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Oregon woodworker proud of his handcrafted apple presses

SHARE Oregon woodworker proud of his handcrafted apple presses

ELMIRA, Ore. (AP) — Robert Correll likes to say that he doesn't just make apple presses, he makes memories.

"I feel so grateful that I'm able to be a part of so many people's lives," says the man who's been called Cider Bob and the Johnny Appleseed of apple presses.

Correll has made at least 3,050 memories. That's how many presses the former inventory control specialist from Elmira has produced. Of course, the real number of people who have been touched by Correll's handcrafted wooden presses is much greater.

Cider making is an intrinsically social activity, best undertaken in small groups, and Correll's presses have been used by countless church groups, neighborhood groups, farm collectives and small businesses. They are also, arguably, the best small presses you can buy. So says Sally Herman, a farmer from Salem who recently purchased one.

"It's a dream machine, no doubt," she says. "We pressed some cider with another machine a couple of years ago and had to chop all the apples (by hand). This one's fast, it's easy, it's portable, easy to clean. It does a really good job."

Herman isn't the only one who thinks Correll's presses are special. Last year an article in Forbes magazine declared it the best small press on the market. A northern California company impressed with the design licensed it for production, and Correll has had orders from all over.

Correll started off selling mainly to buyers in apple-growing regions in the Northwest such as Yakima, Wash., but he has since branched out to other parts of the country, not to mention Costa Rica, New Zealand, Poland, France and Malaysia.

"This is my niche. This is God-given," said Correll, who recently celebrated his 75th birthday with an apple turnover his wife baked. "This isn't just what I do, this is who I am."

Correll grew up in Ellensberg, Wash. So did his wife, Glinda, who says Correll was the first boy who ever kissed her. He's also the second-generation apple press maker in his family. In the early 1970s, he persuaded his father to begin making presses as a way to earn money for retirement. When his father died in 1974, Correll began teaching himself the craft. He quickly surpassed the 22 machines his father had sold and quit his day job.

"I was worried about our income," Glinda recalls. "It took awhile (to make money), but he is who he is, and I accept it."

Today, Correll says he lives debt-free, and it's all because of apple presses. He shows off the two cars he bought, the house he owns clear and outright, and the converted goat barn that serves as his workshop. He constructs almost every part of his presses himself, down to the steel teeth on the apple grinders that chew right through Jonagolds, Fujis and Braeburns.

Correll builds his presses 10 at a time, working on each part in shifts. In one corner he punches holes in strips of stainless steel that will eventually wrap around the baskets that contain the apple grindings. Just outside the door are the baskets themselves. They've been dipped in protective urethane and are hanging to dry.

"Every job is a self portrait," reads a sign hanging from a post. "Autograph it with quality."

Correll's workshop is a monument to his ingenuity, filled with all sorts of self-made tools and modified spaces. He talks about the time he took the tip of a finger off with a piece of equipment, and why he settled on four rows of blades on his apple-grinding mechanism.

"I tried eight rows, and the apple just sat up there and bounced around," he says. "It's all been a process of elimination."

Correll started making his presses with oak, but later switched to ash when the price of wood began to climb. He says ash — used to make baseball bats — has a built-in resiliency and is about half the price of oak.

But clearly price is not the main concern for Correll. His entire focus seems to be on building a better apple press.

"I started selling to dealers, and one dealer in Lewiston, Idaho — he called me and said, 'Mr. Correll, I'm 80 years old. If you could only put wheels on them and handles,"' Correll recalls. "It's the whole configuration. They just work better than anybody else's. A child can (make cider) on my machine."

Correll's presses are now outfitted with those wheels and handles requested by the man from Idaho. He's made other minor improvements here and there but says the design was largely completed in the early 1980s.

"I've made over 3,050, and no one's ever returned one," he says.

Correll's design is more utilitarian than artistic, but there's a certain beauty in the sturdiness and simple functionality. A grinder with an electric motor feeds into two baskets, which rest atop a sloped platform. While one basket is catching chunks of chewed up apple, the other is being squeezed by hand with a circular press. The juices from both baskets are collected and channeled into a waiting container.

Correll makes several different models, which range in price from about $600 to $1,200. His higher priced "heirloom" presses are made with solid Michigan and Kentucky white ash and bear his signature. Standard Correll presses are made with a mix of ash and hardwood plywood. All the presses are inscribed with the Correll icon, an apple burned into the wood with a laser. It's one of the few processes that is contracted out to somebody else.

Correll's presses are most efficient when operated by several people working together, which is how Herman and her family made more than 40 gallons of cider in three hours. Correll says he recently made 73 gallons in the same period of time.

One of his clients, a small-farm operator, was making 500 gallons of cider per week, five months a year. After 40,000 gallons, the operator came in to have the grinder blades sharpened. As far as Correll knows, the machine is still spitting out cider.

When asked how long he plans to continue making cider presses, Correll answers with a question of his own.

"How does forever sound?" he asks. "Why would I ever quit? Unless I got so debilitated that I couldn't handle it."

Correll is nowhere near that point. He works 12 hours a day, six days a week, and although Glinda says her husband works too hard, Correll says he wouldn't have it any other way.

Herman says Correll's hard work comes through in the craftsmanship of his presses. When she began shopping for a press of her own, she looked at other brands but says she didn't find any that compared with the presses made in Oregon. She points to the quality of the materials and to Correll's meticulousness.

"If you do something long enough and are into it that much, you start working out all the things that can go wrong," Herman says. "I don't know why anyone would get anything else."