NEW SALEM – Carol Hillman shades her eyes as she looks out over a stunning autumn scene – rolling meadows, low stone walls first built hundreds of years ago, tall apple trees in shades of gold framing mountains and valley beyond. This is New Salem Preserves and Orchards, which Hillman and her late husband started 51 years ago. At 92 years old, Hillman, who sells preserves she makes herself, apples, apple vinegar, and sweet cider, is focused on the future.
Along with a self-taught hard cider maker, Hillman has launched New Salem Cider, a fledgling tasting venture that attracts more than 100 enthusiasts to the orchard each weekend. She has a clear mission: “I wanted to make the farm sustainable,” she says, adding that sales of sweet cider, apples and preserves aren’t enough.
But the venture also “has done something very special,” she says. “It has made a wider community.” Hillman, a small woman with a compelling way of talking, tells of watching couples come to the orchard to taste hard cider while their young ones munch on cider doughnuts, relaxing while gazing over the landscape as she is doing now. “I’ve seen couples start up conversations with each other,” making connections as they enjoy the place she loves so well.
The sense of place is intrinsic to Hillman, a belief that this land is worth preserving. To cider-maker and partner in New Salem Cider, William Grote, who is also a tech entrepreneur in Wellesley, this sense of place imbues their cider with history. Grote met Hillman several years ago when he discovered that her apple juice was exceptional. “The best apples and best juice make the best hard cider,” he says. Hillman asked him if he was interested in making hard cider for her, and a little more than a year ago they started the venture. Making hard cider is “well, hard,” he says, and takes time as well as skill. Since the cider must age almost a year, this summer was the first time their New Salem Cider was available to taste.
Inside a barn with colorful, hand-drawn signs for sweet cider and preserves, customers are served from a wooden-clad dispenser that Grote built. Each 13-ounce pour of hard cider with fanciful names such as Singin’ in the Reine (from Reine de Pomme apples) and Bee’s Knees costs $6. The cider is not distributed commercially, although 32-ounce glass growlers can be purchased for $20 to take home – $5 for the bottle – and returned for $15 refills.
Hillman, who lives in the 1750s house on the property and uses a solar power to make her preserves much as was done in Colonial times, tells how she and her husband came to buy a dairy farm with an overgrown orchard. Friends told them about the place, and though they hadn’t planned to buy a second home, they came to see it. “An indigo bunting was singing on a maple tree,” she says with a slightly dreamy look, “and that did it. It’s kind of been a love affair.”
She has spent decades bringing the orchard “back to its original beauty” – clearing away overgrowth, exposing and repairing stone walls, repairing barns – because she feels she is a steward of the land. As Grote says, the historical accuracy often takes precedence over practicality. “From the point of apple production, we should take down the stone walls and plant more trees,” he says. “But the landscape is visually part of the aesthetic.”
Most of the three acres of apples are MacIntosh with some heirloom varieties such as Golden Russet and Baldwin. All 150 are mature, tall trees, not the dwarf varieties now popular in some orchards. The full-size trees, some of which are 135 years old, produce better, more flavorful apples, says Hillman, and the deep-rooted trees are better able to withstand weather. This year’s harvest was bountiful, she adds.
Grote, whose day job is director of customer engagement at RPost, which makes email security and compliance software, is eager to show a visitor the pressing and cider-making equipment, done on Thursdays by a volunteer crew, which then has lunch prepared by Carol’s daughter, Jane Hillman. Even in the pressing operation, history is honored with a 40-year-old press and time-honored methods, such as hand-sorting apples for flaws. The juice used for both sweet and hard cider is put through UV stabilization to kill harmful bacteria, but is not treated with preservatives. Grote ferments multiple batches of juice each fall in small stainless steel tanks and lets it ferment to complete dryness. He then blends the different batches after aging them for a year to create a balanced hard cider with 6-7 percent alcohol. Along with the drier hard ciders, he also uses the orchard’s rhubarb and raspberries to make a sweeter hard cider.
Artisanally-made hard cider has become popular in the last decade or so, along with the rise of craft beer, but both Hillman and Grote emphasize this is a historical comeback. “Up until Prohibition, hard cider was the drink,” Hillman says, and in Colonial times it was often safer to drink than water. But when Prohibition came in, trees were cut down, ruining the trade.
Now as she looks ahead, Hillman, a former preschool teacher and educational author, treasures the educational component of her orchard. As she speaks, preschool children sit under trees learning about apples. An astronomy class from her alma mater Smith College came during the summer to lie in the meadow and study the stars. Yoga classes have met there. And then there are those who come to enjoy the cider. Grote says they made 750 gallons of hard cider this year, with about 250 gallons left. Franklin County Cider Days are this weekend (Nov. 1-3), and good crowds are expected. The goal, says Hillman, is to sell out by Thanksgiving, and she’s sure they will.
Then there’s the cider in the barrels fermenting for next year, farm chores to prepare for winter, and in February, trees to prune as they look forward to another season. “I’m energized and challenged,” says Hillman, who belies her age. “Or maybe the cider is from the fountain of youth,” she adds with a laugh.
New Salem Cider, New Salem Preserves and Orchards, 67 South Main St., New Salem,01355, 978-544-3437 www.newsalempreserves.com