If you think Morristown at closing time on a Saturday night is interesting now, you should have been around in Colonial times.
Forget about the civilized-sounding “Garden State.” Rewind to the 18th- and 19th centuries, and Morristown was smack in the middle of the Applejack State. And the connotations were anything but genteel.
“It was considered a land of ruffians and drunks,” said Peter Mabli, a professor of local history at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
At the Morris County Historical Society’s Oktoberfest celebration at Acorn Hall in Morristown on Saturday, Peter described the integral role of alcohol–specifically, hard cider and applejack–in the early life of Morris County, New Jersey and the United States.
Men, women and children drank alcoholic beverages for breakfast. The old adage “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” had nothing to do with Granny Smiths and digestion.
In fact, Granny Smiths still were a long way off. Apples were nasty, sour, tooth-breaking propositions in early America, according to Professor Mabli.
They were good for one thing: Fermentation. Which had “medicinal” value. Water and even milk could make you very sick in the days before treatment facilities and pasteurization.
“The safest drinks were fermented,” Peter said.
The 1790 Census found per capita consumption of beer and cider was 34 gallons a year. That’s 34 gallons for every man, woman and child in America. On top of that, the average citizen downed five gallons of distilled spirits and one gallon of wine.
Benjamin Franklin listed 200 expressions for drunkenness, including “busky,” “cracked,” “he kissed black Betty” and “he’s halfway to Concord,” Peter said.
Photos by Adam Casadevall. Please click item below for captions.
The 1810 Census reported that New Jersey distilled 1.1 million gallons of applejack, known around the country as Jersey Lightning. Orange Township in Essex County produced 250,000 barrels of the stuff.
Yet just as millions today vacation down the Shore but still crack Jersey jokes, everyone bought Jersey Lightning in the 19th century while disparaging it.
One writer in 1856 defined misery in two words–”apple jack”–and described New Jersey as “one of the most barbarous regions known in history,” Peter related.
JOHNNY APPLESEED, ‘HARD CIDER CANDIDATES,’ & ‘WINE, WOMEN & SONG’
It takes about a month for apple cider to turn “hard.” Applejack takes all winter, but yields a more potent punch. Early distillers would freeze hard cider outdoors repeatedly; each time, the frozen top would be skimmed off, leaving an increasingly concentrated slurry. By spring, Peter said, the applejack would have a 40-percent alcohol content. That’s 80-proof.
There were occasional attempts at temperance. A church denied Mendham tavern keeper William Cox a burial plot and ran him out of town in 1770, Peter said. But the man had made so much money that he forced a truce by buying all the land around the cemetery and walling it off.
“Most of Colonial history is based on alcohol,” the professor said. “It was such a profitable business.”
George Washington became enamored of Jersey Lightning way back in 1760, and even persuaded the Lairds–distillers operating near Rumsen for generations–to share their secret applejack recipe, Peter said. Washington distilled rum at Mount Vernon.
Contrary to what you might have learned in grade school, the legendary Johnny Appleseed–John Chapman–actually an entrepreneur and land speculator, who drove up the value of farmland with apple orchards that could produce hard cider and applejack, Peter said.
In many regions, alcohol was the only reliable currency. That’s why the imposition of taxes sparked the Whiskey Rebellion in western Massachusetts in the late 18th century, Peter said.
Alcohol has figured in politics pretty much since the invention of politics. William Henry Harrison won the presidency in 1840 as the “log cabin, hard cider candidate” against incumbent Martin Van Buren, who was painted as a Madeira-sipping elitist, Peter said.
In 1919, just ahead of Prohibition, Democrat Edward Edwards won the New Jersey governor’s race by running as the “wet candidate.” Campaigning for “Wine, Women and Song,” he went on to win a U.S. Senate seat–defeating Joseph Frelinghuysen.
But the story did not end on a jolly note. As Politicker NJ recounts, the grandfather of future Gov. Thomas Kean ousted Edwards, who then lost a bundle in the stock market crash and shot himself in the head.
It was Prohibition that turned America into apple-eaters, according to Peter.
“Before Prohibition, apple growers changed from distilling to [producing] edible apples,” he said.
To drink in more about the subject, visit Acorn Hall’s exhibit, “Bottoms Up! How Morris County Taverns Revolutionized History,” at 68 Morris Ave. On Nov. 17, 2013, the historical society celebrates the PBS series “Downton Abbey” with a tour of Acorn Hall and tea at the Cosy Cupboard. Admission is $38 and prizes will be awarded for the best costume.