If your fall traditions include wandering through corn mazes, carving jack-o’-lanterns and everything pumpkin spice, you’re in good company. Traditions like these become rich with meaning when returned to year after year, and families and friends in Cortland County have one fall tradition that has lived on since 1933 - watching apples getting squeezed at Hollenbeck’s Cider Mill.
Though the owner has changed, the last name has not, and the new blood is ensuring the tradition stays alive. Matt Hollenbeck took over the long-standing Virgil, N.Y. institution in 2017, but he is making cider the same way his predecessor and cousin, Bruce Hollenbeck, made cider before him.
Starting on September 21st, the cozy property on farm-lined Route 392 will be clogged with visitors who come to watch a relic at work while sipping some of the freshest apple cider around. The thirsty spectators have been lining up since the Depression Era when Bruce's father began the business to make ends meet. Bruce officially purchased the business when his father passed away in the 1970s and continued to add to the foundation that had been built. From a country store to fresh-baked doughnuts, a bakery to a cold storage area, each addition contributed to the tradition.
When it was finally time to retire, Bruce passed the torch to Matt who was not only looking for a more fulfilling career, but like the locals, had a personal connection to the cider mill.
"Some of my earliest memories are coming up here (Hollenbeck's) in the fall," Matt recollected. "I dreamt of pressing cider with Bruce and using the equipment."
His childhood fantasies were put on hold as his college degree in Geology took him from a desk job developing maps for a utility company to working two years as a field geologist on oil rigs. When it came time to advance in his career, he realized that would entail sitting in an office, which was not what he wanted out of day to day life.
"I like to call that time period as the world’s worst time machine in that I got in and was transported a year and a half into the future, but it took a year and a half to get there."
That time machine took Matt back to his roots where he found himself realizing a dream forgotten - working the Victorian-era press with his cousin. His intention was to learn about small business ownership to pursue his own career path, but when Bruce broached the idea of handing the business over to Matt, his priorities quickly turned to apples.
"I finally got to fulfill all the things that I needed out of life and work to be satisfied - manual labor, doing different things every day and interacting with people."
Matt has now been at the helm for two years of the mill's existence, and he has made every effort to continue the customs Bruce created in the small Central New York village. When the sound of the vintage, but well-maintained press comes through the doors of the mill, children and adults alike huddle on the other side of the partition to get a glimpse of the gigantic device in action, a practice that has been set in place since the 30s.
"There’s always a little kid hanging on the chain that overlooks the press, and you can hear their parents tell them that when I was your age, your grandparents bought me here to watch this."
Matt stressed the importance of allowing visitors to see every step in the cider-making process. Not only does it add to the experience, but in a time where people are wary of consuming processed foods, it gives them peace of mind knowing there is nothing happening to the traditional drink of American Harvest.
"There’s not a lot of places where you can go and see your treats being made," he added. "There’s no magic. It’s simplicity is what makes it so good."
The popular doughnuts are still baked on-site Saturdays and Sundays, and their pies - apple, Dutch apple, cherry and pumpkin to name a few - are baked daily. Cheese, maple syrup and other local products are also available.
Small changes were carried out when ownership transferred over, including the launch of a website and an option to pick up pies for Thanksgiving. The mill recently opened its doors during summer months, treating guests to freshly baked pies, breads and pizza three days a week, June through August.
Now Matt is trying his hand at some old-school methods of using apples, such as boiled cider, an old practice that is a relatively uncommon product in the country.
"I have only been able to find two places in the entire United States that makes boiled cider, and they’ve started making it only the last five years. It’s a delicious way to preserve the bounty of apples all year long."
Another big undertaking currently in the works is the addition of an apple orchard. The mill purchases its products from several growers in the Lake Ontario region, but over 500 trees are currently sitting in a nursey, custom-crafted for Hollenbeck’s by Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Matt describes the trees, called Tall Spindles, as 'glorified, big, woody tomato plants.'
"They’re not your typical, romantic apple trees, but will yield the highest production per acre," Matt explained. "Being land limited, it allows me to have a few more varieties that make different products. We also went with varieties genetically resistant to a lot of diseases to hopefully limit our spraying."
As the Cider Mill continues to develop, leaving behind a prominent legacy, Matt's goals for the future remain simple, but honorable – carry on this beloved family tradition passed down through generations.
"The labor part is my family’s tradition, but coming to get the products from us, that’s a tradition for other people’s family," he said. "In the fall I work 100 straight days, all of them over 12 hours, most of them over 16 hours, and the only thing that makes it worth it is how important it (Hollenbeck’s) is for other people."
Learn more about Hollenbeck's Cider Mill at www.HollenbecksCiderMill.com or follow them on Facebook and Instagram.
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