Did Temperance Cut Down Orchards?

This is the next installment in our continuing series, “Did Prohibition Prohibit Cider?”


In 1834 a “traveller” from the Earth to the moon

one day came across a [moon] man busily employed in cutting down a fine orchard of apple-trees, and was inclined to consider him mad, until on inquiring he found him only a zealous member of a temperance society.

Like the “traveller,” when we hear stories of Temperance supporters destroying orchards we also think they were mad. And we hear them a lot. Such stories are common today, having become part of the lore of American cider.

Lore or not, orchards were certainly concerning to Temperancers. If cider was the cause of alcohol abuse, orchards were the cause of cider. One Temperance writer believed that, “an old orchard and distillery, are almost invariably indices of widows, orphans, poverty, and drunkenness.”(1) Another said,  “I thought of those total abstinence men, who were so zealous in the cause of temperance, they cut down their orchards, that they might be a stumbling block to their [imbibing] neighbors. (2)”

Statements like these make it easy for us to believe proponents of Temperance wantonly destroyed orchards in their pursuit of a teetotaling America.(3) Since the late 1800s these stories have been offered as easy explanations of what happened to cider and cider apples in America.

Straightforward though they are, these explanations are challenging to believe. A closer look reveals that things were not that simple and that later generations misunderstood who was uprooting cider orchards.

For example, despite the stories, it’s hard to find evidence of Temperance zealots chopping down someone else’s orchard. Such vandalism has always been illegal and anyone who did so would be liable to prosecution. In looking through early American newspapers, the only account of an orchard being chopped down in the night found so far is this:

cutting orchards press (philadelphia, pennsylvania), january 14, 1867, 6

This appears to be more vendetta than anti-vice. The Press (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), January 14, 1867, 6.

Though it’s difficult to find orchards being destroyed by others, it’s much easier to find stories of people talking about it. They seem to begin just as Temperance was moving towards total abstinence. But, instead of Temperance raiding parties, it seems farmers were themselves the ones getting rid of their orchards. As early as 1827 the anonymous “farmer” wrote in “What Shall I Do With My Apples?” that

If no other market can be found for our cider, but at the still, let it be a matter of conscientious inquiry with every farmer, whether it is right for him to make more cider than he wants for reasonable use in his own family. If not let him select those trees which yield him choice fruit, and so many that he may calculate in ordinary years to have a good supply of apples and cider, and then consign the rest of his trees to the wood house, and the land they occupy to a more profitable crop. I would not have a scarcity of the native and natural beverage of our country. But for all the trees which yield liquor for the still, I say, and every friend of humanity says, and let every thrifty farmer say BURN THEM.

Two years later a Connecticut farmer was reported to have actually had (and ridiculed for having) his orchards cut down for fear his apples should be turned into apple brandy.

temperance weekly eastern argus, published as eastern argus. (portland, maine) • 07-14-1829 • page [3]

Evening Eastern Argus (Portland, Maine), July 14, 1829, 3.

As news of this spread, so did the comments on how absurd it was to sacrifice an orchard to prevent cider.

temperance republican star, published as republican star and general advertiser (easton, maryland) • 07-21-1829 • page [3]

Republican Star and General Advertiser (Easton, Maryland), July 21, 1829, 3.

Stories of farmers axing their own trees were repeated throughout the nineteenth century. For example, in 1862, Henry David Thoreau, “heard of an orchard in a distant town, on the side of a hill, where the apples rolled down and lay four feet deep against a wall on the lower side, and this the owner cut down for fear they should be made into cider.” As the century progressed, the story changed in the retelling. People left out that it was farmers who were destroying their own orchards. In 1897 Alice Morse Earle, an historian of early American domestic life, wrote that

The whole apple crop was so devoted to the manufacture of cider that in the days of temperance reform, at the beginning of this century, temperance zealots cut down whole orchards of full-bearing trees, not conceiving any adequate use of the fruit for any purpose save cider-making.

It’s interesting to note that most reports of orchards being ripped out by Temperance farmers are written by those who often “heard” that it happened. Or, as in the case of the anonymous farmer who wrote “What Shall I Do With My Apples?”, it may have been a Temperance writer posing as a farmer. There is evidence suggesting that many stories may have been exaggerated or invented. It certainly was not a requirement. As one Temperance writer noted that he supposed some farmers may have pulled out their orchards in support of the cause, “such an act of destruction was found not to be demanded.”(4)

At the same time as some farmers may or may not have been ripping out their orchards, others did nothing at all. For example, the Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the Year 1852 noted that, “Some years ago, orchards were suffered, and even encouraged, to run down, from a strange philanthropy, lest the juice of the apple would somehow find its way into alcohol.”

