Mt. Tabor Ruritan’s apple-butter making is a dynamic tradition that has, like a good sauce, been simmered and stirred and improved over its fifty years of tasting and change.
That tradition begins again today, when everybody gets together to core the first 50 bushels of apples in the picnic shelter behind Slusser’s Chapel on Mt. Tabor Road in Blacksburg. They’ll do it again next Wednesday as well.
“People work very hard making apple butter,” Arnold Lafon said.
He’s 71 now, lives across the street from the church and joined the Ruritan club when he was in his 20s.
”We’ve been makin’ [sic] apple butter since probably the late 1960s, but before that, I grew up on a farm here and I was making apple butter all my life,” he said.
For years, members gathered in Warren Hale’s garage from early in the morning ‘til late into the evening, cutting the apples until Johnny Cox made an apple cutter.
“You just slide the apple in there and it cuts it in four pieces. Fifty bushels, though, is still a lot of work,” Lafon said.
“Story telling and reminiscing about past life in the Mount Tabor community made the long hours easier to bear,” Lafon wrote.
Apple-butter making funds Ruritan activities like the July 4th Parade and movie in Blacksburg, keeping the community picnic shelter standing, supporting 4-H and scouting programs, supplying the Blacksburg Food Pantry and tidying the roads.
“Mount Tabor apple butter became a much-sought-after item,” Lafon wrote in an article in the early 2000s. “And the club, unlike their experience with the fruit cakes, had no trouble selling the supply.”
Traditions change and 50 years ago, apples came from the Lafon orchard, now long gone, hauling bushels to the Blacksburg cannery (Lafon’s mother, 99, ran the cannery for 25 years) in the old Blacksburg Middle School, now gone too, so, then they went to the Riner cannery.
Talking to Arnold on the phone on a recent morning, he said, “First we went to Blacksburg, then Riner and used that for years.”
“It was at Auburn,” said someone in the background, “A little log cabin.”
“That’s right. They had a little log cabin there that was the original cannery. They tore the cannery down, and we went over and got some stirrers and stuff. They were still using wooden stirrers.”
Back then, at the cannery, the club made applesauce first and carried it back down to Mt. Tabor where the guys would light a big fire before dawn in the frosty grass at the picnic shelter and stir the copper kettles bubbling and cinnamony, talking, stirring with a long wooden paddle and story telling all day.
“We had several ladies who were real active when we did it outside and my mother was too—she’ll be 99 and still with us—she was the official taster. They passed that on to me,” Lafon said. “We’d never go back to makin’ [sic] it outside, though. It’s too labor intensive.”
Now, the Ruritan get their apples from Wade’s Orchard in Woolwine, drive them back to cut them efficiently with Johnny Cox’s new chopper and take them to the stainless steel, steamy hygiene and efficiency of the Wytheville cannery, the last of five canneries remaining in Virginia, down from hundreds in the last century. They don’t allow any wooden or plastic equipment Lafon said.
“Well, a lot of people just have apple sauce, or real thick apples, but you got to cook it to make it apple butter. You just have to learn how to do it,” he said.
“The way to do it is Sugar and cinnamon and a little clove. Three pounds of sugar for every gallon. We drive down to Wytheville with 50 bushels apples and 450 lbs. of sugar. Cinnamon and cinnamon/clove mixed. If you like cloves, you’ll like it.”
Asked, how he thinks he’s made, Lafon laughs.
“We’ve made in excess of 100 gallons every year since 1969. Then about 20 years ago, our goal was 300 gallons, 150 twice each year with apples from my family orchard and we’d peel ‘em [sic] down in the Foley’s garage,” he said.
He said Appalachian studies students started helping and sometimes cadets from Virginia Tech come depending on their school schedules.
This local sweet tradition welcomes newcomers to the two apple-butter makings on Wednesday Oct. 3. The apples are cut at the picnic shelter, below Slusser’s Chapel parking lot.