How a Shenandoah Valley “apple-butter boil” beat “a South Georgia shinding all to pieces”

Posted on October 9, 2011 by


It is, after all, October, here in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley… and with that comes not only reflections on the past (“heritage” festivals abound!), but also a good deal of apple-butter making. Regretfully, much of the ceremony surrounding the traditional apple-butter boils have long been forgotten, or have simply been cast aside as an unnecessary part of the process. Pity.

So, what exactly was the tradition that accompanied the old apple-butter boils? Well, it just so happens that, back in the early 90s, I discovered a story about one such “boil”, when writing the unit history of the Richmond Fayette Artillery. In October, 1862, the Fayette Artillery was just outside of Winchester, Virginia. Lt. William I. Clopton* wrote his family of the experience…

Clopton, in postwar years.

They put a large cauldron on the fire and fill it with cider and as the cider boils all the young girls from the neighborhood are there to cut apples. We were invited to one the other night and I tell you twas a sight to see. The girls form a ring around the pot in this wise. The first one is placed and she says, “I form a wreath” – “what kind of flower?” – “a rose” – “who shall the next flower be?” – “Capt M[acon]”**, and he walks up, and kisses the young lady, or as they classically express it, “puts on the trimmings” and there he is questioned as above and the young lady chosen comes up “puts the trimmings on” takes her place in the ring and so on until all the party are circling around the fire, dancing and singing and kissing – it is altogether very disgusting. They go thro’ a great many games too numerous to mention; but in all of them the chief aim and object is to accomplish as much kissing and hugging as possible, The closing of the ceremony is the forming of a bridge for the apple butter to pass over – this is formed in a manner very similar to the ring. I proposed a regular dance and a fiddler, but they were all horror-stricken and said they could not as they belonged to the church – What a parody this is on religion and virtue! A good many of the boys seemed to think however it was fine fun. I can’t say I did not enjoy the “boil” for the apple-butter was delicious. This beats a So. Ga. shinding all to pieces and it occurred not two miles from classic Winchester.

So, there you have it… the story of how traditional apple-butter boils used to be conducted…

Contemporary view of someone stirring a cauldron of apple butter.

*Lt. William Izard Clopton was a son of Judge John Bacon Clopton; graduated from William & Mary, 1857, and studied law with his father; listed as a jurist in the 1860s census. Survived the war

**Capt. Miles Cary Macon was from Hanover County, a son of Miles and Frances Macon. Orphaned, he was put under the care of Peyton Johnston, Sr., and his wife, Anne Macon Johnston (his mother’s sister). He matriculated at VMI in August 1852, but because of excessive demerits, was dismissed in less than five months (he exceeded the allowable 100 demerits, by yet another hundred). During the war, he eventually rose to command the Fayette Artillery, but was not as fortunate as Lt. Clopton, being killed at Appomattox, on April 8, 1865.

Be sure to visit Dave Tabler’s Appalachian History Blog, where you can find this post that he wrote rather recently (August) about apple butter boils.