RALSTON CIDER MILL
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When Prohibition was repealed in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
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 t wo
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 Alst-
ede Farms in nearby Chester and feed
them onto a conveyer belt that shim-
mies 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, volun-
teers spread the pomace evenly around
the rack. The excess cloth is folded to en-
close the pomace. The frame is removed,
The cheeses are stacked at least five
high and pushed along a rail system to
one of Ralston’s t wo 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 ef-
ficient: As one stack of cheeses is being
built, another is being pressed and an ear-
lier stack is being unloaded, the depleted
pomace tossed out a window to the yard
below, much to the delight of the shriek-
ing 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: ralst-oncidermill.org.
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.
For a taste of other fresh-pressed apple cider
made on premises, visit any of the following:
● BEEMERVILLE ORCHARDS
● HACKLEBARNE Y FARM CIDER MILL
Chester: 908-879-6593; njcidermill.com
● VAN DU YNE’S CIDER MILL
● WINDY BROW FARMS