The making of Lions apple butter, part 2…

It starts at 4:00 am on Friday morning, September 23.  Six members of the Lions Club meet in the parking lot outside the old Sperryville school, and depart for Keezletown.

The day before, 42 bushels of apples were cut and prepared in a marathon session by the Lions Club members.  (Read Part 1 of this story here.)  Today, the six Lions and the bags containing the apples were on their way to a cannery for processing.

The Rappahannock Lions Club makes apple butter at the Keezletown Community Cannery, in Keezletown, Virginia, the only remaining “can-your-own and non-profit” cannery in the State of Virginia.

Where is Keezletown?  It is outside of Harrisonburg, VA, off Route I-81, as shown by the pointing black circle in the lower left hand corner of the map shown below.  From Sperryville (shown in the upper right hand corner) to Keezletown via Route 211 to New Market and then to I-81 South to Route 33 East and Keezletown is about 60 miles.


Click on photo to enlarge.

For history buffs, the web site of the cannery contains the following background information:

“The Keezletown Community Cannery, located in the Shenandoah Valley in a small town called Keezletown, began in 1942 in the basement of the Keezletown School.  As World War II was raging and food and supplies at home were rationed, people began growing “victory gardens” as a concept to foster patriotism and community spirit.  Many citizens grew their own food and used canneries around the country to can it and to assist in the war effort (canned food was necessary for shipment overseas) as well as to supplement their families own supplies (food stamps rationed what people could buy in the stores).  Such canneries were often supported in part by school systems who used them for educational purposes as well.” 


The front of the Cannery, reflecting the date it was reopened to the public.

The six Lion Club members who arrive at the Cannery are the first shift.  They are responsible for unloading all the apples prepared the day before and loading them into the large steel vats of the cannery.  The vats are steam-fired and reclaimed from old US Navy ships; there is one 65-gallon behemoth, two 50-gallons, two 35-gallons, and one 25-gallon.  All are filled with apples and the cooking begins.


How the Cannery looks when the first Lion members arrive.

The apples are cooked until soft, then removed from the vats and placed into a sifting machine.  The machine extracts all the apple juice and pulp, and discards all the rest.  As each vat is emptied, it is cleaned, then refilled with the apple juice and pulp.  Then the serious cooking begins.



One of the 50-gallon vats, cooking apple “lava”.

The apple butter is cooked for at least seven hours at very high heat, such that the mixture is boiling and popping — a most unpleasant mixture when some of the butter spurts onto an unprotected arm or face.

The room is ferociously hot (over 90 degrees inside and very steamy), but the apple butter must be tended constantly, stirred every ten minutes and the heat constantly adjusted on the old steam-heating system.  Stirring is hard work.


Stirring the “lava”.

After about six hours of cooking, once the water in the apple butter has been sufficiently reduced and the butter is at the proper thickness, the first of the spices is added.  The Lions use sugar, cinnamon,  and cloves.


Spices are added.

After the apples are all in the kettles and cooking well, four members of the first shift leave to return home.  Two members stay to monitor and stir.  And stir.  And stir.

About 4:00 in the afternoon, a second wave of Lions (and some wives) appear.  They will begin the process of putting the cooked apple butter in jars.  This includes cleaning and sterilizing 1,200 jars, then filling them up.


The second shift of Lions waits for the apple butter to be declared “perfect”, at which point they will begin putting it into jars.

Below, boxes of pristine pints jars waiting to be sterilized in steam tables.  The boxes are wrapped in tape to reinforce them; otherwise, the intense heat and moisture inside the cannery could cause the boxes to collapse.



The Cannery is stifling hot, but she is still cheerful as she loads jars into the sterilizer.



There are two steam sterilizers, to be loaded and unloaded ten times, to handle all 1,200 jars.

The stirring and cooking continue until the apple butter is ready for use in filling the sterilized pint jars.  Finally.  Below, a Lion member holds a ladle of apple butter, ready to add the apple butter to the pitcher, which, in turn, is used to fill the device employed in filling the individual jars.


Below, amongst other Lions Club members, one uses the jar-filling device.  Over the course of Friday, September 23, 2016, over 1200 pint jars were filled, then lidded and capped, as shown in the following photo.



Finally, the completed jars are packed in cartons and loaded into a van for a trip back to Rappahannock County.


The following days, the apple butter was available at the Quicke Mart along Route 211 in Rappahannock County.


A friendly Lions Club member is ready to sell the apple butter to the public.  The apple butter is made fresh every year, and sells out practically every year.  It will be on sale at the Quickie Mart on weekends … until it’s gone.  Also available are Whitley’s “Select Super Extra Large Virginia Peanuts,” and, of course, the famous Lion brooms.

by Don Audette, Sperryville