STUART-A previous article on the history of apple growing recounted the story of Patrick County’s world-famous “Handy Apple Tree” and its huge crop of apples. Likewise, the relationship between the fruit and the making of apple brandy was well documented. Another side of the story remains to be told however, that is, the very ambitious effort to curtail the manufacture, sale, and use of this popular fermented product of Patrick’s orchards.
In the 1880s, churches were few and far between in what is now the community of Ararat, Virginia,then known as “Friends Mission.” Primitive Baptists had established a church or two, the Methodists were meeting whenever the circuit riders came through, and a Presbyterian church was located in Stuart. In the western part of Patrick County, Moravian missionaries from Salem (now Winston-Salem) had established a church at Willow Hill.
From the 1880s through the early 1900s, however, many new churches came into being in all of Patrick County. This period saw a revised interest in the “temperance movement,” the effort to restrict or ban the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages across America. (The movement succeeded with “prohibition” coming to Virginia in 1916 followed by a nationwide ban in 1920.) Many evangelicals supported the temperance cause, and this seems to have led to the founding of more churches throughout Patrick County.
The Women’s Temperance Union had been organized in 1874, and it grew rapidly in the next few years. As Barbara Summerlin wrote in The Legacy of Ada: A Mountain Woman, “Evangelicals and missionaries considered the people living on the slopes of the Blue Ridge and in the valley below ripe for an anti-alcohol ministry. Through the journals of the visiting preachers, we learn that the consumption of alcohol by the mountaineers, including children, contributed to their poverty and early deaths.”
In 1888, the Society of Friends (Quakers) came to the area that is now Ararat, Virginia, for the purpose of founding a mission and a school. They maintained the mission and school until 1918 when the Presbyterian Mission Board bought 28 acres of the land and five buildings. The Quakers found that the making and consumption of alcohol was an accepted way of life for many people in the area. Almost every farm had an excess of apples, and the easiest method of preserving the apples since the area was without a good transportation system was converting them to liquid (brandy).
Eleven years after the founding of the mission and school, a report was submitted to the North Carolina Yearly Meeting – Society of Friends and then included in the Quaker magazine, The American Friend, in October 1899. The report from Friends Mission (Ararat) read in part:
It is wonderful to see the change which has come to this district. We used to be much troubled with intemperance, consequently, disorderly conduct in our meetings was not uncommon but now we have good, quiet congregations, and whilst there is still considerable drinking all around yet public sentiment is rapidly rising against it. Our temperance organization which has not had the attention and efforts it deserves for the past two years, will be revived and we expect to make vigorous efforts in this branch of the word.
Another remarkable change has come which I feel is the answer to our many prayers. Within the radius of a few miles there has been running every year ten or 12 brandy distilleries, consuming thousands of bushels of beautiful apples. Efforts have been made at Stewart [Stuart, Va.] and other points to evaporate them. This summer a gentleman from New York erected a large evaporator near our mission, and up to the 10th of Ninth month had purchased and used four thousand five hundred (4500) bushels of apples, had shipped eleven thousand (11,000) pounds, and was running his machine night and day. Through this industry all the distilleries were closed, and at the time we were there, not one was running. We think this is a most encouraging feature.
I am also glad to state that a railroad is being rapidly constructed from Mt. Airy to a point near the pinnacles of dan where recently large sawmills have been started. All these enterprises are increasing the value and importance of our mission.
The process of drying apples involved treating them with sulphur and turning the peeled, cored, and sliced fruit three or four times with a wooden shovel in the evaporator. After they were dried, they would be loaded into wooden barrels and usually sent to the nearest railroad depot, in this case, Mount Airy, NC. While the Mount Airy & Eastern Railroad operated (1899 to 1915), it seems likely that some apples were shipped from the Kibler Valley and Ararat communities directly to that depot.
According the above report from Friends Mission, the arrival of the large evaporator combined, perhaps, with the construction of the railroad spur line to haul timber out of the area, served to shut down most of the distilleries in the area. Having religious leaders who preached against alcohol may have had a significant effect on the demise of alcohol production also. At the least, apple drying and sawmills provided other opportunities for income for the residents of the Ararat area. How long the apple evaporator operated at Friends Mission is not known, and no other information has been located regarding it. Because fires were built under the wooden slatted racks of apples in the drying process, the building and evaporator could have been destroyed in a conflagration.
Yet despite efforts of the Quakers and other religious groups that successfully diverted many thousands of bushels of apples to a healthier dried fruit food product, judging by reports in newspapers of the time, they never succeeded in completely halting the manufacture of apple brandy, neither the legal nor illegal variety. It was to continue for many years. Some traditions, especially those of the rural, independent minded people in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, seem to never change.
Shellby Inscore-Puckett, an Ararat resident who compiled most of the information for this article says that she has a small, wood fired apple evaporator on display at The Hollow History Center, located off Doe Run Road in Ararat, Virginia.