Ralston Cider Mill | An Operational Cider Mill Museum Ralston Cider Mill | An Operational Cider Mill Museum

History of the Ralston Cider Mill

In 1848 John Ralston Nesbitt, a grandson of John Nesbitt, and his mother, Mary Ann Nesbitt, constructed a gristmill next to Burnett Brook in Mendham, New Jersey.

The Ralston Historic District which extends from the Mill along Mendham Road West to Ironia Road and down Roxiticus Road was settled and grew around the water-powered industries which developed along the North Branch of the Raritan River. This area was originally known as Roxiticus; but it was not recognized as a town or village. It was primarily a place of mills, although, in the early twentieth century it did have one room schoolhouses and its own Ralston Post Office and a General Store at the corner of Mendham Road West and Roxiticus.

The architecture is that of a traditional grist-mill, common in the mid-Atlantic states from the mid-1700's into the mid-1800's. This building is made of stone with a stucco exterior and plaster interior on the upper levels. The heavy timber wood structure is constructed of oak with hemlock plank flooring. A vertical line of center doors is flanked with windows on each level. Above the doors is a sack hoist and projecting roof hood. Four foot thick stone walls form the base of the mill and step back at each level to accept the wood beams. The timbers are joined with mortice and tenon joints.

Water to power the mill came from a mill pond upstream, then traveled along a long head race with a metal spillway gate on the opposite side of the road. When the gate was opened, water crossed under the road in a large wooden pipe into the lower level of the mill and filled a wooden trough spreading the water out to the width of the wheel. Water spilled over the wheel near its center, a breast shot wheel. The wheel was 16' in diameter and the width of the wheel pit. It made several revolutions per minute and produced 18 horse power. The head, the height the supply water is above the wheel, was 21 feet.

After falling into the wheel pit, water left the mill thru a tailrace tunnel and back into the brook. Cogs on the side of the wheel turned a pinion gear on a drive shaft on each side of the wheel. These drive shafts ran heavy milling stones on the level above.

Milling operations at the Nesbitt Mill ended in 1904 when John Nesbitt died of an apparent heart attack in the upper level of the mill and the working life of the water wheel ran out. Local grist mills become uneconomical when the spread of railroads made Minneapolis style white flour readily available.

In 1910 Thomas Laughlin moved his Tiger Apple Jack Distillery from Bernardsville Road to larger facilities at the Nesbitt Mill. He modified the operation to produce apple jack and peach brandy. The old wooden wheel and grinding stones were removed leaving only the wooden shift of the wheel. A new water turbine replaced the wheel. The new drive shaft that is supported by the old wooden wheel powers the conveyors, grater and presses on the floors above. The smaller steel rod next to the drive shaft is operated from above. It rotates the blades inside the turbine to turn it on and off and to vary the speed. A concrete Penstock now connects the pipe from the head race directly to the turbine. The original though is demolished. Stone walls on the lower level were partially demolished and new brick and concrete walls were built to support steel beams.

On the second level, the power is transferred to the main drive shaft. Pulleys and belts drive the conveyer that brings the fruit to the grader on the third level. The resulting pomace then drops into a hopper and then into racks to form a cheese stacked on a cart. A completed stack is then transferred by trolley to the knuckle press or the screw press. Shifting the belts, activates the press to produce apple juice which then flows to large cypress vats for fermentation. Resultant hard cider was either aged and shipped in barrels, or distilled to make Applejack. By the time the Ralston Cider Mill began production, the brandy industry in New Jersey was more than 130 years old. By 1830, Morris County had 53 working brandy stills, second only to Hunterdon. In 1850, a quarter of Mendham's 171 farms reported income from apples. The industry peaked at the turn of the century with 29,142 barrels of cider and 6,276 barrels of vinegar. By 1899 New Jersey was the national leader in cider production, comprising 23% of the US total.

Cider mills were productive and profitable until the Volstead Act of 1919 mandated prohibition. Many distilleries closed and many were dismantled. A hidden still in this mill enabled production of applejack thru prohibition. The property was purchased in 1929 by the Fornaro Family who operated the mill until 1938.

New Jersey History

Established in 1664, New Jersey is celebrating its 350 year anniversary, and a visit to the Ralston Cider Mill puts you at the center of New Jersey history, with many fascinating nearby sites to visit. Plan a fun filled day, weekend or even longer.

Morris County is where some of the most important events in American history unfolded and revolutionary inventions were created. Be sure to visit the Morris County Visitor's Center at 6 Court Street, Morristown, NJ 07960.

Morristown, just minutes from The Ralston Cider Mill, was a small village of 250 people in 1777, but it became the military capital of the Revolutionary War when General Washington established his headquarters over the barroom in Jacob Arnold's tavern. He trained his troops on the Morristown Green, which you will find to be a far more peaceful place to stroll and relax today, and you'll find many restaurants and shops surrounding the Green.

Washington returned to Morristown for the winter of 1779, making Ford Mansion his headquarters and housing 13,000 soldiers in a roughly built city of log cabins in nearby Jockey Hollow. Both sites are now part of the Morristown National Historic Park created in 1933 as the nation's first historical park.

There are many beautiful parks, hiking trails and wildlife management areas in the Mendham area, including Sunrise Lake, Lewis Morris County Park, Foster Fields Living Historical Farm, Patriot's Path for a network of hiking, biking and equestrian trails and green open spaces.

Learn more about Morris County at Morris Tourism.org


We are a private not for profit corporation dedicated to the preservation of this operational Cider Mill Museum open to the public for research and education.

We are staffed entirely by volunteers. Proceeds from events are used for developing our education and restoration programs and funding operating expenses.