A Complete History of The Cider Barrel and Details on its Future
By Karen Adjei
Update: In a previous posting of this article, Willim Cross’ first name was incorrectly spelled “William”. Thanks to Mildred Henry Brice for the correction.
Cider Barrel structure in front of The Elms Apartments in Germantown, MD.
Photo credit: Preservation Maryland/Wikimedia Commons. All Rights Reserved.
The Cider Barrel sits on Frederick Road, or Route 355, in front of The Elms, a large apartment complex that houses 316 garden-style apartments (data from CBG Building Company).
Currently, the historic structure is boarded up; its only noticeable activity is elementary-school-aged children waiting for the school bus on weekday mornings, pre-COVID-19. However, the abandoned attraction often piques the interest of people passing by. It was noticeable enough to get Laura Richman, a local entrepreneur, to spearhead a new restoration project for the site.
“It has been sitting vacant for a long time. I wanted to see it open, and one day it dawned on me that I had the ability to do it. I wanted to do it, so why don’t I go ahead?” she said.
Richman has been working with Elm Street Development, which currently maintains the Cider Barrel and apartment complex, for months to restore the property to its original condition.
In late March of 2020, they reached an agreement to kick-start the restoration process and preserve an important landmark of Germantown history.
(As of August 2021, the plan is still to open post-pandemic.)
A Familiar Sight
“We bow before the Volstead Act
And serve it to you sweet
Tis’ better far than old and hard
This glorious temperance treat”
– Poem formerly painted on the Cider Barrel, courtesy of Susan Soderberg
The Cider Barrel has deep roots with the local area’s history. It was originally built by Andrew Baker in 1922 (some sources say around 1925 or 1926). He was a local insurance entrepreneur who also developed the Ballincara Mansion, the Selby/Soderberg House and Livery Stable, and the original Germantown Bank.
One of his sisters, Sophia Baker, helped to found the St. Rita’s Group– an African American Catholic Church, which met in the cider house on the Ballincara property (not the Cider Barrel) and held ceremonies in the Ballincara gardens.
She taught Sunday School to the local African American children and had a heart for missionary work in local African American communities (Susan Soderberg, The Baker Family and the Ballincara). The African American workers on the Baker farm supplied the apples for the Cider Barrel.
The Cider Barrel was constructed during the height of the Prohibition Era, which banned the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol. But Baker was able to quench people’s thirst by advertising fresh, non-alcoholic cider using the poem above that was formerly painted on the building.
The apples were harvested at his very own orchard and cider press powered by horses behind his home, which lay near the Germantown Train Station. The Cider Barrel stand served as an outlet for his cider production and other agricultural products directly from his farm.
People would come as far away as Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and Virginia to taste the famous cider. There were even tourist cottages that were added so visitors could stay overnight when they came into town to view autumn colors and enjoy other local shops and attractions between Labor Day and Christmas. With a tourist industry that had been growing along Frederick Road since the 1920s, people were keen on enjoying a Germantown Cider Barrel experience.
Three African American service waiters wearing white coats at the Cider Barrel stand. Courtesy of Susan Soderberg.
Photo credit: The Germantown Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
After Baker’s sudden death in 1930 due to heart disease, Christopher Norton and his wife Minnie Underwood Norton bought the property. Christopher died shortly after, and his wife Minnie continued operations with her nephew Willim Cross and sister Martha.
They added the curved open stand to display items for sale around 1935. They also added a restaurant during the 1940s as tourism and development continued to grow. It first served sandwiches and later fried chicken dinners, mainly for patrons of the Neelesville Presbyterian Church just up the road. Continuing the seemingly unspoken tradition of passing on the business, Willim Cross took it over in 1946. And production continued to flourish: “For more than ninety years, cider was produced using a secret formula on a press that could make more than 2,000 gallons per week” (quote originally from Washington Post article, Germantown historians want to save city’s famous Cider Barrel, written by Alex Ruoff, April 11, 2012).
Susan Soderberg of the Germantown Historical Society says of the recipe:
“The roadside attraction became so popular that it was placed on a list of Maryland’s historic places in 1988 (from Washington Post article, Germantown historians want to save city’s famous Cider Barrel, written by Alex Ruoff, April 11, 2012), and was deemed eligible for the National Register in 2018.”
