Never too old to try something new
At 92, New Salem orchard owner diversifies with hard cider business
By DAVID McLELLAN, Staff Writer, The Recorder, September 20, 2019
People thought she was crazy. At 92 years old, Carol Hillman, owner of New Salem Preserves & Orchards, 67 South Main St., has started a new business venture with “New Salem Cider,” an alcoholic “hard cider” made from Hillman’s apples and on her property, which has been a local source of apple products since shortly after Hillman and her late husband, Joel Hillman II, bought it in 1968.
Hillman started New Salem Cider last year, adding two varieties of the drink, which are differentiated in composition by the apple varieties used to make them, to the orchard’s products — apples, apple butter, apple cider vinegar, apple cider doughnuts, sweet (nonalcoholic) apple cider and cider syrup.
“My family thought I was crazy,” Hillman said. “They would say, ‘At 92, to do something like that!’ But it’s been a real energizer.” The two varieties, Tap One and Tap Two, are both made from apples from the orchard’s century-old, heirloom apple trees at the 1750 farmstead. Until Dec. 1, the cider may be exclusively purchased — by glass or by growler ($15 for a growler with a $5 deposit, and $6 per glass) — on the premises.
“This was really to make the farm sustainable,” Hillman said. “That’s the bottom line.”
With the cider made in partnership with William Grote, a cider-maker based in Boston, Hillman said this is the year that will determine if the new venture is a success. However, she is optimistic, given the unique business model she has created.
While Grote oversaw the more technical aspects of making hard cider, Hillman said her many years’ worth of knowledge about apples and making sweet cider allows her to be the perfect “quality control” enforcer when it comes to making the alcoholic batches. Each apple is inspected; every batch is a small batch. The New Salem Cider experience i s n’t just about the drink, and Hillman hopes to attract customers who will try New Salem Cider in her Cider Garden. Those who visit the orchard — with friends, family and even dogs — can relax at a seated outside area with an expansive view of the Quabbin Reservoir, sipping their cider right where it’s made.
“We’ve had a positive response,” Hillman said. “Pe ople come and buy a glass, and stay however long they want. A couple comes, or someone comes alone, and then they sit down, and then sometimes I’ll sit down and talk with them. It just becomes a very relaxed and comfortable setting. … Today’s world is so hectic, and I think it’s just great to have a place to get away.”
Hard cider is seeing increased popularity these days. Hillman and farm operations head Terry McCue know that; it’s part of the reason the idea got rolling in the first place.
But trying to sell the cider in stores, stocking the shelves of local markets with New Salem Cider, is not something Hillman anticipates happening.
“These are the people that are my neighbors, and that’s really what I care about, not selling to people in New York,” she said.
There’s something about the product only being available where it’s made, and where the apples grow, that’s attractive about buying the drink, Hillman said. One would have to seek it out, making the experience more akin to visiting a museum than picking up a sixpack at the local package store. “We’re right here and we’re keeping it right here,” Hillman said. “It’s going to stay at the farm, because the farm has something special — a sense of place, I call it.”
New Salem Preserves & Orchards is primarily a McIntosh apple orchard, and Hillman, originally from Kansas City, Mo., bought the property with her husband 51 years ago.
She moved to the area to attend Smith College in Northampton and fell in love — with both place and person — leading her to stay.
As part of the experience, people who visit the orchard and buy a growler of hard cider can keep that custom growler. If they revisit the farm with their empty growler, they can get a refill.
“You have to have something different and stand out,” Hillman said.
But — even with the Cider Garden, the Quabbin vista and the straight-fromthe- tap drink that’s both sweet and bitter, and so local you could point at the apple trees that the liquid is sourced from while drinking it — a main reason the drink is special is that it’s a new product from someone with several decades of experience running an orchard, and ninedecades- plus lived experience.
“There’s planning and ordering and following up and following up,” said Hillman, admitting New Salem Cider has been a stressful pursuit at times. “Then our day (when it comes to selling the product) is setting up the garden each morning, making sure everything is ready for the people, but also filling the dog bowl, and greeting our customers.
“But it’s a full-time pleasure,” she added. “And it’s on a beautiful piece of land.”
Hillman said when she first told her family and friends about New Salem Cider, they were encouraging, but still thought she was doing too much for her age.
“It’s a process, but life is a process, and you learn as you go,” Hillman said. “But, for me, I’ve always been able to talk to friends and people with more experience and listen to them, and that’s important. Everything here is a collaborative effort.”
As the New Salem Preserves & Orchards matriarch, Hillman makes sure every part of the cider-making process is done with small quantities, from the apples picked to the batches brewed, because it allows for greater attention to detail, she said — focusing on “quality control,” or being “persnickety.”
After all, this is a “personal endeavor,” and everything must be just right.
Right now, New Salem Preserves & Orchards is preparing for Cider Days, held each year over the first weekend in November. Hillman said she is particularly excited for this year’s festival because she can showcase what she’s been working on. Staff reporter David McLellan joined the Greenfield Recorder in February 2018. He covers Orange, New Salem and Wendell. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-7720261, ext. 268.