At my house, we mark fall with the “First Fire of the Year” and the “First Bowl of Chili”. These events are on our family calendar as prominently as any birthday or holiday. But there is an even more accurate way to mark fall on Signal Mountain, and its anticipation starts with an annual question:
Is it cider time yet?
Since 1960, Signal families have been asking that same question at the first hint of a fall breeze.
The answer can only be found where the road splits between Taft Highway and Fairmount Pike. There you’ll see a little brown cabin with red-checked curtains and a 12-acre apple orchard tucked behind. Hoisted high above is the familiar sign “Fairmount Orchard, Homemade Cider”.
And that sign does-not-lie. Cider simply doesn’t get any more homemade. You can only buy it late August through February (if there’s any left). That’s because owner Chris Roberts, who grew up on the orchard and has been a cider maker since age 11, says he’ll only make it from his fresh-picked apples, immediately-pressed and bottled in the little mill behind the cabin.
His business plan works. You know it does if you’ve ever had even a sip of Fairmount’s cider or seen any of the reviews on, of all places, TripAdvisor.com.
I was amazed reading posts from people across the U.S. like: “When people move away from this community, the cider is one of the things they miss most!” And, “…we started coming to Fairmount about 30 years ago. Best cider anywhere! I tried some at an orchard in Illinois last week and it was not even close!” (No offense Land of Lincoln, note the reviewer said Fairmount’s was better than cider “anywhere.”)
The orchard was planted in 1928 by P.H. Henderson who sold his apples, along with homemade candy (the marble candy slab is still in the apple barn).J.T. and Grace Baugh took it over in 1960 and began making cider. “You may remember that before there was a big sign identifying the orchard as Fairmount Apple Orchard, there was a big sign saying Baugh’s Apple Orchard,” says Cindy Baugh Rudolph, grand daughter of the orchard’s second owners. “I moved to Signal Mountain a year ago and live close enough to drive by the orchard daily. I never fail to smile when I go by.”
“I remember many a weekend at the orchard in the 1960s,” Cindy said. “Local teenagers worked weekends in the fall to help with the harvest because my grandparents were already in their sixties and needed help climbing the trees. When they sold the orchard to Barton Roberts (father of Chris Roberts) in the 1970s, they moved out to a house they built on the brow. Barton Roberts totally modernized the orchard, gradually replacing the old trees with new dwarf varieties. I wish my grandparents could see all the amazing changes the Roberts made. They would certainly be pleased to know that the land still holds the orchard.”
The Roberts family bought the operation in 1971. Chris, who is the last Roberts still in the orchard business, says locals and visitors start stopping by earlier every year, anxious to get a first taste from his new crop.
Unlike the Kentucky Fried Colonel who’s tight-lipped about his 11 secret herbs and spices, Chris, who has a white beard like the Colonel, but dresses in loose overalls rather than a white tux, is wide open about his ingredients. “The recipe?” says Chris, “There is no recipe. We just blend together all our varieties—including Arkansas Blacks, Ginger Golds, Big Greens–and let nature take its course.” After drinking Chris’s cider for almost 50 years, I can attest that Signal’s mother nature has never missed.
But Fairmount’s cider is more than taste, it’s tradition. Driving home on a fall Signal night–foggy, misty, can hardly see in front of you, pass the Bread Basket and turn the corner to see a few shining lights peeking out of those cabin windows. The porch light is on and I get chills knowing the orchard is open and Chris is still in there, offering tasty treasures he has carefully cultivated and waited for all season. I admire his patience, his 5-decade commitment to quality, and his humble generosity with the fruits of his labor.
If you’re a newcomer to Signal, we veterans have an insider stock tip: stock your freezer before cider supplies run out. And as often as you can this fall, swing into the Orchard and note the comforting sound of pea gravel beneath your wheels, the wooden creak of the narrow double doors and the ease with which they open to welcome you. Ask for two gallons at a time—at least that’s how much we need at my house—and grab a bag of apples, butters, and jams. Make conversation with the clerk (likely a high schooler Chris is helping earn money for college) and thank them for their hard work. Carefully drive your liquid gold home then reach for a glass and a quick sip before you announce to anyone else that it’s in the fridge.
Oh, and be sure to put “Cider Time” on your family calendar.
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