At 3:30 a.m. Saturday, hours before daybreak, wood fires heating water in two copper kettles began to crackle.
As smoke filled the air and the water came to a boil, baskets of Jonathan apples tumbled into the pots, 10 bushels in all.
Shortly after dawn, a steady stream of people started to arrive, ready to take their turn stirring the fruit in the kettles until it caramelized into a rich rust color. Continuous stirring for another 10 hours would turn the stew into gallons of smooth, thick apple butter.
The process of making apple butter has been an annual tradition in the Wehmeyer family for over 150 years. On the first weekend in October, as many as 70 friends and family members gather to peel apples, stir the pots, eat a midday potluck meal and visit. This year they came from as near as Columbia and St. Louis, and as far as New York, Minneapolis and even Singapore.
For the last 30 years, the apple butter tradition has taken place in the home of Berndena Alexander, nine miles west of Columbia near the Harrisburg-Huntsdale exit off Interstate 70.
Berndena, 90, and her sisters Vernetta Wehmeyer, 88, and Ileen Dometrorch, 83, have been making apple butter in October since they were children. Their grandparents brought the tradition with them when they emigrated from Germany in 1916, said Vernetta Wehmeyer, who carefully supervises the cooking process throughout the day.
"It's been in the family for so long," she said. "I don't know how much longer I can keep doing it, but it doesn't make me feel any worse."
The process began Friday morning when the apples were peeled, cut and piled into baskets. They had been purchased Thursday in Waverly.
Using two peeling devices, the apples were sectioned into quarters so they wouldn't cook too quickly and burn, said Linda Alexander Voss, Berndena's daughter who arrived two weeks earlier from Plattsburgh, N.Y.
Early the next morning, Linda's brother Charlie Alexander, who lives down the road, started the fire. Friends took turns raking the apple butter with wooden paddles in a figure-eight pattern to scrape the bottom and sides of the kettles.
The density of the sauce was checked periodically with a wooden spoon to determine the precise moment when sugar and spices should be added. This year, the bags of spices — cinnamon, cloves, star-anise and allspice — were placed in the pots at about 9 a.m., followed by roughly 30 pounds of sugar.
Once the apple butter was cooked, the fire was tamped down and the stirring slowed so the apple butter could be ladled into jars. An assembly line of at least seven people worked together Saturday and accomplished this task in less than an hour. Every bushel produces 10 1/2 quarts of apple butter.
"Some like it thick," Vernetta said. "Some like it thin. Some like it spicy, some don't like it spicy at all.
"But in the end, we've never had bad apple butter."