A personal account as written exclusively for the Historical Society of Easton by Noel Quinton.
The second of a two-part series – The Retail Operation.
The 1960’s and 70’s:
In those days, the appeal of the place was based foremost on the quality of its fresh fruit and cider, but for some customers the journey to Easton was also part of the experience. People from lower Fairfield and Westchester County would stop at the Apple Barn during a weekend outing that featured a pleasure drive along the Merritt Parkway and the scenic section of Black Rock Turnpike that passed by the Hemlock and Aspetuck Reservoirs. During October weekends in the ‘60s the number of arriving cars would far exceed the Apple Barn’s available parking spaces and northbound traffic would back up for more than a half a mile. In the interest of safety an auxiliary policeman would direct traffic on the busiest weekends, but only an expansion of the parking area could alleviate the source of the congestion.
A significant construction project in 1968 addressed the issues of safety and parking capacity by enlarging the lot to the south of the building which in turn resulted in the elimination of the original spaces directly in front of the entrance to the store. A new building was erected adjacent to the Apple Barn, set back at the edge of the new parking area, with offices and an employee break room on the main level and garage bays for vehicle and equipment maintenance beneath (this is now the Aquarion Watershed and Environmental Management Office). To create room for the new building, the old barn that belonged to the neighboring house was turned, moved south and placed on a new foundation.
At the close of the 1960s, the Apple Barn continued to thrive on the strength of its fruit business, but nonetheless it was time for some updates and diversification. A project completed in 1971 included construction of two new rooms on the front side of the building and installation of a new roof sign with a redesigned logo to freshen the exterior appearance. The front rooms were stocked with new merchandise including honey products from Moorland Apiaries, maple syrup and other treats from Coombs Family Farms in Jacksonville, Vermont, and an extensive line of private-label jams, jellies and preserves made by Polaner. A display of old mechanical apple peelers and apple-box stencils added visual interest to the new retail displays, and a large aerial photo of the Flirt Hill orchard drew attention to the local origins of the fruit and produce. In special pens constructed on the south side of the building, customers may have noticed several wild turkeys from Pennsylvania that arrived in the early 1970s as part of a reintroduction program run by the University of Connecticut. After a brief stay in the pens, the birds were released on Bridgeport Hydraulic Company land which was chosen for its suitability as turkey habitat.
Customers craving Aspetuck Valley Orchards’ cider had to wait until late September each year when enough different types of apples had finally been harvested. The critical blend of varieties may not have been as closely-guarded a secret as the Coca-Cola recipe, but nonetheless it was considered a business asset. By paying attention, one could infer that not only were many varieties used but some were cider-specific and few, if any, were the sweetest varieties. In those days the cider was not pasteurized, so its shelf life was limited. Any cider on hand a week after being pressed would be sold as such, which was ideal for customers who preferred some sparkle in their beverage. In the rare years when a bumper crop of Golden Russets was harvested, a single varietal pressing of those apples yielded an uncommon cider that was especially delicious and unexpectedly light in color.
Aspetuck’s cider was sold in glass bottles and jugs in the 1960s, but these were replaced by plastic containers in the early ‘70s when many consumer products began to be packaged in the modern material that was initially regarded as preferable to heavy, breakable glass. After being filled, the jugs were stored in a refrigerated room in the northeast corner of the main floor until they were needed in the retail display case. Late in the season when business finally slowed down, youthful employees would enter the cooler one at a time and scream as loud as possible but no sound was ever heard by their co-workers outside, since the walls were made of cork eighteen inches thick. The unfortunate result of having grown up on Aspetuck cider is that no other orchard’s product has tasted quite as good to me in the forty-five years since I last enjoyed it.
On any given day during the sales season, employees typically operated a cash register or graded and packed apples. Just as every apple was harvested by hand in the orchard, so too was each one handled inside the Apple Barn by workers stationed at the sorting equipment in the rear of the main floor. With spacers or gates the mechanical sorter objectively determined whether any of the fruit was too small to meet the USDA minimum size for the variety. The properly sized apples then passed by a crew of workers, the graders, who packed the fruit for retail sale. Holding four apples at a time, a grader would check each one for its percentage of color and general condition including the amount and size of any bruises, blemishes, or skin damage. Those which met all the USDA requirements for Fancy grade were placed in bags of various sizes while ones that didn’t pass the beauty test went into Utility bags. Ideal specimens were placed in gift boxes which were filled as needed and looked very impressive when completed. Each grader made thousands of rapid decisions during a shift and poor judgement was consequential: too many Fancies mistakenly deemed Utilities resulted in lost revenue for the grower, on the other hand customers who purchased Fancies certainly did not deserve to find any Utilities in their bag when they got home.
In the early 1970s a Dutch-built GREEFA sorting station was installed as part of an integrated system of storage and handling improvements which included conversion from traditional boxes to bulk bins in the cold-storage rooms and utilization of a forklift to raise bins to the main floor, a considerable efficiency upgrade from the original box hoist. After the forklift deposited the bin on the main floor an employee moved it to the sorter with a pallet truck, secured it in place, and hydraulically raised and rotated the bin until its leading edge was positioned over the conveyor belt. Gravity allowed the apples to slide out of the bin onto the belt, with a heavy rubber flap providing the necessary resistance to control the rate of flow and prevent bruising. The apples then travelled past the sizer and reached a round sorting table which slowly rotated counterclockwise like a baggage carousel allowing the graders to easily reach the fruit.
