Everett man grows more than 150 types of apples on 25 trees

EVERETT — The afternoon was golden. Guests didn’t wait for drinks to be poured at the Hilsons’ backyard party Saturday. Fresh-pressed apple cider was flowing. One only needed to hold out a cup.

An apple-pressing party is an autumnal rite for Jerry and Helga Hilson, whose home in the Boulevard Bluffs neighborhood includes a carefully tended orchard.

In the early 1800s, when most apples were used for hard cider, John Chapman changed the landscape of the American frontier by planting orchards from seeds. His real name isn’t well-known, but his effort — which a 2014 article in Smithsonian magazine said was about alcohol, not fruit to eat — became legendary. We know Chapman as Johnny Appleseed.

Helga Hilson said that nickname fits her husband, too. “He’s a modern Johnny Appleseed,” she said.

Jerry Hilson, 77, grows more than 150 types of apples on about 25 trees on the couple’s roughly half-acre property.

In 1992, when they moved to their home south of Mukilteo Boulevard, there was just one tree growing big King apples. Hilson planted the others, and through grafting has cultivated dozens of varieties.

That first tree alone has been grafted to grow 40 types of apples. Hilson calls it his “confused mother tree.” Silvery tags, like little Christmas ornaments, mark spots on the branches where grafts have taken hold.

Crown Prince Rudolph, Tremblett’s Bitter, Pomme Raisin, Wickson Crab and Finkenwerder Herbstprinz, along with more common types such as Jonamac, Honeycrisp and Gravenstein are just some of the apple varieties Hilson has grown.

Every fall, they celebrate their harvest. Friends and family sample the tangy-sweet drink as it pours from their hardwood cider press.

Hand-built in Oregon, the finely crafted Correll Cider Press combines an electric motor — which grinds washed apples as someone feeds them whole into a hopper — with a pressing screw that’s turned by hand. Cider flows out as the screw is turned, compressing the apple mash, which is contained in a bag.

The cider made Saturday was a blend of juices from Golden Delicious and SweeTango apples.

“It’s a great hobby,” said Ron Gibson, the Hilsons’ son-in-law. He and his wife, Kristie Hilson, one of the Everett couple’s three children, live in Snohomish. Another daughter, Andrea Wolfe, came to the party from Oregon. The Hilsons also have a son, Stefan, who lives in Russia and teaches English.

The Hilsons’ grandchildren, 13-year-old Nik, from Snohomish, and his Oregon cousins, Gabi Wolfe, 14, and Christian Wolfe, 17, all had a hand in pressing cider.

Gibson said the family takes an annual apple-buying trip to the Wenatchee area. For the parties, they need much more fruit than Jerry Hilson can grow. He also makes hard cider, which is about 5 percent alcohol, and apple syrup.

This year they hosted parties Saturday and Sunday. Guests included close friends and neighbors, plus faraway friends the couple met in Helga Hilson’s native Germany. The Hilsons met when Jerry Hilson served with a U.S. Army airborne unit in Mainz, Germany.

Home decor gives away their ancestry. Out front an American flag is flying, but around back is a German banner and a Norwegian flag. Jerry Hilson, who grew up near Port Townsend, is of Norwegian heritage. He sings in the Everett Norwegian Male Chorus, part of the Pacific Coast Norwegian Singers Association.

California’s Patty Albrecht was among the guests from out of town Saturday. She and four other friends who taught in the 1960s at a U.S. military school in Germany reunite every year. Their get-together coincided with the Hilsons’ cider party.

Some guests followed Hilson from tree to tree as he explained grafting. With a small knife, he strips bark from a twig to expose the green cambium layer inside. Using electrical tape, he attaches that twig to a branch on a tree that’s been similarly prepared.

Hilson, not a botanist by trade, said apples aren’t likely to set until the third year after grafting. Along with the U.S. Army and Reserve Special Forces, his career included work for Boeing and later for Overall Laundry Services.

There is lots to learn in his orchard.

“Apples can be traced back to Kazakhstan,” he said. Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple was the Esopus Spitzenberg. And Hilson said the Taliaferro, which also was grown at Jefferson’s Monticello, was known as a top apple for hard cider.

The alcoholic drink is made from a blend of apples with different levels of sugar, tannin and acid, and involves a lengthy fermentation process.

On display at the party was an old cider press that once belonged to Hilson’s father, Karmie Hilson. It has no electric motor, but relies on muscle power to grind and press apples. “It’s an old beauty,” Hilson said.

There’s also a wood carving, a folksy figure topped with a kettle for a hat. Helga Hilson had it carved as a gift to her husband.

“It’s Johnny Appleseed,” she said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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