Richard Emerson Ela by John Ela

For the last two years, I worked on the Ela Orchard and lived in the house that my great-great-grandfather built upon first migrating to Wisconsin from New Hampshire in 1838. Richard Emerson Ela is one of our role models at the Ela Cider Company. 

The Ela’s had been in New England since not long after the Mayflower, and had nice vowelly biblical names like Israel Ela. Richard Emerson, my great-great-grandfather, brought a more consonantal branch of the family to Wisconsin to find freedom from his father’s fanatical puritanism.

He settled in Rochester and built a small workshop in which to build farming implements like fanning mills. The Wisconsin territorial census from 1842 records his name as Richard E. Ely. Our name confuses people to this day. Quickly he outgrew his workshop and built a factory across the river. With increased wealth from the business, he expanded the house, adding on rooms and a second story. The styling of each room tells its story – the first rooms to be built are small and cramped, the later ones lofty and ostentatious.

The house is mentioned on the Wikipedia page for Rochester, WI.[1] It was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and Richard Emerson is attributed with the kickass quote, “Is this not glorious that these slave hunters can be thwarted in their vile attempt to send a human being back into human bondage?” after providing the escaped Joshua Glover with five dollars and a fresh team of horses. The aftermath of the Joshua Glover escape “helped to galvanize the abolitionist movement … that eventually led to Wisconsin becoming the only state to declare the [Fugitive Slave] Act unconstitutional.”

At some point, Richard Emerson abandoned the business. No one quite knows what happened. Perhaps competition with other fellows like J.I. Case and John Deere got too intense and drove him out of business. Perhaps he had an aristocratic ideal that owning land was more prestigious than factory work. My own belief, after living in his house for two years and experiencing life on a farm, is that he found liberty in the land. He found freedom from the constant grind of business. He turned to the earth and away from possible fame and fortune.

What I’ve come to appreciate most about this ancestor of mine is that he consistently lived out his values. His profile is of a man who was willing to risk anything to pursue his beliefs. He chased a dream of freedom to Wisconsin, helped others chase the same dream along the Underground Railroad, and set the stage for his descendants to find the freedom of their own choosing.

We, his descendants at the Ela Cider Co., appreciate his example and hope we can live as strongly as he did.


[1] Though it’s unlikely a tunnel existed underneath the Fox River. Firstly, hiding fugitives in the town’s most public building, the very inn where slave-catchers would spend the night, seems like a terrible idea. Secondly, no evidence of the tunnel has been found. Thirdly, Wikipedia’s citation for the idea is dubious, coming from the “creator of one of the largest website [sic] on the internet with hundreds of pages providing information on the paranormal [and] UFOs.” 

The Good Food Awards by John Ela

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet Alice Waters.

Alice Waters is the most important figure in my life as an eater. My college dormitory kitchen had been the target of her slow food crusaderism a few years before I arrived, so my scholastic years were filled with local salad greens and responsibly-sourced chicken. My post-college bachelor years were only saved from starvation by The Art of Simple Food, which sets next to the I Ching in a prominent spot on my bookshelf. She makes cooking spiritual.

Alice was a celebrity presenter for the 2016 Good Food Awards. The Ela Cider Company won this award for Stone Silo, our first-ever batch of cider. And, with the off chance of meeting Alice Waters, I muscled my way in to representing our company at the awards show.

The Good Food Awards celebrate the best in American food manufacturing, people who care about where their ingredients come from, who treat their process as an art form, who make unreasonably small batches, and who are either independently wealthy or committed to a lifetime of poverty, because there sure isn’t any money in it.

I had a certain vision of how the evening of the Awards show would go. Alice would shake my hand on stage, I’d use the five seconds with her to say something funny and memorable, and she’d laugh and invite me back Chez Panisse and teach me how to properly braise a pork loin over a bottle of wine.

The big night arrived and we marched into an abandoned army warehouse on a dock on San Francisco Bay, which was filled with rather more people than I expected, and I was pinned with a bay leaf signifying the winners, the classical significance of which I barely had time to appreciate before I was told I was late and would have to skip the cider aperitif in order to make it to my seat in the front row.

The lights dimmed, people were introduced, ditties were sung, Carlo Petrini gave a communist-infused food rant in beautiful operatic Italian, and finally the winners were ushered to stage left, in order to march across and accept our medals. All my brainstormed witty one-liners for Alice seemed dull when surrounded by so many other worthy food makers, so I abandoned ship, trudged onstage and shook Carlo’s hand, I shook Alice’s hand, Nelle Newman put a medal around my neck, and I stood facing the spotlights as some things were said about us, stewing on my missed chance to braise pork loins with Alice Waters.  

Afterwards, the award-winning products were served to everyone in attendance. I scanned the crowd for Alice, but she had likely gone back to her villa to avoid mingling with the plebians. Meanwhile, we plebians dined like emperors, nibbling on cured meats and fermented beans and exotic jams, reveling in the delicious world that Alice helped build for us. 

Stone Silo by John Ela

There’s an old silo at the Ela Orchard. It’s built out of stone and has not been used for years. Salamanders live in the bottom and the trees above are framed in a perfect circle.

Silos are an old part of our family history. The first upright silo was constructed in Illinois in 1873, and the Elas were quick to adopt the technology, building silos in Rochester in 1880. Those silos were taken down about a decade ago by their new owners, who didn’t see the point in obsolete rundown farm buildings.

We’re less practical people. We didn’t want the silo at the Orchard to suffer the same fate, especially since we named our cider after it. This particular silo was built by one Peter Frederickson between 1907 and 1908, according to notices in the Waterford newspaper. Apparently silos were big news back then.

A century of rainfall had eroded a whole side of the silo, leaving a crater in the wall that compromised the structural integrity of the entire building. The mantle over the entry door had also fallen out. Tom Ela, our Facilities Manager, led the repair effort, replacing stones that had fallen out, reinforcing the mantle, and tuck-pointing to prevent further decay of the mortar. By the time we were finished it looked as good as new and ready to continue standing, outdated and beautiful.

Stone Silo is our first cider. We’ve had some stumbles along the way but we’re proud of the end result. We hope it’s still around in 100 years like its namesake.