Apples and cider have made my autumns worthwhile

There is very little about Northern Indiana’s change of seasons that I like. As someone who is cold eight months of the year, I would be fine with temperatures year-round in the 80s by day and no lower than 60 degrees at night. So as the mornings bring frost, and the leaves begin to change color and carpet my lawn, I feel little joy.

But one fall tradition still excites me: Traveling the short distance to southern Michigan for apples and apple cider. 

When I was a youngster, my aunt used to travel north from Louisville (sometimes with a cousin in tow) and then take my mom, brother, and me to Dowagiac, Michigan, home of Wicks’ Apple House. I don’t know how we settled on Wicks’ out of all the orchards in Southwestern Michigan, but for me, it was the place where my love of fresh-squeezed cider and assorted varieties of apples originated. 

Wicks’ was little more than a roadside stand in those days. The building housed a small store, a bakery, an indoor picnic area and, of course, the cider press. The press was the star of the show, displayed behind a juice-stained window for customers to observe the action. The press was said to be 100 years old and was manually loaded by an orchard employee.

The trek to Wicks’ Apple House was a Columbus Day tradition for the author and his family.

The process of loading crushed apples onto wooden trays, then wrapping them in burlap, and stacking them one on top of the other seemed to take forever. When the hydraulic press was finally engaged, the cider ran like a fountain. 

Wicks’ called the cider “squeezins.’” I have never tasted cider like it anywhere else. Even when Wicks’ started pasteurizing the cider due to health safety concerns, it still tasted unique. After watching the “show,” we would grab a picnic bench and gobble down donuts and cider.

Years later, when my wife and I had children, we continued making fall treks to Wicks’ on Columbus Day weekends. Wicks’ had grown over the years to add a restaurant and gift shop. There was live music in the pole barn, farm animals on display, and horse-drawn rides around the orchard. I loved it all, as did the kids. The press and the cider were still the attractions for me. We took our nephew to Ciderfest one year. It was always fun introducing others to Wicks’. 

One October, we decided to take our daughter’s high-school boyfriend with us. On the drive to Michigan I regaled him with stories of my childhood trips and the one-of-a-kind taste of the Wicks’ “squeezins.” My wife and daughter were probably rolling their eyes and laughing at me and my well-worn Wicks’ tales. But as we pulled up to the building on Indian Lake Road, we were greeted by an empty parking lot and a “For Sale” sign on the building. I nearly wept.

There had been signs that things were changing at Wicks’. Some of the apple orchards had been replaced with grape vines. We were told grapes were a more profitable crop than apples. Even though October was always a busy season at Wicks’, the store and restaurant probably didn’t generate profits year-round. Still, how could they shut down the 100-year-old press?

Crestfallen, we travelled to the next nearest orchard that we saw signs for: Tree-Mendus Fruit in Eau Claire. For the next nine years, it became our new October apple destination. Tree-Mendus had its claim to fame: It was the home of the cherry pit spitting championship.

It also offered something Wicks’ had not; the opportunity to pick your own apples. That turned out to be fun. Orchard employees would load customers onto trailers and drive them out the orchards. There I discovered my new favorite apple variety, Empire. One thing was missing though. There was no apple press on display.

Even after our kids had departed for school and jobs, my wife and I still made our annual apple trip. We usually picked too many apples for just the two of us. My wife made delicious pies that were frozen and baked for Thanksgiving. For months, I ate an Empire every day for lunch. 

We made our last trip to Tree-Mendus in 2019. All seemed well. Cars with Illinois license plates were in the parking lot, showing what a regional draw fall apple picking is. The store bustled with customers.

 As with so much else in 2019, we didn’t know what was ahead of us. Obviously Covid-19 impacted businesses of all sorts, farms included. But the owner of Tree-Mendus died in late 2019, the extreme winter weather in early 2020 damaged the fruit trees, and then the new owner got ill and decided to close the 400-acres orchard and the store at the end of 2020.

We skipped apple picking in 2020 and 2021, but we’ve been looking for a new orchard to continue our fall tradition. On a trip to Lake Michigan last month, we drove past Stover’s Farm Market & U-Pic in Berrien Springs. We decided to give it a try.

Fresh apples and cider make the fall season more appealing.

There were few people in the orchard on a chilly Friday October afternoon. We drove ourselves out into the orchard and were greeted by dozens of varieties of beautiful fruit trees, including my new favorite, Pink Lady and my old favorite, Empire. It was so quiet out among the trees that I could hear the apples dropping on their own, too impatient to be picked. It sounded like exactly where I belonged that day. 

I had a brief conversation with the lady who rang up our purchase. I surmised that she was the spouse of the current owner, who has taken over the business from his parents. She remarked what hard work it is operating the farm. She was aware of the closures of nearby family farms. She said her mother-in-law worked every day until she was eighty years old.

 I hope by our patronage and that of the mobs that flock to the small family-owned farms for once-a-year harvests of grapes, blueberries, strawberries, and apples, that we demonstrated that we appreciate the hard work that goes into running a family farm. 

And someday, I hope to find a cider that tastes like the old Wicks’ “squeezins.”