating the apple pieces so cold apples were never thrown into the big kettle. At fire # 3 they would be boiling down the cider to make sugar.

Quartering the apples was usually the women's job and this meant sitting around big tables, slicing them into halves and then into quarters and sometimes into even smaller pieces. Of course this was a good time to catch up on all the gossip and share recipes and have just a good old sociable time. The butter was cooked to a thick red sauce as apples were added several times during the day. Then they would stir in the sugar made from boiling down cider. Next came the spices. Cinnamon, or cloves or nutmeg were often used.

In the old days, there was usually a group standing around the kettle humming, singing, or talking. Stirring the apple butter was an important job and somebody had to be doing it all the time. The old method for doing it was "twice around the outside and through the middle once" with a long paddle. Of course people had to stir right on through the meal times, and they took turns eating. Maybe it was a hot chicken dinner, or maybe it was ham, but it was always a real feast with many, many things to eat. Some food was brought by the people from farms nearby, but most of it was prepared by the family who was host for the occasion.

When the butter was finally finished cooking, they carried it in big pails to the cellar, and there they poured it into old apple butter crocks. Sometimes apple butter making would last until 10:00 at night until all was cleaned up and everything was put away. Apple butter making is truly a pioneer adventure.

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