Appealing Apples: The History of Ralston Cider Mill

Once a year, volunteers in Mendham crank up the historic Ralston Cider Mill. The result: A sweet and tangy juice that’s worth the wait.

Volunteers unload truckloads of apples for pressing at Ralston Cider Mill.
Volunteers unload truckloads of apples for pressing at Ralston Cider Mill. Photo by Matthew Wright

Sitting at the Ralston Cider Mill, sipping shots of 80-proof applejack, Raymond Nadaskay and Sammy Fornaro Jr. look more like teenagers toasting their birthdays than 70-somethings at an annual apple pressing. Yet to these men, the restored red barn behind them is like their baby: Sammy grew up around the mill before his father shut it down when he was a boy; Raymond has spent the past decade rallying to restore Ralston to its former glory.

Today is a special day: The mill is producing cider, a feat that happens only once a year now. For decades, the mill was empty, abandoned. But its history of secret tunnels and clandestine commerce was not forgotten.

The original structure, built in 1848, was a water-powered gristmill on the gently sloping grounds above the Burnett Brook between Mendham and Chester. For nearly 60 years, the mill’s owner, John Ralston Nesbitt, ground grain into flour and feed, until he died in the mill of an apparent heart attack in 1904.

Perhaps ghost stories chased buyers away, or maybe it was the railroads that shifted milling westward. But for six years, the mill stood empty. Ralston got a second wind in 1910, when Thomas Laughlin relocated his Tiger Applejack Distillery to the three-story stone structure. Laughlin replaced Ralston’s wooden wheel with a new water turbine; the milling stones swapped places with two massive apple presses still in use today. The days of grinding grain gave way to the sticky, sweet production of applejack, or double distilled apple cider, fondly known as Jersey lightning.

By the time Ralston entered the cider game, New Jersey was an apple-growing powerhouse and the national leader in cider production, with 23 percent of the country’s output in 1899. Going back to Colonial days, cider had been a staple of the American diet, and applejack a favorite potable.

“George Washington and John Adams each had a tankard of hard cider for breakfast,” says Nadaskay, chief architect of the mill’s restoration, resident historian, chairman of the Mendham Township Historic Preservation Committee and president of the mill’s board of trustees. Even colonial children drank a watered-down cider, alcohol and all. Apples were so valued that in New Jersey, colonists paid construction crews with applejack.

In time, however, applejack gave way to beer as the American drink of choice. The Volstead Act of 1919— a precursor to the 18th Amendment, which outlawed the sale, manufacture and transport of liquor—was the final nail in the coffin for some cider mills and distilleries in New Jersey and beyond.

Ralston Cider Mill soldiered on, with a little ingenuity from Laughlin. “He figured out a way to hide a very big still so he could operate during Prohibition,” says Nadaskay. The mill’s shed, which today offers an informational video for visitors, cloaked the illegal still behind a sliding panel, its smokestack disguised as the shed’s furnace. False floors masked barrels upon barrels of illicit brandy.

New Jersey, the last state to ratify the 18th Amendment, was a hotbed for illegal distilleries and liquor smugglers.  The business, though risky, was profitable enough to draw a new owner for the mill once Laughlin called it quits.

In 1929, Naples-born Sammy Fornaro and his growing family—soon to include Sammy Junior—purchased Ralston and the building across the road. Fornaro continued producing bootleg liquor in the mill, but added a new revenue source. Using a water tunnel, he snuck his booze into the basement of a nearby building and turned it into a speakeasy.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the Fornaros turned the former speakeasy into a roadside restaurant that does business today as Sammy’s Ye Old Cider Mill.

The mill itself had a different fate. The liquor industry was becoming increasingly regulated, wheat-based beers and whiskey were increasing in popularity, and East Coast apple orchards were being cut down to clear the way for suburbia. In 1938, the Fornaros closed the mill.

For the rest of the 20th century, the mill was again dormant. In time, the roof collapsed, the upper floors rotted out, and the apple presses crashed down two stories to the basement.

Still, there were offers for the property—all of which the Fornaros turned down. Finally, in 2003, at the urging of the Historic Preservation Committee, the Fornaros sold the mill to the township for close to $1 million—with the stipulation that it be preserved as a museum.