This is significant for many reasons. The National Register of Historic Places recognizes sites that demonstrate significance in American history, archeology, architecture, engineering, or culture. Determining whether a site is historic or not is a three-step process. From the Maryland Historical Trust’s section on Evaluation and Designation of Historic Properties:
“The first step in historic preservation projects is the identification of potentially historic properties. This is simply a research activity to gather basic information and determine what, if any, the next steps should be. After a potentially historic property has been identified, its significance to local, state, or national history, architecture, and/or culture is evaluated against objective criteria [as the next step]. To be eligible for the National Register, a property must demonstrate significance in terms of one or more of four broad criteria: events or trends; association with individuals who made a demonstrable and lasting contribution; architectural merit; or the potential to yield information that will contribute to a better understanding of our past. [Finally, the third step is designation]. There is no one definition of a “historic” building. Instead there are a variety of “historic” designations at the federal, state and local levels”.
The Cider Barrel seems to meets at least three criteria for historical significance and represents the importance of Germantown in the larger context of Montgomery County’s history by containing the unique elements of the area within its structure; its original founder helped set the foundation of Germantown by contributing heavily to its economy through architecture and business; it drew visitors from hundreds of miles away, which helped Germantown become an important town in the region; and it established a community activity centered around a singular landmark that people still remember today. Needless to say, the Cider Barrel remains an important part of Germantown’s fabric, past, and present.
Preserving Community Identity
Jogger in front of the Cider Barrel structure.
Photo credit: The Washington Examiner. All Rights Reserved.
These strong historical and contemporary connections to the landmark helped preserve the structure after the business closed down. Willim Cross sold the 17-acre property and the then-surrounding Cider Barrel Mobile Home Court for more than $7 million to Elm Street Development before he died in 2010. But the operation had been closed since 2003, with Cross at the time citing, “It was too stressful, and I didn’t need the money”, noting a shortage of reliable labor for what he had considered a hobby (quote originally from Washington Post article, After 77 Years, Germantown’s Cider Barrel Shuts Its Doors, written by Julie Rasicot, September 18, 2003). Julie Rasicot in her article expressed that this close marked the loss of a local tradition for generations of county residents who had grown familiar with the sight and taste of the Cider Barrel.
That’s why in 2012, members of the Germantown Historical Society worked to have the Cider Barrel added to Preservation Maryland’s list of endangered historic places in the state (according to the Germantown Patch article, Visions for Vacancies: The Cider Barrel, written by Tiffany Arnold on April 7, 2012). The nomination aimed to bring attention to historic sites thought to be in danger of losing their historic value. This prevented a plan to move the Cider Barrel to the Germantown Town Center as a visitor center back in 2009. The president of the Germantown Historical Society, Susan Soderberg, said this move could have destroyed the barrel since the parts used to construct the building were becoming fragile over time. But even more importantly: “To move it would be destroying what self-pride citizens of Germantown have now in our local history” (quote originally from Study on the Cider Barrel to the Gazette Newspaper, written by Susan Soderberg).
There were others interested in repurposing the site. Brandi Edinger, a local pastry chef, wanted to lease and restore the Cider Barrel and reopen it as a bakery in 2017. The plan gained support from Germantown Alliance, an organization that aims to be a voice for Germantown residents, businesses, and organizations. They praised Brandi’s project as a great use of historic space. However, fundraising on Kickstarter never reached its monetary goal, and unfortunately the plan fell through. Yet, even with this setback, Brandi’s sentiments about the Cider Barrel reflected the community’s continued investment in its preservation: “I keep seeing the Cider Barrel sit there every time I pass by it, and I think, it’s such a beautiful building, how come no one’s done anything with it?” (quote originally from the Bethesda Magazine article, Germantown Resident Hopes to Resurrect Cider Barrel as Bakery by Joe Zimmerman, August 10, 2017).
Open Cider Barrel stand with flowers and canned goods for sale.
Photo credit: The Germantown Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
Concerns for the building’s preservation haven’t been in vain though. On October 13, 2018, Laura Richman along with the Germantown Historical Society presented “The Past and Future of the Cider Barrel” at the Germantown Library to a packed room of audience members curious about the future of the iconic landmark. Continued interest, support, and participation in the Cider Barrel restoration stirred fond memories of the place. “It was a presentation, but it turned out to be more than that. It opened my eyes to the thoughts of the participants that came to listen. The community members offered a historical perspective, stories that added flavor, and questions I wasn’t even aware of! People wanted to help” says Richman.
