By the mid-19th century, the semi-rural town of Sherborn, MA, originally settled in 1652, had blossomed into a thriving community of artisans and craftsmen. In a town with a relatively small population of about 1,000, a wide range of cottage industries abounded in blacksmithing, willow furniture weaving, gun smithing, lumber milling, canning, cloth milling, rope braiding, paint making, grist milling, leather making and, of course, coffin designing. General stores, dairy farms and apple orchards were ubiquitous. During the late 19th century, Sherborn had also interestingly become a destination for retired sea captains, who dropped their anchors after long careers at sea on whaling and merchant vessels. Perhaps as an added benefit, or providing some sense of familiarity, Sherborn’s treasured Farm Pond had a steam launch plying its waters, offering the townspeople and visitors alike a sightseeing tour for five cents.
Above all this activity, though, it was a unique, refined, “Champagne of Ciders” that put Sherborn on the map. Practically every farm in Sherborn made its own cider. Sherborn in fact supported more than 20 cider mills in the 1800s that were productive enough to be taxed. The best of this cider produced was sold commercially.
The largest of these mills, and the greatest hard cider success story in all of the United States, was founded by Jonathan Holbrook in 1853. The Holbrook Cider Mill on Forest Street developed an ingenious refining process, filtering its “Champagne of Ciders,” as it would be called, through beds of clean, white, sand in huge vats, attaining such purity and demand that barrels could be shipped across the Atlantic to Europe without risk of exploding from re-fermentation.
During the peak season, the mill operated on a twenty-four hour day with 40 men on each shift. In the 1880s, at the height of production, the mill pressed more than 1.25 million gallons of cider, making the Holbrook Cider Mill the largest refined cider mill in the world, shipping cider to Great Britain, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden with the rest shipped as far west as Nebraska and as far south as Texas.
It is hard for us today to imagine just how impressively large and bustling this mill was, while in such a small town. Forest Street was the first road the town of Sherborn voted to widen to handle the increasing traffic at the mill, and a new railroad line proposed to run between Framingham and Mansfield, MA via West Sherborn was rerouted to pass at the foot of the mill. Appropriately enough, the first freight train entering town, after railroad construction completed, was loaded with apples headed for Holbrook Cider mill.
The Mill’s run of success lasted several decades. Eventually, a fire destroyed several of the Mill’s older buildings and in 1909 Jonathan Holbrook’s eldest son, Eben, sold the business to P. McCarthy and Son. Technological progress continued, however. The new owner installed the latest automation of the day and created a new line of soft drinks trademarked “Shawmut,” which had been known as the inception of “Tonic.”
Cider was still important and popular, and the unique refining process continued to be meticulously followed. By 1919, the champagne cider had transitioned into “McCarthy’s Sparkling Cider,” and continued to be in great demand until prohibition and the advent of World War II.
At Stormalong, we are both fascinated and inspired by this robust hard cider lineage. While we might not realistically earn Holbrook’s badge as the largest hard cider producer in the world, we’ll keep focused on high quality and exploration, and maybe get people thinking about Sherborn again when they think of hard cider.