Restoration began in 2004, with most of the contractors working pro bono and generous donors pitching in. The renovation salvaged much of the its vintage hardware, including the gears, pulleys and presses, which are now hooked up to an electric motor that mimics the water-driven system.

Today, the privately funded, not-for-profit museum is staffed entirely by volunteers. School groups and scout troops tour the mill, learning about its history, the science behind waterpower, and how to press an apple themselves by hand. And once a year, the Ralston Cider Mill dusts off the old machinery and runs the old apple presses. (This year’s pressing will take place October 10.)

It’s on this special day that Sammy and Raymond break out a bottle of applejack saved years earlier by Sammy’s father. Judging by the decaying label, it’s probably close to 100 years old. The two men don’t seem to mind. They sip the precious liquid from shot glasses, oblivious to the crowd of bees the applejack is attracting.

Outside the mill, volunteers unload a truck full of apples donated by Alstede Farms in nearby Chester and feed them onto a conveyer belt that shimmies the fruit up to the mill’s third floor. The apples represent a mix of varieties. “In order to have the best-tasting cider,” explains Alstede general manager Kurt Alstede, “you want to have a mixture of apples that are both sweet and tart. That way you get a complex flavor with a little sharp apple bite, but still sweet.”

Once inside, the apples—core, seeds, and all—are chopped into a slop called pomace by a grater whose sharp blades spin at 2,000 rpm.
The mill is a maze of gears, chains, pulleys and presses working in synchronization. On a crowded balcony, children peek their heads through the wooden banisters to watch the action. Behind them, parents and grandparents lean over the handrails, cameras at the ready.

The crowd listens attentively to Nadaskay’s narration, punctuated by the gentle squeak of pulleys. The atmosphere is relaxed but electric as the crowd gasps in excitement when the pomace drops from a chute above. The mixture lands with a juicy splat in a framed wooden hopper about 4 feet square, 6 inches deep and lined with cloth.

Working with wooden rakes, volunteers spread the pomace evenly around the rack. The excess cloth is folded to enclose the pomace. The frame is removed, leaving what’s called a “cheese.” Almost immediately, the bundled cheese is topped with yet another framed rack, just in time to catch the next batch of pomace from above.

The cheeses are stacked at least five high and pushed along a rail system to one of Ralston’s two original presses, which squeezes each cheese layer down to just 1 inch of pomace. The escaping liquid funnels directly into fermentation vats below. The process is extremely efficient: As one stack of cheeses is being built, another is being pressed and an earlier stack is being unloaded, the depleted pomace tossed out a window to the yard below, much to the delight of the shrieking children playing tag.

One of the volunteers, Ralston Cider Mill trustee John O’Hara, who, along with others, donated his contracting services to help restore the mill, estimates the day’s production at 200 gallons of cider. Nadaskay proclaims it Ralston’s  best year so far.

Still, it’s a far cry from the mill’s heyday. It takes 10 gallons of cider to produce a single gallon of applejack. In its prime, the same screw press once processed 10,000 pounds of fruit, or about 1,100 gallons of cider, a day. This day’s meager haul fills about 10 percent of one of the mill’s 1,500-gallon fermentation vats; in its heyday, the mill used seven such vats.

Later, visitors will be rewarded with paper cups of cider. (Some visitors come equipped with bottles to take home as much cider as they can.) Unlike most commercial cider, the Ralston juice isn’t homogenized. It tastes as fresh as biting into an apple; the sweet, tart and tangy flavors burst on the tongue with each sip.

“It truly is the best cider I’ve ever had,” says O’Hara’s wife, Arleen, another member of the volunteer crew.  “I get roped into it every year,” she jokes.

But, she acknowledges, “for everyone that’s here, it’s a labor of love.”

If You Go: Ralston Cider Mill is located at 336 Mendham Road West in Mendham. Fall hours: 1-5 pm,  Saturdays in September and October, and Sundays in October. General admission: $5; children 7 and under free. More information at their website.

Drew Anne Salvatore is a New Jersey-bred food writer, food stylist and recipe tester. Her favorite kind of apple comes in the form of a pie.

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