The Strongman and the Cider
Picture Credit: “A Call on the Cider Barrel,” from The Outing Magazine, 1906
In the oral tradition, the elements of a story easily detach from one character and migrate to another. It’s not uncommon, then, to see the same anecdote applied to many different people. In the 1800s, a fairly popular tall tale celebrated a man who was so strong that he could lift a barrel of cider—and that’s hard cider, of course—and drink from it the way a normal person could lift a tankard or a glass.
One endearing version of this tale is found in The History of Ancient Windsor, Connecticut, published by Henry Reed Stiles in 1859. It regards John Osborn (1670-1740) who “was said to be the strongest man in New England in his day.” The tale continues:
“It is related that a celebrated pugilist of Virginia, having heard of his wonderful strength, came to Connecticut with a challenge to a boxing match. Osborn being a peaceable man, declined, but after much urging finally accepted the challenge. Adroitly remarking, however, that a drink of cider would be refreshing before engaging in such a contest, he led his antagonist to a cider press on his farm, where were several barrels filled. Taking one of them he raised it to his lips with astonishing ease, and after wishing health to his visitor, took a good, long draught from the bung, and then politely handed it to his Virginia friend. The latter, however, stood amazed, and answering that he would never drink with the devil, for no man’s strength alone, could enable Osborn to perform such a feat, took his departure for ‘the sunny south,’ a wiser and sadder man.” (728)
This folkloric tale obviously highlights the character’s strength and this particular version also touches on the theme of the Yankee who outwits a southerner. But this story also reveals how important cider was to the daily life of New Englanders, and especially to farming and rural communities.
The Connecticut River Valley was a thriving center for cider production during the 1700s and 1800s, and apples were among the first transplants from Europe in the 1600s. Henry Wolcott (1610-1680) of Windsor, Connecticut, for example, planted one of the first orchards in the river valley, as recounted by the town history:
“Mr. Wolcott’s apple orchard was one of the first, and, for many years, was probably the largest in the Connecticut Valley. It was in bearing before 1649, and his cider presses were at work in 1650. For twenty years afterwards he supplied young trees, summer and winter apples, and cider by the hogshead, gallon or pint, not only to his neighbors at Windsor, but to other towns in the vicinity, and occasionally for exportation to other colonies.” (478)
By 1671, Wolcott could boast the production of five hundred hogsheads of cider a year—no small accomplishment, indeed!
Hard cider declined in popularity in the 1800s alongside the industrial revolution and the shift away from agriculture. Non-alcoholic (soft) ciders and apple juice eventually took their place of prominence thanks to a number of factors, including the temperance movement, new technologies for pasteurization, and changing markets. Hard cider has, however, recently returned with a passion. Each of the four states touching the CT River now enjoys bragging rights for producing stellar examples. These cideries will appear in future blog posts, but you should seek them out now. Their products not only hearken to a rich tradition in the River Valley, but will make the challenge of an apple a day much easier to uphold.
Until next time, cheers!
Stephen Olbrys Gencarella