For many years, October was the month of the apple harvest in Three Rivers. Summer sun and the waters of the Kaweah brought the fruit to full maturity and the trees were laden with their fragrant, juicy and flavorful apples. They ranged in color from the deepest red to a delicate yellow. The fruit was hauled to apple sheds, washed and graded; the best was loose boxed for eager buyers. The smaller apples were then made into cider.
Hundreds of valley residents would drive into the hills here each fall to buy apples, pears and cider. As they came into Three Rivers on Highway 198, they would see signs of the apple harvest directing them to the Sequoia Cider Mill. Originally started years ago by Dr. D. D. Nice, and expanded later by Paul Spotts, it was known as Spotts’ Cider Mill. The Cider Mill was a roadside stand and a very pleasant stop for the motorist. The stand specialized in fresh cider the year round. Later it was operated by Gus Wohler who gave it the name of “Sequoia” and later owned by Mervin McCoy, then it was turned into a restaurant which unfortunately burned to the ground in 2012.
Turning left across the main river and driving up the North Fork Road into historic Kaweah, the driver discovered a large and flourishing apple district. Members of the old Kaweah Commonwealth Colony, put out many orchards after the colony disbanded, adding to those already planted by the pioneers. Most of these plantings have died out or have been taken over by home sites.
It was in this area in 1896 that the late Fred Savage started an orchard of Ben Davis and Winesap variety apples. It was enlarged to a twenty-acre planting in 1897-98. His sons, Kenneth and Alan, continued the operation then known as the Savage Brothers Apple Ranch. The making of cider originally used a hand-cranked mill and the apples were ground by hand and then dropped into a slatted press. When this was full, a “follower” was screwed down, and the juice began to flow. This mill was later replaced by a bigger, commercial cider mill.
In the past it was common practice to feed the “pummy” left from making cider to the family herd of pigs that was common to most farms and ranches at the time. One of the ranchers did not feed the pulp to his hogs for a few days after the apples had been ground; later that day his little girl came running to the house crying, “Mama!, Mama! The pigs are all dead!” The wife hurried to the pig pen and found the motionless pigs sprawled about, seemingly expired. When she picked up a stick and prodded one of the prone sows, the animal pulled herself up on wobbly legs, staggered and pitched forward, ramming her snout into the earth. The pigs had not gone to pig heaven after all; they were just very inebriated from eating the fermented leavings of the apples!
Regarding more history of orchard planting, the Mehrten family came to the Three Rivers country in 1906 and bought the old Purdy place on the North Fork, which already had its own orchard. Nearby at that time was one of the finest and best kept orchards in the country. It was owned by Edmund Taylor. However after his death, the owners, having no sentiment about the cultivation of apples, let it go back to its original state, even though it was good for more years of productivity. It was given over to more home sites and horse pastures.
In the early days poor road conditions into Three Rivers discouraged the public from driving up to the orchards for their apples and it became necessary for some of the apple growers to take their own fruit into town to sell. One of these was Marion Griffes; he had a large orchard on what eventually was to become the Thorn Ranch. He would put hay in the bottom of his wagon, pour the sweet scented apples onto it and head his team for the valley. From door to door in towns and countryside, he sold apples by the buckets full. Sometimes he would go as far as Hanford and be away from home a week at a time.
He was very smart at his business of selling apples. In the Fall he sorted them, selling the large ones for a good price. Then after the holidays, when apples were scarce, he would bring out the small ones and get almost as much for them as he had earlier for the larger ones.
When the Thorn family bought the ranch in 1917, it was no longer necessary to take apples to the valley to sell; instead the public came to Three Rivers to buy them. By that time the roads were better and the family trade was good. Mrs. Bernice Thorn remembered that in one year, eighty tons of apples were sold at the ranch.
Winesaps, Stamen Winesaps, Ben Davis, Black Twig, Arkansas Black, Delicious and White Winter Permains were some of the many varieties of apples grown. Kenneth Savage, who always enjoyed a good joke, told about his favorite apple, the Ben Davis, which is a large well-flavored apple, especially good for baking purposes. Once, when Savage was peddling apples, he met another apple peddler and stopped to pass the time of day.
“What kind of apples you selling?” the peddler asked. “Mostly Ben Davis”, replied Savage. “Why, them apples ain’t no good”, the peddler laughed. With a twinkle in his eye, he told about a man who boasted that he could tell any apple by the flavor. They blindfolded him and gave him a slice of Jonathan and he named it correctly; then they gave him a piece of Delicious, of Winesap then Black Twig and each time he came up with the right answer. Then they gave him a piece of cork. After chewing on it for awhile he said, “Might be a Ben Davis, but it is juicer than any I [have] ever tasted.”1
When apple production was at its height, the community held apple festivals in a big dance pavilion built by H. P. Moffitt in Kaweah Park. Elbert Wing and Josiah Belden were prominent apple growers at this time and along with other producers, displayed quantities of bright-hued apples, pears and other produce. There was dancing in the center of the big floor, and a dinner was served with of course, apple pie.
1 No Apples for the Teacher, manuscript by Frankie Luella Welch.