Still, some saw a more measured approach. One author lamented that

We are not of those who approve of that zeal which a few years ago demolished some of the finest apple orchards in the interior. It is our opinion that the zeal which destroyed the apple orchards is not a zeal according to knowledge. And we much regret the little attention that has been paid to the cultivation of apple orchards throughout the whole interior of New England.(5)

Another Temperance writer didn’t see the need to abandon apples all together, asking

What shall be done with the fruit, especially the apple, so abundantly bestowed upon us? Shall it be destroyed beyond its domestic use? Or shall it be left to perish on the ground?…Some felt that they were called, in the providence of God, at once to root out their superabundant orchards, and devote the soil to grass and grain, for the support of man and beast. And there is good reason to suppose that in the great cider districts of the country, man’s appetite for this corrosive beverage had led many to err in this wide appropriation of beautiful fields.(6)

Finally, another proclaimed, “It is high time that the valuable fruit of the orchard was put to some better purpose than making men drunkards.”(7)

So what were those better purposes?

One suggestions was to use apples as an inexpensive fodder for animals. It was noted that apples were, “valuable for feeding stock” including, “horses, sheep, and cows; also for hogs…”(8) Not only were apples a cheap source of fodder, it was suggested they were a better long-term investment since apple-fed hogs, made twice the money cider would. (One farmer reported making a $600 return using the same amount of apples he got only $300 with for cider.(9) Another benefit was cider apples used as fodder required almost no change in the orchard, since “both sour and sweet apples as food for hogs, cattle and horses, may be well used to almost any extent: they are much more valuable to be thus used than to be made into cider…”(10)

Apples could be fodder, but it dawned on many that they could be food too.

The farmers throughout the country have not, as has been said, “in their fanatical zeal cut down their orchards; on the contrary they have been increasing them, not however, as I trust, to furnish cider to be drank, but to furnish fruit to be eaten, which recent experience has shown to be most nutricious [sic]…”(11)

As Americans increased their orchards, they began to adopt the idea that, “”…the principle use that we would make at present of apples in the country would be for every day fruit to be used in families.(12)

temperance new hampshire sentinel, published as new-hampshire sentinel. (keene, new hampshire) • 03-24-1836 • page [3]

Some orchards were not destroyed, but planted, “fully competent to temperance.”  New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), March 24, 1836, 3.

Apples as food was not entirely new to Americans. That eating apples could be the primary use was. But, it was suggested, even if Americans weren’t ready to consume them, they would make an excellent export, as, “People of the tropics love apples. Great for cooking and baking. Vinegar.” (13)

Apart from the moral arguments, Temperance writers also made economic arguments in support of transitioning orchards away from cider apples. One writer made the dubiously positive claim that, “engrafting and budding will change the character of an orchard, and more than compensate for the time and amount lost, producing the change – in ten years”(14)

In selling the idea that apples were for eating and not drinking, Temperance had found an answer to the orchard problem. They shared it with everyone, saying, “mirabile dictu! Grapes and apples were made for food. Laugh not, gentle reader, at this grave annunciation. It is really the great discovery of the nineteenth century…”(15).  And that “great discovery” encouraged farmers to plant, “A neat orchard of well selected fruit, for domestic use, cookery, and barn feed, is an invaluable part of a farm,” since “for any thing else, it is a nuisance.”(16)


Another great discovery under an apple tree. Source


Next Time: What was the “Cider Question” and why was it so contentious?


1. Journal of the American Temperance Union I, no. 3 (March 1837), 41.

2. The Extra Globe 4, no. 5 (April 26, 1838), 71.

3. In some stories, Prohibitionists also cut down orchards. For examples, see the following sites: http://www.farmdistiller.org/northwest-apples; /https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/02/15/hard-cider-comeback/5488087 ; https://www.threeriversparks.org/index.php/blog/hard-cider-story-war-immigration-and-prohibition; https://grow.cals.wisc.edu/departments/features/craft-ciders-comeback; http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/nine-apple-cider-traditions-no-longer-us/ .

4. “Second Annual Report for 1838,” Permanent Temperance Documents (New York: American Temperance Union, 1838), 48.

5. Farmer’s Monthly Visitor III, no. 5 (May 31, 1841), 68.

6. “Second Annual Report for 1838,” Permanent Temperance Documents (New York: American Temperance Union, 1838), 48.

7. Journal of the American Temperance Union I, no. 9 (September 1837), 138.

8. Journal of the American Temperance Union I, no. 3 (March 1837), 41.

9. Journal of the American Temperance Union I, no. 10 (October 1837), 151.

10. Farmer’s Monthly Visitor III, no. 5 (May 31, 1841), 68.

11. Journal of the American Temperance Union V, No. 8 (August 1840), 115.

12. Farmer’s Monthly Visitor III, no. 5 (May 31, 1841), 68.

13. Farmer’s Monthly Visitor III, no. 5 (May 31, 1841), 68.

14. Journal of the American Temperance Union I, no. 3 (March 1837), 41.

15. Mirable Dictu! translates as “wonderful to relate!” Journal of the American Temperance Union V, no. 10 (October 1840), 154.

16. Journal of the American Temperance Union I, no. 9 (September 1837), 138.

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