When I was growing up we “pilgrimaged” to Missouri every summer for the family reunion. The trips in the late 1950s and early 1960s I remembered the best. Our family endured a hot two or three days of driving depending on stops to visit friends en route. While the visit with all my cousins was much looked forward to, the drive was not exactly the trip’s high point. My younger brother and sister and I quickly grew bored regardless of the games we played. The games did serve to keep us occupied for a spell.
Mom would buy a set of “car games,” in a box. There was one game played on cards divided into squares and you had to spell specified words finding letters seen on roadside signs. You could only use the first letter of a sign’s word if it was horizontal. But we could use any letter in a word if it was displayed vertically or diagonally. Needless to say there were certain letters that you just could not find. “Q”, “X”, and “Z” were challenges. It kept us quiet and we didn’t make a peep to alert the others when we spied a sign with a rare letter.
There were other cards with different states’ license tags that we searched for to check off. Of course driving through northeast Texas we did not see many out-of-state plates. We also argued about what breed each road-killed critter was. Of course there was Twenty Questions and Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral? I don’t think kids play these games today. They were “educational” in that it forced us to think and be creative.
The high point of the road-part of the trip, both to and from Missouri, came too early on the outbound leg and way too late on the return trip. I looked forward to it thinking that it wasn’t soon enough, but it would probably have been better if it had been somewhat later. The anticipation was great.
As we drove north from Houston toward Texarkana on US Route 59, we passed through Cleveland (not Ohio’s) and a few miles further on was Shepherd, not even a wide spot in the road. Shepard’s population didn’t number a hundred I believe. We were only some 60 miles north of Houston, but it seemed to take forever to get there.
On the right side of the four-lane highway was Ward’s Cider Stand. It was a tiny roofed, open-front stand like fresh fruit was sold from. Built of corrugated tin and plywood, it had a large plywood sign proclaiming its name in bold red hand-painted letters—WARD’S CIDER.
We’d park on the shoulder and there was usually a car or two already there. I’d just about be out the door before the car stopped on the red gravel shoulder worrying that they may have taken the last bottle, but there were always plenty.
The stand had a narrow board counter and was open-backed. A man was behind the counter, I assumed Mr. Ward himself, and a young girl or two. A top-opening red Coke-Cola chest held the cider bottles. Raising the lid revealed a water-filled chest with big chunks of ice and dozens of upright floating bottles. It was about 98 degrees temperature with matching humidity being an East Texas summer. There was nothing that looked colder. The clear bottles had a large round body with a long neck closed by white or black screw caps. I don’t know what their capacity was, maybe a quart and a half. No label marred their contour.
Mr. Ward offered three flavors: apple, cherry, and grape. The apple looked like liquid gold and was our favorite. The cherry was deep red and the grape so dark it looked like NuGrape soda as sold at James Coney Island hotdog stand in Houston. This being the 1950s and early 1960s, they were expensive at a dollar a bottle. Dad would buy two or three bottles of apple and one of cherry—usually. We never did buy a bottle of grape.
One of the girls would pluck the bottles from the ice water, hand it to Mr. Ward and he rolled it in a sheet of newspaper laid on the counter and twisted the paper’s end at the bottle’s mouth. I’d carry the bottles back to the car and Mom would peel off the damp newsprint and stick them in our Igloo ice chest. Igloos were metal in those days, not plastic as introduced in 1962. The Igloo plant was outside of Houston by the way.
We drank the cider from paper cups when we stopped at a roadside park and made baloney or pimento loaf sandwiches on a concrete picnic table. On the sandwiches were Kraft sandwich spread and American sliced processed cheese. Sometimes we sliced up a big dill pickle. There were virtually no fast food places found on highways.
I don’t know if Mr. Ward actually made the cider—doubtful—or if it was from bulk batches he bought or maybe from a concentrate. I don’t think it was the latter. It was too rich, too flavorful. And sweet too. Those paper cups were just too small. I’ve since tried many brands of apple cider and juice. None approach that remembered taste on those hot summer days. By the time we got to Missouri the cider was a fondly remembered thing. But on the way home we had another chance to stop and had the rationed treat for another week once home.
A couple of years we took a roundabout way home to spend a few days at Panama City, Florida. That regrettably meant we returned home from the east on US Route 90—there was no Interstate 10 in those days. Ward’s was far to the north.
In 1970, the summer after I returned from Vietnam, I climbed onto my new British Triumph 650 motorcycle and headed to the family farm in Missouri to decompress. A couple of months working on the farm, sweating it out shoveling sheep poop, chopping silage, filling different farmers’ silos for the coming winter with my cousin, and consorting with healthy German-Missouri farm girls, was just what I needed.
Tearing north on Route 59, I saw the city limits sign for Shepherd. I no doubt smiled. There was Ward’s, like a roadside oasis. I purchased a single bottle for $1.50 and Mr. Ward wrapped it extra thick with newspaper as it would be carried in an army rucksack strapped on the motorcycle. I nursed that bottle to make it last for through three-day trip. Sounds like I have a case of cider-dependency….
Almost three months later I stopped again at that oasis. Mr. Ward wasn’t there, but I told his daughter—kinda cute—how much that stand had met to me and my family over the years. I asked her to tell that to her dad. I bought two bottles of apple.
The next time I went up Route 59 in the summer time was maybe two years later. I spotted the lonely stand there on the roadside. Still standing, leaning a little, but the sign was gone. There was no house nearby to make inquiries. Over forty-five years later I still think of Ward’s Cider when I drive through Shepherd. I’ve now no idea where the stand had stood. I’ve still not found a cider to compare.