On one occasion in 1974, I proactively shut down the sorter on a busy day when a peculiar odor convinced me that some sort of equipment malfunction was getting progressively worse. The intensity of the troublesome smell waxed and waned while we checked the electrical components and hydraulic lines and found nothing amiss. As I wondered what to do next, the source of the smell suddenly became obvious when a gentleman smoking a very odd blend of pipe tobacco approached us. To his inquiry about what we were doing, I mumbled something about a “routine inspection” and motioned to my co-workers to restart the machine.
The arc of the Apple Barn season ascended in August with the arrival of peaches, sweet corn and field crops. It rose quickly in September as more and more apple varieties ripened, and accelerated further when cider production began before it peaked during the prime weekends of October. The combination of delightful autumn weather and the maximum variety of available produce encouraged people to embark on an outing to Easton. For many folks it was probably an annual event despite the odds of traffic on Black Rock Turnpike getting slower and slower as they approached the Apple Barn. On the busiest October weekends in 1974, I well remember seven cash registers being used to handle the remarkable volume of customers. Not only were there registers on both sides of the south and north doors, but two others were set up outside those entrances with one more positioned at the side door. In the days preceding these peak weekends every available resource was dedicated to apple grading and cider production. We approached Columbus Day weekend as though engaged in a “one take” film production, knowing there wasn’t going to be a second chance to do things right. During those busiest days a task as simple as moving a hand truck loaded with cider from the cooler to the display case required patience, tact and humor, and it was beneficial to realize every container might be grabbed by a customer before the destination was reached.
In the less-frenzied days of November, the pace eased, and everyone felt confident that ‘if we survived October, we can survive anything’. December brought a change of pace for some employees once Christmas trees went on sale in the parking lot to the south of the Apple Barn. BHC raised Balsam firs, Frasier firs and Colorado blue spruce on its own lots in Easton, some which were less than a mile away. Being locally-sourced the trees did not have to be cut far in advance, in fact they might be harvested on a Saturday morning and sold before the end of the day. Clever display stands held them in a freestanding upright position allowing the branches to remain relaxed so that customers could see the true shape of each one. Employees working on the lot answered many questions and tied trees on car roofs all day long, a task that could be challenging, yet gratifying. In retrospect, it all sounds idyllic until one recalls that sooner or later your shift would be a 36-degree day with periods of drizzle, and it was impossible to tie knots while wearing soggy gloves.
After New Year’s Day, the volume of customers started a gradual but undeniable decline, a trend that could also be observed in the variety of available apples. By March, one started to speculate whether we’d run out of apples before we ran out of customers, or vice-versa. Would the timing of the inevitable closing be due mostly to the size of the fall crop, or to the distracting effect of early spring weather on customers? It all played out a bit like the end of the ski season at northern mountains. One thing was certain, the Apple Barn’s younger employees were disappointed when the season wound down in March or April and not just because it meant the end of paychecks. Throughout the season the shared experiences and sense of common purpose contributed to high morale, to the extent that the conclusion of the season brought bittersweet feelings.
The end of the 1974-75 season came in April when crew members celebrated the seasonal closing at a Chinese restaurant in Westport. That evening I foolishly accepted a challenge to see who could consume the most fried rice. Despite making a belt-busting effort, I dropped out first and then watched in mounting disbelief as my Energizer Bunny colleague just kept going and going and going. For me that evening didn’t just represent the end of the season, but the end of my employment at Aspetuck Valley Orchards. I’d looked forward to working there for many years before turning sixteen and it had proven to be an excellent first job. In fact, the experience lived up to the expectations that began forming in my mind when my father started taking me to the Apple Barn back in 1962. Although my contribution only amounted to eleven months spread between December 1973 and April 1975, plus ten summer weeks in the orchard, I was satisfied that I had done my little part to keep the business thriving. Yet as successful as it seemed to be, I knew that perpetual operation of the orchard and the Apple Barn was not a certainty: someday the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company might see no benefit in funding inevitable repairs to the cold-storage facility, and it seemed likely that escalating picking costs would eventually trigger significant changes in the way apples were grown and harvested.
My job at Aspetuck Valley Orchards began shortly after I discovered traces of two of those words painted on the back wall of our barn, just a half-mile south of the Apple Barn. So, what did I learn about the history of the building from our neighbor, Franklin Hubbell? Was our barn as old as the mid-eighteenth century Wakeman-Osborn house or had it been built contemporaneously with the BHC sawmill and the Apple Barn? Had it ever been used as the Aspetuck Valley Orchards retail facility, if not for apples then perhaps for nursery stock which was once grown in the adjacent fields? Did I ask Mrs. Hubbell about her father, George Wakeman Osborn, who grew up in the very house that I lived in? What story was passed down in her family regarding that house being spared by British troops marching to Danbury in April 1777? Did it really have something to do with a spurious marking on the exterior meant to indicate the owners were treating sick persons, as my sister and I recall hearing? Unfortunately life sped up once I began working weekends and I never did find time to ask the Hubbells about their local stories. And then, before June of 1975 was over my family moved away from Easton and the opportunity to hear their first-hand accounts was gone as well. All I can do now is make well-intentioned inferences to connect the various stories told long ago by my father. Perhaps others with pertinent recollections may be able to mitigate gaps or inconsistencies in the narrative.
Publishers note: The Historical Society of Easton would like to offer our sincere thanks to Noel Quinton for taking the time to share his unique perspective on the Aspetuck Valley Orchards and the Apple Barn. History is made by living it, but only by recording it can future generations learn about it and fully appreciate it!