Five small faces watched intently as lumpy, brown glop spewed out of the plastic hose and into the steel basin. A man folded the glop in burlap, put it in a wooden rack and shoved the rack into a stack of other racks sitting in a hydraulic press.

With a loud clatter, the press slowly began squeezing the oak racks. A trickle, then a torrent, of brown juice flowed from the racks.

"It's neat," said 10-year-old Krystal Hunsaker, as she and her siblings watched.

The Hunsakers, of Elkridge, were among the few local residents who showed up for the first cider pressing of the season Saturday at Cider Mill Farm in Elkridge.

Families and couples drank free cider, munched apples and roamed the fields and trails at the scenic 74-year-old farm near the bottom of the Patapsco River Valley.

Saturday's light turnout will be replaced by bustling crowds when the first autumn chill arrives and Halloween nears, said Tom Owens, the farm's owner.

"At the peak of the season, we get 15,000 people in here per weekend," he said.

The crowds are drawn by such fall events as scarecrow-making and pumpkin-carving demonstrations, apple butter making, storytelling and country music.

At Halloween, children can hunt for the perfect pumpkin in the farm's pumpkin patch or listen to stories being spun by "The Apple Lady."

The farm's star attraction, of course, is its cider and apples. The cider-making process starts, Owens explained, with a bin containing anywhere from 600 to 1,100 pounds of apples from the farm's orchards.

The apples are fed into a scrubber, which is a winding conveyor belt-like device equipped with rollers that filter out apple stems, insects and other debris.

A machine mashes the apples into a brown, lumpy mixture called pomace (Owens: "After the French pomme, for apple"). The pomace is then poured into the burlap, enclosed in the oak racks and squeezed -- hard.

The farm's hydraulic press squeezes the racks together with 48 tons of force, producing the tangy brown juice that is synonymous with autumn.

"It's always a little bit different," Lucy Mallan, the farm's general manager and baker, said of the farm's cider vintages. "It depends on the weather; it depends on the crop."

The farm's cider is usually made with four kinds of apples: Stayman winesaps, Virginia winesaps, York red delicious and golden delicious.

A rainy year, for example, will result in a less sweet cider because apples will have a higher water content. The farm freezes samples of cider at the end of the season in order to compare the taste from one season to the next.

The farm, at 5012 Landing Rd., off Montgomery Road (Route 103), is the last cider mill in Howard County, according to Owens. Earlier in the century, area farmers in horse wagons and trucks would line up for miles in the morning to sell apples to the mill.

The farm can be reached by taking the Route 175 exit off Interstate 95 west to Route 29, and driving east on Route 103.

Ellicott City resident Jim Lyle said he brought his two young sons to the farm Saturday because of the nice weather and "because the kids like to be outside."

When a problem with the cider press delayed the pressing, farm employees gave Lyle's boys marbles to play with on the farm's old-fashioned marble ring.

The boys giggled as they scrambled after colored marbles in the ring. An apple dropped off a nearby tree and landed with a thud.

"It's good for them to get out of the house to a place like this," said Lyle, a college professor who teaches computer science. "They get to see natural things."

Then they headed off to get their cider.