Final jug: Sheets cider mill bottles its last
With little fanfare but much nostalgia, a 75-year Virginia tradition ended December 11 as the Sheets Cider Mill bottled its last jug of sweet apple cider.
"This is a sad day for Mr. Sheets and a sad day for Augusta County," said chairman of the county board of supervisors Larry C. Howdyshell. A minute later, Lauren Fifer, the four-year-old grand-daughter of mill operator Leon Sheets, put a cap on the last container, a glass jug that the family retrieved from storage for the occasion.
Governor Mark Warner didn't attend the ceremony in bucolic Mt. Sidney, but he sent along a letter of appreciation.
The plight of small cider makers was featured in The Hook's November 13 cover story, which also revealed some horrors that can happen when a virulent strain of E. coli bacteria gets into cider: kidney failure, intestinal damage, even death.
New government regulations taking effect in January force small wholesalers to pasteurize their fresh-squeezed juices or treat them with ultraviolet rays. Such systems start at $14,000– a mighty roadblock for Sheets Cider Mill, which has been pressing just 10,000 gallons of the autumnal beverage each year.
Joining the Sheets family for the finale was Dan Maupin of White Hall who had brought his apples over to be pressed. An orchardist and cider seller, Maupin, 78, is also going out of business and was loading up his truck for his final deliveries:
* 90 half-gallons to Foods of All Nations,
* 160 half-gallons and 80 gallons to Integral Yoga Natural Foods, and
* four gallons to Rebecca's Natural Foods
"I can't say I won't miss it," says Maupin, "because I will." He plans to uproot his apple trees and convert his fields to hay and cattle pasture.
There were some misty eyes in the crowd of nearly 30 people standing outside the metal shed that houses the press, which was reportedly purchased in 1928 from a going-out-of-business Staunton tire shop.
"Lock her down," bellowed Leon Sheets as the final of the day's four pressings concluded. "That's all she wrote."
"It's kinda sad," said Dale Thompson, who lives about three miles away and who has worked many pressings. Thompson decided to buy some cider from the last pressing. "I'm gonna save the jug, and I stole some caps to keep as keepsakes," he said.
One artifact that may puzzle future residents of Mt. Sidney is the name of the street that may soon sprout more houses: Cider Mill Road. At the closing ceremony, Curtis Sheets, 32, announced that Augusta County has agreed to make a commemorative sign for the family. "The county's going to make my wish come true," said the younger Sheets.
"It's a hurt any time you lose something that contributes to the local economy whether it's big or small," said Chairman Howdyshell. A night earlier, the Augusta supervisors learned that the county had issued $158 million in building permits during the first 11 months of the year, a lot of potential development for the number two agricultural county in Virginia. "You can be developed out or regulated out," Howdyshell noted.
The present case shows evidence of both. Curtis Sheets says the family has put its land up for sale and will probably disassemble and store the historic press in hopes that a museum might want it.
As the ceremony drew to a close, he urged guests to get a gallon. "It's about to become," he said, "a very rare commodity."
Owner Leon Sheets and his 4-year old granddaughter, Lauren Fifer, cap the last jug in the 75-year history of the Sheets Cider Mill.
PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER