Whether it’s cold and refreshing or warm and spiced, a glass of apple cider is one of this season’s greatest pleasures. About 100 years ago, Hopkinton residents didn’t need to go far to enjoy freshly pressed, sweet cider – or its more pungent variations, hard cider and vinegar. A thriving cider mill located behind what is now 79 Ash Street churned out all three.
Little remains of the old mill at the current property, where the original farmhouse has been lovingly preserved and thoughtfully expanded, except for one notable feature: a beautiful kitchen fireplace made from stone that once was part of the mill. Current owner Suzanne Gallo can point out gouges and holes that likely anchored the mill’s machinery.
Along with this physical relic, memories of the mill live on in photos, letters and newspaper clippings from the mill’s heyday and decades later, when the late historian Gordon Hopper delved into its interesting past and found moments of both tragedy and revelry. Gallo has a sheaf of old photos and clippings, passed on to her by former owner Trina Macchi, who researched the property’s history.
Once called the Spring Valley Farm, the Ash Street property was owned at various times by the Eames, Larson, Gray, Ballas, Brown and Nealon families, as well as the Macchis and Gallos more recently. In 1981, Hopper interviewed an aging neighbor who recalled when the cider mill operated from the early 1920s to the 1950s. The neighbor described a thriving operation, powered by a gasoline engine repurposed from a car, in which apples were put through a grinder on the mill’s second floor, then traveled down chutes to two cider presses on the ground floor. The neighbor said that the cider was stored in vats and barrels until it was ready to sell. A horse-powered winch lifted cider that had turned to vinegar to the top floor.
Other longtime neighbors told Hopper that they could remember how hard cider fueled raucous drinking parties on a nearby hill. The revelers would roll the barrel of hard cider to the top of the hill, then let it roll down the hill towards the mill when it was empty. The mill also figured in a Hopkinton mystery: the 1929 disappearance of resident Danny Sullivan, who traveled to Ashland to get liquor then headed back to the cider mill to meet up with some friends – but never got there and was never seen again.
In a 2001 letter to a former owner, Florida resident Jean Morelli shared childhood memories about the home and the mill, which her grandfather Bernard Gray purchased in 1914. “At the time when my grandfather purchased it, there was the house, huge barn, cider mill and 126 acres,” she wrote. “The house originally had a large ell on the back…It held a grain room, a room where they stored wood, a room which was used as a carpenter shop, an outside john, and two rooms over that where the help slept.”
“It was such a wonderful place to be raised when I was a child and I have so many happy memories there,” Morelli wrote.
While it thrived for nearly a decade, the mill was crippled by fire in the late 1920s. Fumes from the stored vinegar overcame the firefighters from Hopkinton and Woodville, who nonetheless were able to distinguish the fire.
“The big barn with four cows, a Ford auto, hay and farming implements, together with a cider mill, equipment and about 50 gallons of vinegar were burned, but the firemen saved the house, the roof of which became ignited several times,” reported one newspaper. “A number of hens were rescued by the firemen. John Cahill, member of the Hose Co., was knocked out for a short time by inhaling fumes from the vinegar, and later was able to resume his duties with his comrades.” Fire Chief T. J. Danahy estimated the damage at $12,000 to $15,000, a tremendous loss at the time. Later, a neighbor told Hopper that spilled vinegar helped firefighters put out the flames.
While the mill’s capacity was greatly diminished after the fire, Gray was able to keep it operating, until another tragedy struck. In 1931, the 59-year-old Gray was killed when his horse startled and bolted, throwing him against an elm tree in front of the home. While his widow Bessie kept the mill going for a while, she later sold it to the Ballas family, which dismantled the operations. The property would change hands a few more times, but the cider mill never operated again.