While hard cider has become a popular drink in recent times, the most famous soft cider spot in the county is dry and getting dryer. The century-old Cider Barrel in Germantown, for decades a gathering place for a sweet apple drink, has been shuttered nearly two decades. Repeated efforts to get it reopened have gone down the drain, despite several planned reopenings. But hope still is running that the iconic watering hole, restaurant and market can come back to life.
You can’t miss the colorful Germantown landmark if you’re driving on North Frederick Road (Rt. 355) at Oxbridge Drive, south of Rt. 118. The red, white and blue-striped 12-foot tall building shaped like a barrel started serving fresh cider in the 1920s. (The exact date of construction isn’t clear; some sources date it to 1922; others three or four years later. The Montgomery County Planning Board maintains a picture of it dated 1925.)
Andrew Baker, a farmer, insurance executive and cofounder of the Germantown Bank, opened the stand on a former farm as a place where patrons could enjoy a legal drink as well as buy other agricultural products.
Baker operated a long-gone horse-drawn cider press on his farm. He put up a sign saying, “We bow before the Volstead Act and serve it to you sweet. Tis far better than old and hard, this glorious temperance treat.”
Patrons could buy a drink or fill their own jugs from two spigots. Baker died in 1930. Shortly thereafter, new owners Christopher and Minnie Norton built additions which still stand.
The Norton family ran it until 2003, at one point adding a now-gone restaurant. A nephew, William Cross of Bethesda, inherited it and closed it when he retired at age 86. Cross also had opened a trailer park behind the barrel in the 1950s. Cross, known locally as “the Cider Barrel Man,” retired to Delray Beach, Fla., where he died in 2010.
Elm Street Development Group bought the land and replaced the trailer park with an apartment complex, pledging to keep the landmark up. Neighborhood streets are appropriately named Apple Harvest Circle and Cider Barrel Drive.
The Maryland Historical Trust added the barrel to the state list of historic places in 1988. The trust notes it is the only building of its shape in Montgomery County and one of the first and few remaining local “signature buildings,” designed to resemble its use, a style popular in the 1940s and ‘50s.
“The Cider Barrel’s success for nearly 80 years, despite his absence for most of it, is a testament to Baker’s vision during this period,” the trust stated. It also praised Baker’s “entrepreneurial vision (that) brought banking and insurance companies to Germantown. He should also be credited with having the vision to foresee a viable business model within the context of prohibition.”
With the growing popularity of the automobile, the barrel became a popular place to go for a drink and local produce. In addition to its local significance, the state trust said it maintains “nationally significance for its correction to economic development patterns during prohibition.”
The sign outside isn’t the original one, which still lies inside. The trust noted, however, that the placement of apartments behind it detracted from the original feel.
But for two decades, the landmark has remained vacant, merely something to grab your eye while driving by. Several efforts to revive it flopped. Shortly after it closed, Jean Phillips, a Germantown native whose family has been farming in the area since 1649, tried using it as a stand to sell cider and flowers but that didn’t get enough business to sustain itself.
A plan in 2009 called for moving the structure to Germantown Town Center and using it as a visitor center. But that plan was dropped as preservationists complained that it shouldn’t be moved from its historic location and it might suffer irreparable damage along the way.
Next, in 2017, Brandi Edinger, a local pastry chef who has baked everywhere from the Army Navy Club to Italy and now in downtown Washington, initiated a Kickstarter campaign hoping to raise $80,000-$85,000 to restore the facility to serve pastries, along with cider, coffee, cocoa and ice cream. She also hoped to restore the kitchen and give pastry decorating classes to children in the annex and include some historical exhibits. The Germantown Alliance supported the effort. But it raised only $9,715 from 135 backers.
More recently, Laura Richman, a local scientist, entrepreneur and veterinarian, has spent the last three years trying to restore the barrel as year-round weekend farmers market.
Richman hired the Potomac remodeling firm of Hopkins & Porter to restore the structure while preserving the historic exterior of the building. The firm did everything from removing shrubs to getting the doors in working condition to cleaning the chimney, installing climate control and repairing the walls.
“Germantown’s historic Cider Barrel makes a comeback” with a planned spring opening, WDVM-TV announced in January 2020.
The same month, WRC News 5 also announced a spring reopening.
That ended up not happening.
Richman stated on Facebook in June 2020: “Looking forward to a post-COVID opening. Get ready for fresh cider, local produce, kettle corn, flowers and a variety of baked goods. Stay tuned for opening updates” which haven’t appeared since then.
Richman said she spent about $30,000 on the renovation and has paid for three years of rent, insurance and upkeep. “COVID put a ringer in the opening when I wanted it,” she says.
Richman says she’s still hoping to open, but a pandemic isn’t the only obstacle to restoring the Cider Barrel of yore.
“I have a full-time job and am doing an MBA,” she says. “I work in Boston. I may have to hire an operations manager. I won’t be able to run it.”
A new hole in the building needs to be fixed.
And if the place ever reopens, it won’t serve the same cider—the recipe has been lost to time. Cross used a variety of local apples but considered the formula a trade secret which he took with him when he died.
“We don’t know the mixtures,” says Susan Soderberg, president of the Germantown Historical Society. “The secret involves not just the blend of local apples but that he put it through a diatomaceous earth filter. When inspectors came, they said it was the clearest apple cider they’d seen….It didn’t have any fungus.”
The clarity made it nearly useless to those wishing to ferment it, a popular activity during Prohibition.
The Cider Barrel survived Prohibition. It survived the populating of Upper Montgomery County. And right now it survives as a vivid dream for many. Will it ever reopen? Don’t count on it.
But don’t count it out either.