Apple Butter Time

The sun had barely cleared the mountains that ring Beaver Lake.

Saturday when the first wisps of smoke rose from the campfire in front of an 150-year-old cabin on Rice Branch Road. No one was quite sure how old the short copper pot bubbling on the fire is, or exactly where it came from. They did know that this was the first year in a long time that all the generations had come together to make apple butter.

Eleanor Hall was a flurry of activity this day, gliding effortlessly from room to room in the old cabin her father bought from the Rice family in the 1920s. It seems that no matter the relationship — blood, marriage or imagined — she was “Aunt Eleanor” to everyone.

Eleanor and her husband, the late Jim Hall, started making apple butter in the old copper pot back in the early 1970s. No one remembers the exact date, but the recipe says 1973. The original recipe came from Walter Thomas of Spruce Pine. Jim Hall’s friend, Paul Hampton of Beaver Dam, helped provide the copious notes that fill the family’s folder which contains the recipe and a generation’s worth of notes on what worked and what didn’t.

“We use 5 bushels of Stayman Winesap apples,” Eleanor carefully explained. “All the young people peeled and cored them last night. We have pictures of them in the family album stirring and peeling — it’s nice to get the younger generations involved.”

In 1985, the fire under the old copper pot died, and the apple butter tradition died along with it. “We (Jim and I) just didn’ have the energy,” Eleanor explained. “We had to wait until these folks (the younger generations of the family) got old enough to take it over!”

It was Leslee Sprague, wife of Eleanor’s nephew, Peter Sprague Jr., who picked up the family’s apple butter torch. She’s the one who said, ‘Aunt Eleanor, let’s do apple butter again,’ and I said, “Well, I’ll give you all of Jim’s notes.'”

“I just thought it sounded like so much fun,” Leslee Sprague said, as she stirred a pot of Winesap apples being brought to a boil to join the rest of the 5 bushels simmering in the old copper pot outside.

At the end of the day, Aunt Eleanor and her family had much more than 75 pint jars of apple butter. Grandsons came down the mountain from Boone, and nephews came from upstate South Carolina. A cousin made the journey to the Blue Ridge from the salty sea air of Baltimore.

Mountain music from a nephew’s guitar and a cousin’s fiddle mixed with the smoke from the old copper pot rising into the blue Carolina sky. And a new generation playing around the old copper kettle learned that family ties can be far sweeter than homemade apple butter.

You’ll find Jim Hall’s apple butter recipe below.

Jim Hall’s Apple Butter
This is best cooked in a 12-gallon copper pot, according to notes in the Hall family album. The recipe also mandates that the apples should be “picked within hollerin’ distance of Hendersonville.”

  • 2 gallons apple cider (“soft” variety)
  • 4-5 bushels Winesap apples
  • 20 pounds of sugar
  • 1 quart sorghum molasses
  • Cinnamon to taste
  • Nutmeg to taste

Peel and slice all apples in sight. Bring apple cider to a full boil in copper pot over an open fire. Cook apples down to a sauce, then add molasses and sugar. Cook mixture from 8:30 on a cool fall morning to 5:30 that night, stirring vigorously throughout the day. During the last 2 hours of cooking, add nutmeg and cinnamon.

Pack apple butter in sterilized jars and seal them in a boiling bath canner.
Recipe makes about 8 gallons of “Jim Hall’s old-time, sure-fired, you-have-to-be-there-to-believe-it apple butter.”

Recipe © 2000 Eleanor Hall. Used by permission.

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