Since that presentation, Richman worked with developers and property management to secure the plan for renovation and to realize the community’s memories of the place into a renewed reality. “I want it to be more than just a roadside stand. I want it to be community-based, incorporating [local] organizations, and giving back to the organizations that are in need and deserve the support. It kind of all came together”. Her hopes for the use of the place are also community-based. “[I want it to be] fun and friendly, the place to go on weekend mornings to start your day, with fresh produce, cider, baked goods, and kettle corn. I also want there to be opportunities for students to complete Student Service Learning (SSL) hours”.
She also reflected on the time and communication necessary in historic preservation work. “[I have to make sure to] check all the boxes in order to make it happen, pieces of the puzzle that are intertwined. It’s not a linear runway to get this open…because historical societies are involved, there is the owner of the land, contractors that are involved…then there’s me. All the pieces have to come together and agree, which has been challenging. It’s been going fine, it’s just the pieces”. She’s learned a lot about historic preservation and renovation by working on the Cider Barrel: “I have to be patient with historical renovation. Things don’t happen overnight, but if you’re motivated to do something like this…restore, keep it alive…it’s doable, it just takes time”. These experiences, both interacting with the public and directing behind-the-scenes work, have made working with the Cider Barrel a rich and rewarding process. And it’s paid off.
While COVID-19 has slowed down the reopening process, Richman still plans on reopening the Cider Barrel sometime soon.
Why Preservation Matters
The Cider Barrel in Germantown, 1966. Photo by Dan Brodt.
Preserving this historic landmark will no doubt enhance the local tradition of consuming fresh apple cider, an activity that longstanding community members continue to remember and partake in. And considering that the Germantown Library presentation, as well as a recent presentation about the icon at the Montgomery County History Conference on January 23, 2021, has already attracted a large and curious crowd, hopefully the Cider Barrel can attract new faces to the area, and with it, new community activities and memories. In reflecting on what makes the Cider Barrel special and important to Germantown, Richman says, “it’s part of Maryland and Washington, D.C.’s history…it was a place that people would go to escape the city. It’s such an icon, people from all over would come, and people remember it. It’s a beacon of the past in a prominent location in Germantown. People in Germantown should be proud that it’s still there”.
Interacting with history “can help foster community identity and cohesion” (from the Germantown Historical Society). This is especially relevant considering that Germantown has evolved from a railroad town of around one hundred people into a modern Corridor City with a population of over one hundred thousand people and growing. With this development, Germantown has already lost more than half of its historic structures, and along with them knowledge of the cultural and historical past (Germantown Historical Society). However, the preservation, restoration, and use of the Cider Barrel can serve as an exemplary catalyst to repurpose historic sites to preserve the past in order to inform the present. In fact, the restoration project is part of larger efforts and collaborations to continue to preserve historic sites in the local area, such as the Zachariah Waters Cemetery preservation effort led by Susan Soderberg from the Germantown Historical Society. It’s exciting to anticipate how the historic Cider Barrel will continue to inform the future dynamic development of Germantown and its residents.
For more information about the Cider Barrel project, or if you want to get involved, please contact Susan Soderberg, President of the Germantown Historical Society. Contact information can be found on the Germantown Historical Society’s website. Laura Richman is also looking for volunteers; please contact [email protected] to volunteer. For up-to-date information, please visit the Cider Barrel Facebook Page. To contact the author of this article, please email: [email protected].
Karen Adjei is a recent Northwestern University graduate where she studied History and Asian American Studies. Originally from Fairfax, Virginia, she’s rediscovered her love of the DMV area in Germantown, Maryland. After moving to the area post college, Karen has been interning with various historical and cultural organizations, including the Germantown Historical Society. Passionate about history, culture, and storytelling, she has enjoyed exploring all that Montgomery County has to offer. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling, trying new foods, and going to concerts pre-COVID-19. Karen can be reached at [email protected].
