By Miranda Allan – 2014
Bat Cave is the Old Cider Mill. The Old Cider Mill is Bat Cave.
Joann D’Ambra, who has been churning out apple cider and running the Applesolutely Gift Shop with her husband, John, for nine years, proudly boasts that “you’re in downtown Bat Cave in my store.” The D’Ambra’s shop sits perched at the bank of the Broad River (broad in name only; the river quiets to a sweet babble as it floats by), at the top of the town’s busiest three-way intersection. If Highway 64 takes you through town, you are practically required to stop in at the Old Cider Mill, especially if you’re not willing to brave the actual cave full of bats to which Bat Cave owes its name. There is simply no better way to pass a crisp October morning than watching John’s crew press apples and browsing through the goods in Joann’s shop.
When my team visited, the employees were in costume – for though it is the first week in October, Halloween comes early to a place called Bat Cave. In fact, bat décor can be found at any time of year. Faux-bats hang from the eaves and jack-o-lanterns peek out from behind the pillars of the old building. Dried ears of corn mingle with cartoon Draculas. A life-sized inflatable Batman perches above the “Applesolutely Gift Shop” sign. Fall and the apple season bring a special life to the store. The D’Ambras enjoy a busy season from spring to late fall, and then they receive a welcome respite in the winter months. I was very grateful for the opportunity to visit the Cider Mill during peak season. The shop wears its autumn clothes very, very well.
It was converted from a historic post office, and was renovated only to be consistent with codes rather than infringe on the integrity of the building. When the D’Ambra’s took over the Mill in 2005, townspeople voiced their concern for the building’s history. John and Joann were careful to respect their wishes. In fact, they proudly display a drawing of the original post office, which bears tribute to their efforts in keeping it alive. Joann also brought us out back to a storage room, where we were treated to the sight of the antique post office boxes. Originally used to sort mail, Joann now files one item from each batch of artisan goods that she sells. She likes looking back on the treasures that have brought color and art to her shop over the years. As an outsider looking in, the sheer volume of things in this dusty wooden grid floored me. Joann has represented many local artists in her time as shop-owner. She herself is a talented jewelry artist, drawing inspiration from seemingly insignificant materials such as a branch in the road or up-cycled aluminum.
Both the exterior and interior of the store are decorated from top to bottom with curios and memorabilia. Pages of descriptions could not do justice to the way goods burst forth from all angles, as if vying for attention. From under the porch a rainbow wall of apples greets visitors and within the shop, I lost myself among jewelry of Joann’s own creation, vintage wooden children’s toys, and canned preserves – all from local artists and farms. A closer observer might notice a jarred delicacy labeled innocently, “Pickled Baby Bat.” There’s no cause for alarm, however; the jar contains only a vinyl bat meant to keep shoppers alert. As Joann puts it, “I’m batty!”
John and Joann are more than shopkeepers; they are like honorary parents to the children of Bat Cave, a town of 176 people. Before they are even of legal working age, children come asking for work. Joann tells them she needs to ask their parents, but if they earn good grades and stay out of trouble they can someday operate the beloved apple press themselves. When their workers eventually grow up and move on, John and Joann are happy to be in attendance at their graduations and weddings. Though they do not have children themselves, the D’Ambra’s consider all the local children who have worked with them through the years to be their adoptive family.
Serena, a lovely young woman sporting a floor-length crushed velvet gown and sanguine contacts for Halloween, is one of these lucky youths. “They’re family,” she says of John and Joann. It’s plain to see the camaraderie and affection amongst the staff. Sure enough, I felt myself gradually being adopted and mothered in my time at the Old Cider Mill. The open-heartedness of the good people we spoke with was plain to be seen.
It would appear as if that goodness carries over into the inhabitants of Bat Cave. Visitors often ask Joann if she carries the many decorations from outside into the shop for safekeeping at night. Joann is happy to report that thieves have never given her any trouble. Locals respect that the D’Ambra’s establishment has given a name to Bat Cave, and anyone who has met the D’Ambra’s would never wish them harm. Stories like these make me a feel a little more secure; it’s nice to know that we share the world with some truly benevolent people.
This brings me to the cider-making process. The sight of bushels stacked on bushels of apples was lovely to behold. The cider press, an intimidating and fascinating beast of a machine, is fired up several times a day and visitors are welcome to watch. The staff all put in their hands (even a woman in an air cast!) to help make fresh cider out of only apples. That’s right: there is no sugar, no spices, no formula. Apples vary by juice content, sweetness, crispness, et cetera and each batch requires a different number of apples. Apple varieties peak at different times, and so any given batch of cider will reflect these unique tastes. No two batches are alike, but I can testify to the deliciousness of the cider I sampled. It tasted pure, like the mountain river that flows past the mill, and sweet, like the scent of October air. Only a Dixie cup of the D’Ambra’s cider was enough to turn me against store-bought cider for life. There is no parallel to fresh cider made from local apples. The leftover pulp from pressed apples is fed to cows on nearby farms, perfectly completing the circle of sustainability honored at the Old Cider Mill.
And what kind of apples do the D’Ambra’s prefer? John goes for the sweetly sour Jonagold apples, while Joann enjoys a sharp Mutsu.