Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Fall 2021 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.
Harvest time comes with a taste of the past at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore where antique apple varieties planted in the early 1900s dot the land.
More than 100 heritage varieties grow throughout the park. They blossom and fruit from the Manitou Islands to Pierce Stocking Drive, to park trails and Port Oneida Historic District — and, they’re free for the plucking.
“You can be walking through the woods and come across an old apple tree where a farm used to be,” said Matt Mohrman, coordinator for the park’s volunteer-driven Antique Apple Program.
The trees are an edible legacy of immigration and the people who carved a life from the Leelanau Peninsula’s raw landscape.
Thousands of apple varieties were grown in the past. Favorites had rock star status.
“People felt so strongly about the varieties that they brought cuttings with them. It makes sense to protect that tapestry of American history,” said Kim Mann, Sleeping Bear historic architect.
Cuttings came from New York, Pennsylvania and other Eastern states, she said. Many originated in the “Old Country.”
“Some varieties ripened in summer. Some were meant to be wrapped and put in a cellar to eat in January or February,” Mann said.“You were the supermarket.”
The Antique Apple Program preserves this culinary legacy. It’s a collaboration between the Park Service, Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear and Leelanau Conservation District.The program evolved from the 1980s when a former park interpreter began the work of cataloging apple varieties growing within Sleeping Bear. Experts at Michigan State and Cornell universities helped identify varieties.
The park’s 3,400-acre Port Oneida Historic District preserves a cluster of farmsteads which once supported 21 subsistence homesteads. Apple trees grew on nearly every Port Oneida farm. The program aims to restore the heritage orchards, now nearing the end of their lifespans.
An autumn visit to the district offers opportunity to feast on pleasures of a simpler time.
“Picking an antique apple variety, sitting on a front porch, looking at Lake Michigan while eating it — that’s what it’s all about,” said Susan Pocklington, executive director for Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear.
The National Park Service allows individuals to pick up to a bushel of heritage apples for personal consumption from remnant orchards. Varieties local pioneers planted include Cortland, Russet, Wagener, Ben Davis, Wolf River, the rare Shiawassee Beauty and Northern Spy.
Nothing tastes like the old Northern Spy, said Jim Kelderhouse, a fifth generation of the Kelderhouse clan who cultivated the soils of Port Oneida.
“My dad knew all the varieties,” Kelderhouse said. “Over time, mutations and little differences happen.”
The Kelderhouse farm dates to Civil War times. Jim spent weekends of his youth at the family homestead helping his grandfather plant and fertilize, dig potatoes, make maple syrup and care for fruit trees. About 150 heritage apple trees grow near the house.
The National Park Service acquired the farm in 1970. Today, Jim lends a hand in preserving his roots through the Antique Apple Program. Colleagues credit his expertise for the success of the antique apple tree nursery located at the family farm. The nursery supports the growth of several hundred trees grown from grafts. Tom Adams, natural resource specialist at Leelanau Conservation District, oversees the grafting process.
Apple tree pruning efforts at Sleeping Bear began in 2006, followed by grafting a few years later to produce new stock. In 2018, 40 trees resulting from the collaboration’s efforts were planted into the Kelderhouse orchard. Others bolstered South Manitou Island’s aging orchard. The Dechow Farm orchard is among the sites targeted next for restoration.
Mohrman said volunteers provide labor for 80 percent of the program’s work. They graft, prune, plant, water and helped construct fencing protecting young trees from animal damage. Trained volunteers may enlist in the “Adopt-an-Orchard” initiative. Adopters commit to caring for mini orchards consisting of only a few antique trees,or a larger heirloom collection.
The public is invited to an apple picking event at Kelderhouse orchard in mid-October. (Check with Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear for times and date.)
“Our goal is to get the trees picked clean, so deer won’t break down the fence to get to the apples,” Mann explained.
Equipment is provided pickers who can go home with the heirloom apples they harvest.
To learn more about volunteer opportunities, contact Kim Mann or Matt Mohrman at 231- 326-4700.