For more general information about the Cider Barrel, check out these sources (also used in this article): Washington Post, Bethesda Magazine, Germantown Pulse, DC Eater, Patch, Baltimore Post Examiner, Montgomery Preservation, WDVM, Roadside America, and Kickstarter.
And for more resources on historic preservation in the area, look at what Montgomery Preservation Incorporated has to offer!
Arnold, Tiffany. (2012, April 7). Visions for Vacancies: The Cider Barrel. Patch, Germantown, Maryland.https://patch.com/maryland/germantown/visions-for-vacancies-the-cider-barrel. Accessed January 23, 2021.
Baca, Nathan. Germantown residents protect Revolutionary War patriot’s grave. WUSA9. https://www.wusa9.com/article/news/local/germantown/germantown-cemetery-grave/65-85806255-5e1a-4056-8430-13cf47f32205. Accessed January 23, 2021.
Bunjon, Dara. (2017, August 19). Historic Cider Barrel’s resurrection. Baltimore Post-Examiner. https://baltimorepostexaminer.com/historic-cider-barrels-resurrection/2017/08/19. Accessed January 23, 2021.
CBG Building Company. The Elms at Germantown. https://www.cbgbuildingcompany.com/Portfolio/Project/The-Elms-at-Germantown. Accessed January 23, 2021.
Curtis, Shaun. Gaithersburg History. https://gaithersburghistory.com/share/germantown-cider-barrel.html. Accessed January 23, 2021.
Germantown Historical Society. Upcoming Events. https://germantownmdhistory.org/upcoming-events. Accessed January 23, 2021.
Germantown Pulse. “The Past and Future of the Cider Barrel” at Germantown Library. https://www.germantownpulse.net/single-post/2018/10/10/AGP-Past-and-Future-of-the-Cider-Barrel-at-Germantown-Library. Accessed January 23, 2021.
Ikeda, Emilie. (2017, August 24). Pastry chef raises money to reopen Cider Barrel. WDVM. https://www.localdvm.com/news/pastry-chef-raises-money-to-reopen-cider-barrel/. Accessed January 23, 2021.
Kickstarter. Help bring the Cider Barrel back to life! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ciderbarrel/help-me-bring-the-cider-barrel-back-to-life?ref=project_tweet. Accessed January 23, 2021.
The Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties (MIHP). Research and Survey. https://mht.maryland.gov/research_survey.shtml. Accessed January 23, 2021.
MocoShow. (2020, June 28). https://www.facebook.com/germantownpulse/posts/3172897176120958. Accessed January 23, 2021.
Montgomery Preservation. (2017, August 29). Kickstarter to Reopen Germantown Landmark. https://www.montgomerypreservation.org/kickstarter-to-reopen-germantown-landmark/. Accessed January 23, 2021.
Plumb, Tierney. (2017, August 10). Local Chef Hunts for Funds to Transform Historic Germantown Cidery Into a Bakery. Eater Washington, D.C.. https://dc.eater.com/2017/8/10/16125862/cider-barrel-bakery-fundraising-germantown. Accessed January 23, 2021.
Rasicot, Julie. (2003, September 18). “After 77 Years, Germantown’s Cider Barrel Shuts Its Doors”. Washington Post – Montgomery Extra.
Richman, Laura. Personal interview. September 11, 2019.
Richman, Laura. Personal interview. May 28, 2020.
RoadsideAmerica.com. Germantown, Maryland: The Cider Barrel – Old Road Stand. https://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/8920. Accessed January 23, 2021.
Ruoff, Alex. (2012, April 11). Germantown historians want to save city’s famous Cider Barrel. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/germantown-historians-want-to-save-citys-famous-cider-barrel/2012/04/10/gIQAQqEHAT_story.html. Accessed January 23, 2021.
Soderberg, Susan. The Baker Family and Ballincara. Accessed January 23, 2021.
Soderberg, Susan. (Originally written October 12, 1993, re-edited in 2010 and 2018). Ballincara and the Cider Barrel.
Zimmermann, Joe. (2017, August 10). Germantown Resident Hopes to Resurrect Cider Barrel as Bakery. Bethesda Magazine. https://bethesdamagazine.com/bethesda-beat/dine/germantown-resident-hopes-to-resurrect-cider-barrel-as-bakery/. Accessed January 23, 2021.
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