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Old Apple Tree Festival heralds industry’s matriarch

Rhobert Cotton made no attempt to conceal the source of his apples as he waited for his family’s turn at the apple press.

The organic honey crisp apples were purchased from a grocery store, not plucked from his backyard.

“Somebody grew these, but we didn’t,” Cotton said during Saturday’s Old Apple Tree Festival at Vancouver’s Old Apple Tree Park.

The apple press offers people a chance to bring their own fruit, whether it’s grown in the backyard, picked out at the store or purchased from Slow Food Cascadia’s stand next to the press, and turn it into delicious cider.

“Wow, that is tasty,” Cotton said after taking a sip of the freshly pressed cider. “Wow. Naturally sweet. Wow.”

It was a three-wow kind of day as Cotton and his wife, Rhobley, attended the festival for the first time, with their two young grandchildren in tow, under warm autumn skies.

“We were looking for something to do with the little guys,” Rhobert Cotton said.

Making apple cider is a multistep process. Apples are hand washed and cut into quarters. They are then fed into an electric-powered grinder. The final step is a hand-operated press that crushes the mash and causes sweet, golden juice to flow into a plastic vat.

“A lot of people think apples just come from the store,” Rhobley Cotton said.

Washington is renowned for its productive apple orchards. In early August, the Washington Apple Commission forecast said this season’s apple harvest will total 137 million 40-pound boxes.

The Old Apple Tree Festival pays tribute to what is considered the matriarch of the state’s prized crop.

There are different tales about the tree’s origin. One of the more widely accepted accounts is that Lt. Aemilius Simpson of the British Royal Navy attended a London dinner party in 1825 before embarking on a long voyage to the Pacific Northwest. A dining companion casually slipped some apple seeds into his jacket pocket and urged the officer to plant them when he reached Fort Vancouver.

Regardless of the historical veracity, the Old Apple Tree dates back to 1826 and is celebrated each and every year on the first Saturday in October.

At 193, the tree is showing its age but still produces small, tart apples better suited for historical tales than pies or other desserts.

That didn’t prevent some people from wanting cuttings from the venerable tree.

Steve Hinz held a tiny cutting in his hand as he sat on a hay bale listening to a brief presentation about the history of Fort Vancouver and nearby sites.

“They say it provides only hard cider,” he said.

Hinz will keep the cutting in his garage over the winter before planting it next spring at his Salmon Creek home.

“I’m interested to see how it turns out,” he said. “1826, man, that’s a long time ago.”



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