LAFAYETTE — Eddie Brennan likes to think of himself as a steward and that is an apt characterization. The 40-year-old, who became president of Beak & Skiff Apple Orchards in 2016, leads the fifth generation of family ownership for the LaFayette–based business, which despite the name, has a lot more than just apples in its basket.
More than 111 years since George Skiff and Andrew Beak joined forces to enter Central New York’s burgeoning commercial apple business, Skiff’s great-great-grandson watches over a vastly diversified business. It has grown to include an award-winning, destination apple orchard, a four-pronged manufacturing enterprise, a concert venue that hosts national touring acts, and a recent move into the emerging field of cannabis.
Vision and innovation are at the core of the Beak & Skiff success story and those principles have guided the company since its founding. In 1910, Andrew Beak, the son of an English immigrant, was living in the town of Onondaga with his wife, Maud, and their four children. The 42-year-old was operating a small and successful dairy farm. Living as he did near the numerous apple orchards just down the road in LaFayette, Beak recognized the incredible potential in the state’s bountiful annual apple crop. That year alone, for instance, an estimated 7 million barrels were harvested. The business was ripe with opportunity.
At the same time, George Skiff, a 48-year-old onion and dairy farmer was living in Salina on the old Cicero Plank Road with his wife, Helen, and their 18-year-old son, Seymour. The Skiff family was one of the pioneer families in that area, with roots going back to the 1820s. As the story goes, the two men met at the old farmer’s market on Syracuse’s Northside and developed a friendship that evolved into a business partnership.
In 1911, the new partners planted their first apple trees on land they acquired just south of Beak’s farm, near Route 20 in LaFayette on Lords Hill Road. Considering his proximity to it, Beak managed the farm, while both families worked the land. In these early years, the business plan was rather straightforward: plant trees, harvest apples, sell apples, buy more land, repeat.
By the mid-1920s, their strategy proved a success and Beak & Skiff moved into the wholesale apple business. Joined by their sons, Charles, Jr. and Ralph Beak, and Seymour Skiff, the partners were able to fill larger and larger orders for what seemed to be an ever-increasing local market. Their wholesale customers included local grocery stores like Victory and A&P Stores, in addition to a host of other smaller area grocers. They also supplied apples to Syracuse’s Merrell-Soule, the makers of the world-famous None Such Mincemeat. Having built a thriving business, which now included over 300 acres, Andrew and George ceded management of the orchard to their sons by the end of the 1920s, though the founders never really left.
As the enterprise embarked on its third decade in business, its solid foundation saved it from collapse amidst a host of external disasters. The Great Depression hit the agricultural sector of the economy in a particularly pernicious way, as the economic distress was coupled with a series of ecological challenges as well. For Beak & Skiff, this meant two devastating fires. On Oct. 13, 1931, a massive fire destroyed four barns, several large washing and grading machines, and more than 5,000 barrels of apples. In all, the damage was $75,000 — a serious loss considering the times. Then, in April 1937, Andrew Beak’s farmhouse caught fire and burned to the ground. That same year saw a drought so bad that nearly every tree on the 315-acre farm lost its leaves, which led to enormous losses. Yet, through all of these challenges, the firm, which now included the third generation of Beaks and Skiffs, kept moving forward with an eye on the future.
Amid the catastrophes, Beak & Skiff found inspiration that spurred innovation. After a total loss in 1945, caused by a late-spring freeze that wiped out the entire crop, Richard Beak and his brothers, Ron and Ralph, along with Seymour Skiff, began experimenting with the use of smudge pots. The oil-burning torches were placed in the orchard to counteract the frosts. By 1949, they had mastered their implementation. To this day, Beak & Skiff has not lost an entire crop due to frost.
The use of smudge pots was just one of the innovative techniques Beak & Skiff employed to boost yields and expand the business. In the 1950s, the partners invested heavily in a brand-new irrigation system. In 1956, Beak & Skiff became the first apple orchard in the Northeast to utilize wind machines to move cold air away from the apple blossoms. By the end of the decade, the business employed nearly 60 people to care for and harvest the orchard, which had grown to 475 acres. The capital investments and innovation led to record harvests. On average, Beak & Skiff produced about 62,000 bushels (a bushel weighs about 45 pounds) annually through the mid-1960s.
