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Developers put some teeth into their apple press.

Developers put some teeth into their apple press.

Photo courtesy of Anderson Island Historical Society

The humble potato harvester, developed in the 1950s to scoop potatoes from the fields and into waiting trucks, has found other purposes.

The community of Anderson Island in Washington State’s Puget Sound has put an outdated potato harvester to a different use—as an apple press. For the past three decades, the harvester/cider press has earned itself a place in the annals of the island’s Apple Squeeze.

Lucy Stephenson, Anderson Island Historical Society’s information person, said that islanders Chet Palmer and Bob Ericke engineered a one-time potato harvester into an apple press in time for the first squeeze.

For Palmer and Ericke, both mechanics, transforming the harvester into a streamlined press was not much of a challenge. Just a bit of tinkering here and an adjustment there, to which was added a grinning red face and some impressive white chompers to make the harvester’s makeover complete. The Red Dragon was ready for action in the late 1970s. Palmer, one-time owner of the Steilacoom Marina near Saltar’s Point, loved to see what he could create from what others would consider junk, and he had quite a reputation in the Puyallup Valley for custom-making farm equipment to handle any crop.

Popular Mechanics

“The idea for the actual design,” squeeze volunteer David Groppenberger speculated, “could have come from a copy of Popular Mechanics magazine.”

The pressing process, Groppenberger said, begins with washed apples moving up the conveyor belt to the grinder that crushes the fruit to pulp, then a hydraulic presser mashes the pulp further. The ­leftovers are fed to island cattle.

Like a precious antique car, the dragon is carefully washed down and dried, then stored away in one of the outbuildings on the century-old Johnson farm, site of the annual Apple Squeeze.

“It’s completely portable. When it’s set up for the squeeze, the wheels are removed from the trailer and tubs are placed on the platform below.”

Each year, usually on the second Saturday of October, the dragon is maneuvered into place, and half a dozen raingear-garbed pressers form an assembly line beneath the covered shed area: washing and sorting the apples (grown in the Anderson Island Historical Society’s community orchard), loading them onto the dragon’s long black conveyor belt tongue, and then whisking them into its maw.

“The kids love the Dragon,” Groppenberger added. And the cattle appreciate the aged pulp.

At last October’s crush, 170 gallons of juice were pressed from 5,000 pounds of apples.

Blending varieties of apples produces the best cider. In this case, Gravenstein, ­Spartan, and Liberty were used, but other varieties are being tested for next year. “We sold everything we made,” he added.

Nancy Covert is a journalist based in Steilacoom, Washington. Her work has been published in travel magazines, in metropolitan and online newspapers, and in ­several anthologies.