By Ben Watson
When Judith Maloney arrived in Franklin County with her husband Terry back in 1972, they had no idea they were going to settle down here. The couple had been living in San Francisco, where Terry had just completed his medical training at the University of California, and Judith had gotten her teaching certification.
“We figured this was just the cross-country road trip that everybody takes once in their lives,” Judith says.
But in this back-to-the-land era the young couple wound up buying a piece of land and settling in the town of Colrain, eventually building a post-and-beam house from timber harvested on Catamount Hill.
“We lived way out in the boonies,” Judith says. “Being in Colrain was exciting. It was a community that was rich in what it knew. People there had a lot of skills that I wanted to learn: how to survive the winters, grow your own food, and keep your vehicles going.”
Terry, a Princeton graduate and former Marine, worked as an emergency room doctor for more than 25 years at Franklin Medical Center. Judith, whose family lived in San Francisco and who came from Italian immigrant stock, had connections to the California wine industry, working for a family that owned a vineyard in Napa County. In their San Francisco days, the Maloneys and their friends would make a couple hundred gallons of their own wine every year. But, like other aspects of life in rural western Massachusetts, the couple were in for a culture shock. The granite soils and cold winters of Franklin County, as it turned out, were ideal for growing apples and producing cider, both sweet and hard, but not so great for growing wine grapes. Plus there were cider presses here, with the one at Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain busy throughout the fall and winter months.
“Well, what’s the saying?” Judith says, laughing, “When you have lemons, you make lemonade! It didn’t make much sense at the time to bring in wine from California. The tradition of fermenting hard cider was one of the neighborhood bounties, something that belonged around here, and it gave people pleasure.”
Eventually, the Maloneys started making cider commercially in 1984. West County Winery became one of the first small, artisanal cider producers in the US. In recent years that number has skyrocketed, from around a dozen or so producers to hundreds of companies, as the Cider Renaissance flourished and as people rediscovered a taste for this traditional American beverage.
They also planted apples. “We learned as we went,” says Judith. “Along the way we had our successes and our failures.” Terry sought out apples that were reputed to make interesting and high-quality ciders: Baldwin, Redfield, and various russets, as well as traditional English and French cider varieties. Gradually, as interest in cider increased, a community of growers and cider makers was grewing and coming together.
In 1994, the Maloneys joined forces with the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and its president, Ann Hamilton, to hold the first Franklin County Cider Day (which in recent years has expanded county-wide, and has increased from one day to three). The first organizers and attendees were mostly home brewers like Charlie Olchowski and Paul Correnty, both of whom continue – more than two decades later – to teach amateur cider makers the ropes and keep the culture of the county’s hill towns alive and well.
“It’s the amateur cider maker who to me is the soul of CiderDays,” Judith says. “It is the union of harvest and drink, of the apple tree and its spirituous potential, of the imagination become real, that pleases me most.”
In recent years, the festival has featured many commercial ciders and has attracted thousands of cider aficionados from around the country and around the world. But, as Judith says, the feeling is the same, with open houses all weekend long at orchards and cider houses from one end of the county to the other. “It’s not a trade show like other cider events,” she adds, citing the majority of talks and programs that are free of charge and open to everyone. “CiderDays is a recognition of the orchards, of the apple identity of Franklin County. It’s not creating the cider community, but affirming it with this annual gathering of zealots.”
In 2010 Terry Maloney passed away, but his spirit and his legacy still suffuse CiderDays, even as its volunteer organizing committee begins to think about the festival’s silver anniversary in 2019. West County Cider, with Judith and Terry’s son Field at the helm, still has deep roots in Colrain, but Field is developing a new facility and tasting room on Peckville Road in Shelburne. And the healthy number of nearby orchards and cider producers ensures that apple growing, and cider making, will continue to flourish here for many years to come.
Ben Watson is the author of Cider, Hard and Sweet and serves on the organizing committee for Franklin County CiderDays.