An apple a day (and many more)
If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, what do tens of thousands of apples do? They keep people coming back to the Apple Castle. And that’s been going on for more than fifty years, ever since Ralph Johnston founded it in 1950.
The Johnston family’s love affair with apples began almost 150 years ago.
“My great grandfather bought a farm in Lawrence County in 1861,” Ralph said. “He grew apples before that on an adjoining farm, so apples and our family have been together for a good long time. “Then about 1900, my grandfather planted his farm right at the juncture of Route 18 and Route 156. He built that big house in the Y. My dad planted the first acreage orchard on his farm in 1910, the year he was married, and we’ve been planting apples ever since. My grandfather’s was one of the first commercial orchards in the county.”
Ralph was born in 1922, and grew up on that farm. As with many others who lived out in the country, the Depression had less of an impact on his family than it did on people who lived and worked in cities.
“We never lacked for anything to eat,” he said. “I guess we weren’t aware of the Depression. That’s just the way things were. We didn’t go to the movies every week or anything like that. The one thing I often wonder about is how my mother could gather up $3.00 a week for piano lessons for me. I recently thought of all the things she could have done with that money, but she wanted me to have music lessons.”
Ralph also took a few violin lessons on an old violin they had found, and he played it in the high school orchestra. “But it never turned into anything,” he said.
In addition to the apple orchard, his father had a small dairy with 15 or 20 cows, chickens for eggs, and three or four pigs each year to butcher. Of course they had a garden, and Ralph’s mother canned a lot of vegetables and meats.
“I still have a jar of canned beef out here in the cupboard,” Ralph said. “It looks like it was put in the jar yesterday.”
As Ralph says, they worked hard, but so did everyone else around them. That was just the way life was.
“We didn’t have weed spray to keep the weeds out of the cornfields. You had to go down the row with a hoe and chop the weeds out. I spent lots of hours on a one-row cultivator with a team of horses out front. That was the best we knew, the best we could do. Everybody else was in the same situation. We were glad to have the chance to raise our own food.”
When World War II came, Ralph was studying Horticulture at Penn State. He was in the Reserve Officers Training Corps, and he joined the enlisted reserves. But with the war on, his father couldn’t get help on the farm. He was trying to run it all by himself. So after completing three years of college, Ralph was released from the reserves and came home to help.
That turned out to be a good break for one special reason. It was during that time that Ralph met Ruth Caven, who was to become his wife. During the summers, Ralph and his parents would take apples and corn to the Ellwood City Farmers Market. Ruth’s mother, father, and brother brought apples, grapes, and peaches from their Caven Fruit Farm, which was in Beaver County. They were very impressed with Ralph.
“Mom and Dad came home from Ellwood City and said there’s the nicest young man there,” Ruth said. “At the time I worked at an insurance and real estate office, and we worked on Saturday morning. So I asked for a morning off and got it. The Johnstons were late coming to market that day. I thought, did I ask for a day off for nothing? But they came up and mother introduced me.”
Ralph was immediately attracted by her red hair – and her wink. Ruth says she doesn’t remember the wink, but Ralph will never forget it. In fact, he memorialized it in a poem he titled “My Valentine.” He wrote it for a Valentine’s pot luck dinner at their church in 1987. He wrote,
“I knew her Dad and Mother first,
also her older brother,
but never knew for many years
that Cupid was her mother! . . . .
So one September market day
on Sixth Street, Ellwood City,
somebody winked, the arrow flew –
and I was ditty witty!”
When Ralph and Ruth were married on May 5, 1945, Ruth moved from one fruit farm to another one.
“It was out of the frying pan into the fire,” Ralph said.
The fire produced four children – Sara (Sally) in 1947, Hood in 1950, Lyle in 1952, and David in 1955.
Growing fruit was a challenge. Caring for the trees was a year-round job. Success depended not only on hard work, but also on things beyond their control. A frost at the wrong time could destroy the crop.
“That’s one of the reasons I conceived the Apple Castle,” Ralph said. “With it we get what we needed from other orchards to keep a supply for our customers. And I was tired of selling apples and sweet corn and other produce from an open stand alongside the road. We put up a building about the size of a one-car garage. Seven years later we added a cold storage building so we could keep apples in better condition for longer periods of time.”
About 1983, their son Lyle joined the business. He wanted to have more room, so they built the present Apple Castle.
“Then we had room for other roadside market items like apple butter and jellies. We have a nice line of sugarless jams and jellies. Lyle wanted to make donuts to sell with the cider, so one of the first pieces of equipment we got was a donut machine. We’ve been making donuts every morning ever since – except Sundays. We weren’t open on Sundays so Ralph could spend time with the family.”
They continued to sell a variety of fruit from their own farm, including apples, peaches, plums, cherries, blueberries, and a few red raspberries and blackberries. They also grew 15 acres of sweet corn to sell in their store.
The reputation of the Apple Castle has spread far and wide, partly because of Lawrence County’s tourist buses that include it as a stop. Tours come from as far away as Buffalo and Cleveland.
The farm didn’t leave a lot of time for vacations, but the Johnstons and the Cavens were active in the Grange. Ruth is now a 70-year member.
“The Grange is a rural fraternal organization that was founded right after the Civil War for farmers to gather together, eat together, socialize, have dances and other activities,” Ralph said. “All the founders were Masons. Its organization and rituals, I understand, are similar to the Masonic order. The Masons have 33 degrees. The Grange has seven. It used to be more secret and restrictive. It used to be open only farmers, but now others can join.”
The first four degrees are named after the seasons – Spring, Summer, Winter, and Fall. The three highest are the County, State, and National degrees.
Through the years, Ruth worked part time for a CPA, but was mostly a stay-at-home mom, as well as bookkeeper and secretary for the Apple Castle. But she remained something much more to Ralph. Here’s the last stanza of his Valentine poem:
“You know, it’s awful hard to find
a Valentine worth havin’ –
but more than 40 years ago
I found mine – Ruth Caven.”
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008