CLINTON — Typically the Clinton Cider Mill opens the first week in September, after Labor Day. But this year the sugared cider doughnuts and sweet apple pressed beverage came early as the Fehlner family swung their doors open on Friday, Aug. 30.
John and Mimi Fehlner, proprietors of the long-standing Clinton business since 1998, run it as a seasonal business, from the first week of September until Thanksgiving weekend, along with a one-day sale just before Christmas.
However, this year, Ben Fehlner, their son, an English teacher at Westmoreland Central School and full-time cider press operator for the past 13 seasons, said the family decided to try something new.
“We just wanted to take advantage of the beautiful weather,” Fehlner said. “The college students are in session early, so we just thought we’d get a jump on things this year. Everybody is anxious to get in to the store and get a taste of the season. When you’re a seasonal business you have to make way for the sunshine; people love us, thankfully, so we thought we’d give them a little extra time to get here and enjoy things.”
He did admit the push up in schedule had it’s challenges, but they were confident they could get it all done in time.
“We painted the exterior of the building this summer,” Fehlner explained. “Also, we had three pieces of equipment replaced, or partly replaced, or repaired inside, which is a lot of work for us; more than usual...so it’s been a very busy summer.”
One of those pieces of equipment, the Monarch Cider Press is a story all by itself, Fehlner added.
“It’s a machine that’s actually several machines in one and belt driven, just under 130 years old,” he said.
“The business was originally operated in Madison N.Y. by the Wentworth family,” Fehlner recounted.
In 1903 they moved the operation to Clinton, for reasons unknown.
According to the Mill’s website, a “screw press” powered by a steam engine was used to make the cider until a new hydraulic press was bought in 1927 and the building was rebuilt around the press. So it’s been in this building for 92 years now.
Fehlner pointed out the front of the building is the original structure, while the rear addition was built around 1975.
Interestingly enough Fehlner explained how his family actually preserved the business in 1998 when the Wentworths found themselves in the position of not being able to carry on any longer.
“The only party interested in buying the business initially was the school, right behind it, so they could tear it down and use the space for additional parking,” he said. “So essentially, to save it from demolition and preserve the tradition, my parents, who were customers here, said ‘well we know how to run a business’ - having owned the dry cleaners in Clinton for years and years, lets give it a go.’”
Fehlner admits the family in some ways felt it was a crazy thing to do, but they also saw it at the time as an opportunity to save a well-established and beloved landmark.
“They worked with the Wentworth family for a long period of time in order to learn the business,” Fehlner continued.
And learn it they did.
According to Fehlner the mill uses a few select orchards for their apples. Some are local and some are from the Finger Lakes region. Regardless, Fehlner said all the apples they use are New York State grown.
“We get our apples in 20 bushel loads, in giant bins,” he clarified. “What we need to do first and foremost is make sure they are stored in refrigerated temperatures. When we’re ready to “press” we have to wash every apple, and we have a machine that’s especially designed to do that, which is actually brand new this year, replacing our old one. Once the apples are washed they’re put into our press assembly.”
“The apples travel up an elevator [in the machine] into a grinding assembly that grinds them into essentially a very fine apple sauce,” he continued. “ And we build a ten layer stack, known as a “cheese” which is a wooden rack on the bottom, followed by a large cider cloth where we place 300 apples worth of apple sauce and then top it off with another rack, another cloth, apple sauce, and another rack until it’s 10-layers high.”
Fehlner said one 10-layer stack is approximately 3000 apples, or 20-bushels worth.
“Then that gets rolled onto our press table,” he said. “The table has a giant hydraulic piston [underneath] which pushes up and squeezes [the 10-layer cheese] around 2000 pounds per square inch, which gets as much of the liquid out as possible, the liquid then travels through four filters and screens to catch any seeds or particulate, bits of skin or what-not to keep the sediment down. We then pour it into giant stainless steel tanks, and refrigerate it at just about freezing temperatures until we put into bottles and sell it to customers.”
Fehlner said while he is in charge of the operating, maintaining and overseeing of the cider press machine, he also has other duties that keep him busy. He does building maintenance, works behind the counter, helps out with hiring people and generally anything that needs to be done to keep the business moving forward.
He credits his parents, business owners for over 50 years, with the innovations of the mill that’ve made it truly successful in modern times. Innovations that include new product ideas along with some merchandising aims.
Not only can you buy their sweet cider in its regular form, but you can also get it hot during the colder part of fall, or if you’re so inclined, you can get it as a frozen slush, with their Frozen Apple Squeeze drink proven to be most popular with the children. They carry an assortment of cookies, muffins and pastries, including something new this year, six-inch pies.
“People would often come in and ask if they could buy just a slice of pie,” Fehlner said. “But in the past all we had were the nine-inch pies. Now these new pies are perfect for one person to have a couple pieces, or for a couple to have just enough to share.”
The mill also offers chicken, beef, turkey, vegetable and even lobster pot pies, maple syrup and locally produced honey from Holland Patent. Also, a variety of cheeses and of course, apples.
They even carry a line of t-shirts and hats, along with other adorable gift ideas.
Fehlner said just because it’s a seasonal business doesn’t mean they’re not working year round to keep the business running.
“Even though we’re open for only a few months you still have to pay the bills year round,” Fehlner said. “So the off-season is spent doing physical repairs around the property, upkeep and maintenance, the same is true for the systems in the building. Planning and preparing for the following season, like monitoring what’s happening with our orchard friends and our different vendors. For example, a couple years back there was a killer frost that decimated the [apple] crops across the state and it was very hard to get apples. Sometimes there are floods that can do the same thing. So we’re always kind of communicating with everybody and making sure things are lined up for the upcoming season.”
Located at 28 Elm St. in the Village of Clinton, you can visit the store seven days a week, Monday- Saturday 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
They will also take orders for pick up over the phone at 315-853-5756, or you can email them at email@example.com, and you can even connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.
And if you’re looking for a unique place to house out of town quests, their website offers a one-room suite in a stand-alone private building. The room accommodates four adults, with a queen size bed and a fold-out couch. The quaint and stylish lodging is perfect for relatives visiting their children at Hamilton College, or even Colgate University, 10 miles away in nearby Hamilton. Check out their website for photos and rates.
Fehlner said through all the hard work it takes to not only work this job, but his job as a teacher, raising a family with his wife, Laura Stoll, who also pitches in at the mill when she can fit it in with her job at the Kirkland Town Library, there’s a reason it all seems worthwhile in the end.
“Interacting with our customers is what I enjoy the most about this place,” he said, with a smile on his face. “Hats off to people who are dentists and doctors who see people when they’re feeling miserable. I love the fact, that almost without exception, people who walk through our door are people who’re happy to be there. They love the show of it, the smell of it and their really excited to be here. It’s truly satisfying to know the effort we all put in, for all that we do here, it makes people happy.”