Historic Preservation of the Ralston Cider Mill
By William “Billy” Neumann
At the start of each year, when you plan your historic preservation trips you must consider a visit to Ralston Cider Mill in Mendham. The Ralston Cider Mill is authentically preserved and the last and only operational cider mill in New Jersey. The preservation of the mill’s structural and mechanical engineering and its architectural history demonstrates how innovative New Jersey’s national leadership once was in this agricultural industry.
In 1848 the site began as a common grist mill producing flour and feed and was powered by the Burnett Brook. John Ralston Nesbitt and his mother, Mary Ann Nesbitt built and operated the mill till John’s death in 1904. It was quickly purchased by Thomas J. Loughlin, a Newark wholesaler of liquor. Loughlin already employed a nearby mill and distillery to produce his “Tiger Apple Jack.” Apple Jack was an increasingly popular liquor distilled from 10 gallons of “hard cider” or fermented cider to produce one gallon of applejack. On a finer point, a bushel of apples (40lbs) yields about one gallon of “sweet cider” or just “cider” made from the unfiltered and unfermented liquid extracted from crushing apples. Apples came from Morris County farms, second only to Hunterdon in apple production. In 1905, when Thomas Loughlin took over operations, New Jersey was the national leader in plain cider and apple jack with production of over a million gallons of so called “Jersey Lightning” per year.
Loughlin quickly converted the Ralston Mill to cider production by installing two large cider presses. Everything was powered by an efficient cast-iron water turbine hooked in to the nearby brook. Then, (and as it remains today,) cider production would commence with apple deliveries from local farms. The fruit would be washed, conveyed by belt up to the 3rd floor of the mill and fed into a power grater to be crushed and ground into a pumice (also called a “pomace.”) Workers on the floor below waited to open a hatch to drop a load of grated pumice onto a filtering cloth with a support lattice underneath. The pumice would be held within a five foot square container, four inches tall. After smoothing the paste to fill just up to the top of the container, another layer of cloth and lattice were applied to cover and press down it. Immediately, another pumice arrived and the cloth “sandwich” would again be constructed on top of the last until a stack of these prepared layers could be manually manipulated under one of the two adjacent wooden and steel presses. Slow and steady downward pressure was applied to the stack of filtered layers by screw or scissor presses and the juice would gush out and into a large holding vat on a lower floor to be eventually fermented, distilled on site and bottled. Having the ability to alternate between the two presses kept the processing efficient and nicely rolling along for James Loughton. That was up until Prohibition…
The Temperance Movement slowly quenched New Jersey’s dominance in applejack. The Volsted Act of 1919 almost obliterated operations at Lairds & Company in Scobeyville, NJ. Laird’s began in 1698 but incorporated in 1780 and was easily the oldest and largest applejack distillery in the United States. Some cider mills went underground. Thomas Loughlin found a way to conceal an on site distillery and bottling operation hidden in a structure below grade that enabled continued production of applejack throughout prohibition. It didn’t hurt that a known and accepted speakeasy operated right across from the mill on Mendham Rd.
In 1929 resulting for limited use, the Ralston Cider Mill was sold to Sam Fornaro Sr. who converted it to electric power and attempted to profitably operate the cider presses through the depression and right up till 1938. But it was tough to keep it running and a long decline through water invasion, neglect and deterioration nearly sealed the mill’s fate to destruction.
Decades later, historic preservation of the mill was initiated when local architect Raymond Nadaskay first toured the interior. Raymond was a member of the Mendham Township Historic Preservation Committee and was always curious about the mill. At first, he assumed the worst and thought the building would be developed into an entirely different use.
Edible New Jersey reported that after his visit inside, the architect exclaimed, “I saw a great big vat on my left, another vat on my right. I looked up on the next floor and I saw two presses. Everything was there.”
That visit would reshape the entire future of the structure. In 2004 Sam Fornaro, Jr. was persuaded to deed the property to Mendham Township so that a nonprofit could be set up to start restoration and eventual operation as a living museum. Architect Nadaskay saw to structural documentation and how to stabilize the building. Grants were obtained and archeology unearthed foundations of lost outbuildings. Preservation efforts included a wide range of volunteers, millwrights, craftspeople, and experts to create a fully working mill along with all the needed support to function well. Just four years after Raymond Nadaskay’s visit, power was successfully applied to restart the presses and it was agreed that a cider mill would be reborn again.
Since 2008 thousands of people have visited, students have been amazed, researchers have found answers and during October’s *Pressing Day many of them might even have tasted the absolutely freshest cider in New Jersey that was created right before their eyes.
The Ralston Cider Mill is located at 336 Mendham Rd, W. Mendham, NJ 07945 and part of the Ralston Historic District.
It is open to the public on specific Sundays during the three months of May, September and October generally from 1-5pm. Other times and groups require advanced appointments.
*Each year a Sunday in October is designated as Pressing Day. It is the only time when the mill is fully operational and processing apples. On that day, fresh pressed cider may be available for your BYO Containers.
You can see more about Ralston Cider Mill and check their schedule at www.ralstoncidermill.org
William “Billy” Neumann is a Preservation New Jersey Board of Director and chairs the Marketing Committee. He is the former Chairperson of Bergen County’s Historic Preservation Advisory Board and led Rutherford’s HPC for five years. He has authored two local history books, several National Register nominations and presents talks, walks and demonstrations on history, historic preservation, commercial photography and beekeeping.