By the late 60s, the third generation of the families had taken over the business. Ron and Dick Beak and Marshall Skiff continued to forge ahead and amass more land. By 1975, the farm had grown to 700 acres in LaFayette, with a breathtaking view of Onondaga Valley. Expansion allowed Beak & Skiff to more than double its output, harvesting nearly 130,000 bushels, on average. To help preserve and store its crop, the orchard built a series of huge climate-controlled warehouses, which keep the apples at 32 degrees all the time.
That same year, Beak & Skiff took another major leap in the evolution of the business when it opened the orchard to the public for the first time. It was among the first “pick your own” apple orchards in the Northeast. Beak & Skiff’s wholesale business was thriving, and the partners saw this as an area with major growth potential. The new pick-your-own business was opened on what became known as Apple Hill and it was an immediate success. In 1979, Beak & Skiff converted an old dairy barn into the Apple Hill Country Store where it sold pies and other assorted baked goods. That same year, Beak & Skiff made another critical decision when the firm decided to go into the apple-cider business. Ever the innovators, Beak & Skiff’s cider mill was the first in the nation to “flash pasteurize” its fresh cider, greatly extending its shelf life.
By 1990, Beak & Skiff’s sprawling acreage was being overseen by the fourth generation, as Marshall Skiff’s son-in-law, Mark Fleckenstein became orchard manager. This era also saw the orchard make a concerted effort to move away from the use of chemical pesticides whenever possible.
As the fourth and fifth generations of Andrew Beak and George Skiff’s descendants brought their family business into the 21st century, they made yet another innovative decision when they produced their first hard cider in 2001. Branded as “1911 Hard Cider,” an homage to the company’s birth year, it was made with Beak & Skiff’s fresh cider, a practice that continues to this day. According to Brennan, this practice sets Beak & Skiff apart from many of its competitors who use cider concentrate. This adds a certain level of difficulty to the process but makes for a much more delicious end product. The results speak for themselves.
In 2022, the Cider House on Lord’s Hill Road produced nearly 2 million gallons of 1911 Hard Cider in an ever-expanding line of varieties. Much of this success is due to the relationships built personally by Brennan and his team, which include a partnership with Wegman’s dating back to 2017. According to Brennan, 1911 Hard Cider is a top 10 alcohol brand for the Central New York based grocery chain.
As the company was on the verge of celebrating a century in business, Beak & Skiff continued to push forward. In 2010, the business expanded its alcoholic offerings, introducing 1911 Spirits vodka and gin, which it distills on-site. Spurred by a disastrous harvest in 2012, where nearly 85 percent of the crop was lost, Beak & Skiff leadership decided to double down on the hard-cider business. In 2013, the Apple Hill Campus was expanded to include a massive new tasting room, a retail shop, and a full-service café.
Other investments included an expanded bottling line and the purchase of more acreage, which now totals 1,000 — 400 of which are planted with 350,000 apple trees. In 2015, USA Today named Beak & Skiff the number-one apple orchard in America (a title it has won several times) and it consistently ranks in the top five annually.
Today, under the stewardship of the fifth generation of family ownership, Beak & Skiff is thriving like it never has before. Constantly innovating, evolving, and diversifying, this 111-year-old business stands poised at the forefront of another booming agricultural product with its foray into marijuana cultivation, and retail sales under the auspices of a new company, Gen V Labs, and a new brand, Ayrloom (a play on heirloom apples).
Through fires, droughts, frosts, and freezes, Beak & Skiff has endured. This legendary Central New York family business has become a family tradition for many and, with its growth and success, an ambassador for the entire region.
Robert J. Searing is curator of history at the Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) (www.cnyhistory.org), located at 321 Montgomery St. in Syracuse.