In a June column I reviewed an essay on Valley farm life written some 100 years ago, noting what to me was a puzzling reference to a community event called an “apple paring.”
After the column ran, a reader called to tell me she and her husband had participated in apple parings in their youth. The North Alton reader said apple paring bees were common when they were growing up on Kings County farms in the late 1920s and early 1930s. They were like other community bees and frolics, she said. Neighbours far and wide would gather in one home after the other to collectively prepare farm produce for winter consumption, and to harvest crops and firewood. It was one of the ways they had of coping with rural life at a time when there was a world-wide depression.
Apples were a major crop during the period the reader was a youth – in 1930 Valley farmers had almost 25,000 acres of orchard and produced nearly eight million barrels of apples. Some of this crop was stored in basements and barns for later use but another method of preserving apples for winter was common; this is where apple paring bees came in.
“Neighbours would gather at a house to make dried apples,” the reader said in describing the bee. “Sometimes several barrels of apple would be processed in a full evening. The apples were peeled, cored and cut in quarters; the quarters were threaded on long strings with a long, handmade needle. Then the strings of apples were hung up to dry. When fairly dry they would keep all winter.”
In those days, the reader said, everybody had rods suspended above the kitchen stove. The rods were mainly used for drying clothes, but strings of apples would be hung from them as well, the heat from the stove hastening the drying process.
The reader recalled that both men and women participated in the apple paring bees. “My husband operated a hand peeler when they held bees in his community,” she said, “and he would keep seven or eight women busy finishing the apples. The peeler would miss some pieces and these had to be removed by hand before the apples were cored and quartered.”
The only mechanical device used to prepare the apple for drying was the hand peeler. “You stuck the apples on the prongs of the peeler and cranked the handle; this turned the apple around and peeled it, but sometimes it skipped as I said, and the apple had to be finished by hand.”
The reader and her husband grew up in Kings County and she said that in this period everyone had their own apple trees. I estimated that the time period she was talking about – when they were participating in apple paring bees – would have been around 1929 and 1930, and perhaps a bit later since she told me her husband’s age; he’s about to turn 80.