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A Butter Way of Life for Big Family : Clan Gets Together Once at Year and Makes Apple Butter

November 27, 1987|MARY CAMPBELL | Associated Press

CAMP POINT, Ill. — The hot-air balloon floating over Gladys Lewis' pasture on a cold fall Saturday bears the legend Apple Butter Queen.

Wearing a crown and a corsage, Mrs. Lewis, an 89-year-old matriarch known to most as Aunt Peg, strolls among about 200 members of her clan who have gathered at Round Barn Farm, where she lives alone, for an annual reunion called Apple Butter.

That's what they do one day of the weekend reunion. Make apple butter. By late afternoon they will have canned 374 pints and 257 half-pints labeled Peg's Special Cider Apple Butter, all for family consumption.

Dana and Gladys Lewis didn't intend to start a tradition when they first spent a fall day making apple butter about 47 years ago. Using a copper kettle over a bonfire, they turned their apples into a spread for bread sweeter and thicker than apple sauce. They canned it for their family and their hired man, who was widowed and raising five sons.

From Near and Faraway

This year, family members gathered from places as far away as Pullman, Wash., and Asheville, N.C. There were lawyers, doctors, occupational therapists and farmers. There were children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nephews, nieces, first cousins twice removed, second cousins once removed, third cousins.

All nine of Aunt Peg's children were there, 29 of her 36 grandchildren and 28 of her 33 great-grandchildren. So were a first cousin, Leota McGaw Turk from San Diego, and a double cousin, Betty McGaw Santantonio from Long Island, born in Etah, India, where her parents were Presbyterian missionaries.

Gladys had bought 14 bushels of Jonathan apples for making the apple butter and 12 bushels of Jonathans, Red and Golden Delicious to make cider.

Early in the morning, in the large shed north of her house, 16 cutting boards were placed on a long table and 16 people began coring and slicing the apples.

Runners carried buckets of sliced apples outside to three grinders clamped to benches. Other runners took buckets of ground apples from there to two big copper kettles over wood fires east of the shed.

There the ground apples simmered for five hours, stirred constantly with wooden paddles attached to long wooden handles.

Dana Lewis, who died in 1970, devised tying corn shucks through the last row of holes in the paddle, making a brush to sweep the rounded bottom of the kettle and prevent sticking.

Gladys' grandson, Kim Lewis, a lawyer whose wife is a lawyer, and surgeon son Dick were in charge of the recipe--adding cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, brown sugar, red hots and cider to the simmering apples.

Meanwhile, some tall grandsons set up a tent, tables and folding chairs for meals.

Gladys' son, George, an attorney who was national president of both the Presbyterian Church's Westminster Fellowship and the Future Farmers of America in 1950, later a Fulbright Scholar, was supervising butter-making at three churns.

"Don't turn backwards," he cautioned his 4-year-old grandson, Paul. "It'll just go back into whipped cream."

Jimmie Lewis, 3, who lives in a farmhouse up the road, didn't mind how many people filled his great-grandmother's yard for Apple Butter. Jimmie believes that she really belongs to him.

While Gladys Hersman of Hersman, Ill., class of 1920, was studying home economics at the University of Illinois, she met her roommate's brother, Dana Lewis from Camp Point, 20 miles west of Hersman.

In 1922, Gladys and Dana were married and started farming in Hersman. All of their nine children graduated from the University of Illinois; seven have advanced degrees. All married and have children.

Gladys was given the nickname Aunt Peg by her brother, Frank Hersman, when she was a toddler. "I was little and stubby and wore bib overalls. He just named me Peg," she says. Frank, whose own nickname, Uncle Rusty, came from his red hair, is a retired soil scientist, twice widowed. He recently joined Rotary International, at age 102.

Apple Butter started at Evergreen Heights, the white Victorian house in Hersman where Gladys was born and where she and Dana reared their family. When the children grew up, they stopped making apple butter.

But after they moved to Round Barn Farm between Camp Point and Clayton in 1965, family members persuaded them to reinstate the tradition.

Family Meals

Family meals at Apple Butter 1987 began Thursday night. Granddaughter Alice Garland and her boyfriend, Tapio Jaakola, who worked in a Kodiak Island, Alaska, cannery last summer, brought 110 pounds of frozen salmon.

As they grilled it over fires north of the apple butter fires, Gladys' hog farmer son, John, pointed out that the base of the long grill is cement blocks, the flat metal is doors from hog farrowing crates and the grill is two wire gates--old stuff from his mother's shed.

Ted Vial, husband of Gladys' niece Alice, brought bread he baked in Princeton, N.J. Some is used to clean out the copper kettles and eaten while the apple butter is still warm.

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