Although his family had made their living producing apple butter for more than a century, Harvey Bauman didn’t think he’d do the same.
Until he did.
“We decided we’d do it for a while, and now you might say you’re stuck with it," said Bauman, 74, of Bauman’s Apple Butter in Sassamansville, Montgomery County. His parents ran the company before him. And before that, his grandparents ran the place.
The business still uses his grandmother’s recipe for apple butter that Bauman insists is delicious. But apple butter, a dairy-free condiment with a butterlike texture that was once a staple in the Pennsylvania Dutch heartland, has dwindled considerably in popularity over the years.
Now, Bauman said, “it’s an extra thing people put on the table. It’s not there every day like it used to be when I was younger."
Still, Bauman’s has managed to carve out a stronghold in a niche industry by offering not only apple butter but also a variety of other fruit butters.
At Bauman’s, you can find apricot butter, peach, pear and plum butter, blueberry butter, strawberry rhubarb butter — and many more, more than a dozen flavors in all.
Bauman, who took over the business with his wife, Kathy, in 2005, said some of the flavors came quite by chance.
“My husband said, ‘Oh, there are extra plums. Want to know if there’s anything we can do with them?’ " Kathy Bauman said. "So we just kind of experimented a little with it.”
The Baumans also make apple sauce and savory condiments like ketchup and chili oil. A best seller, though, remains apple butter — the only fruit butter at Bauman’s that sells by the gallon.
And it keeps practically forever. Apple butter has no preservatives, requires no refrigeration, and is a virtually spoil-proof product.
For those who wonder how hardy Bauman’s apple butter is, it remained unaffected during a months-long voyage from Germany to Southeastern Pennsylvania in 1734, when Bauman’s grandmother escaped religious persecution. Once in the States, the Baumans said, she settled in Schwenksville among other Schwenkfelders, followers of the Protestant reformer Caspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig.
She married John Bauman, a Mennonite who first made a living building carriages and sleighs. Then in 1900, after the family bought a cider press powered by a steam engine, the family’s legacy — apple butter — began in earnest.
Success first came in small steps. Folks in Schwenksville, where the business started, were impressed by the family’s thick, rich apple butter, and word of its good taste quickly spread. In those days. the Baumans said, the demand for quality apple butter was high, especially in Pennsylvania Dutch country.
As sales grew, Bauman’s father, Stanley, the youngest of nine children and an Ursinus College graduate who aspired to become a teacher, was instead drawn into the apple butter enterprise in 1930. After Stanley Bauman died in 1977, his wife, Ruth, stepped in to run the family business.
Harvey Bauman, meanwhile, became a mechanical engineer, but also helped with the business, as did his wife, Kathy, a teacher. Their now-grown children, John and Heidi, assisted at the factory when they were younger.
When Ruth Bauman died in 2005, Harvey and Kathy Bauman took over the business. They have no immediate plans to retire.
On a recent Tuesday, they watched with satisfaction as the cider press rumbled noisily away. The machine had already produced around 1,000 gallons of cider that day, Harvey Bauman said.
The cider press growled hungrily as it squeezed huge bundles of locally grown mashed apple in a hydraulic press, pushing down with 75 tons of force. Amber-colored apple juice trickled out in streams and rivulets, collecting dark and foamy in a wide basin.
Eventually, around 70 gallons of cider would be poured into a steel drum already filled with 120 pounds of whole apples, then boiled until the water was gone. The drum would be strained of apple skins and seeds to produce 20 to 22 pounds of fragrant apple butter.
If it seems like a lot of work, it is.
But that’s the way the family has always done it.
It’s the way they say they will continue to make their fruit butters, going into yet another season this fall.
“It’s had its pros and cons," Harvey Bauman said, but “we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t like it.”