Of Balloons, Bugles and Apple Butter

hot-air balloonists in the 19th century

Washington Harrison Donaldson performed his greatest feats of derring-do while borne aloft by a large gas balloon. Or so discovered a crowd of curious onlookers one August morning in 1871 when the gymnast and self-styled aeronaut dressed in tights decided to take his big-top routine to the heavens. From the small town of Reading, Pennsylvania he set off at a quarter to ten in the morning. As dozens watched, his balloon, heavy with ballast, rose uncertainly at first, climbing thirty or so feet before its basket lurched against a house roof. Rope, grappling iron, coat, boots, hat and provisions Donaldson jettisoned, and the balloon resumed its ascent. A quarter of a mile above ground, he “skinned the cat” upon the hoop just above the wicker basket to the entertainment of any eyes cast skyward. On that maiden flight he drifted “some eighteen miles,” as M.L. Amick recounts in his 1875 History of Donaldson’s Balloon Ascensions, passing through clouds and over farms before coming to rest in a plow field.

This first journey Donaldson considered such a smashing success that he “resolved to abandon the tight rope forever” for greater heights. But his subsequent stunts, though amusing, were not always benign. He delighted in “trailing the drag rope,” a goof that lashed bushes, scourged sheep, thrashed fences, flailed chickens, and generally visited mayhem on the countryside. On one of these more sportive trips he observed a farmer and his wife stirring a large kettle of apple butter. An impish whim seized him. He resolved to “thicken the apple-butter for them” and did so by emptying a sand bag into the kettle as he passed over it. This promptly caused the farmer’s wife to have a fit. Her panic Donaldson answered with “a few terrible blasts on his bugle,” and some shouts about “Gabriel and the judgement.” The wife, her apoplexy now leavened with divine dread, fell down, rolled over two or three times, and then ran to fetch a broom and a butcher’s knife as her husband shook his ladle and hurled threats at “the man and the balloon.” Donaldson simply laughed as he floated out of hearing “of that man’s ‘chin music.’”
washington donaldson pouring sand in apple buttter from a hot-air balloon
A kettle of ruined apple butter was perhaps a fair price to pay for such an aeronautic display as Donaldson was wont to make. Should you like to prepare a batch yourself, this recipe, which appears in an 1919 issue of the Farmer’s Bulletin, is sure to send your taste buds soaring. Just take care to prepare it indoors, in the event that any puckish balloonist should happen your way.

Apple Butter with Cider

Apple butter with cider.—Either fresh cider or commercial sterilized cider may be used. The usual proportion of peeled and sliced apples and cider is gallon for gallon, but from one-half to three quarters of a gallon of cider to a gallon of peeled and sliced apples will give a rich product if the apples are good cookers. Less than half as much cider as prepared apples is likely to make an apple sauce rather than a butter, unless it is cooked very slowly for four to six hours.

Continue the cooking until the cider and apples do not separate and the butter, when cold, is as thick as good apple sauce. Determine the thickness at frequent intervals by cooling small portions.

If sugar is used, add it after the cooking of cider and apples is about two-thirds done. About a pound of either white or brown sugar is the usual proportion per gallon of apple butter, but more or less (or not any) may be used, to suit the taste.

Apple butter is spiced according to taste, about half a teaspoonful each of ground cinnamon, cloves, and allspice being used for each gallon. These are stirred into it when the cooking is finished.

Vanilla extract added after the spices are stirred in improves the quality and adds to the snappiness of the butter. Use from 2 to 4 teaspoonfuls per gallon of butter, according to taste.


Baumgarthuber, Christine. Fermented Foods: The History and Science of a Microbiological Wonder. Reaktion Books, 2021.

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