By Stan Maddux
A former southwest Michigan couple has turned to agritourism to breathe new life into an orchard founded by a Civil War veteran.
The decision appears to be a good one, judging by the early success at Williams Orchard, where more than 1,000 people turned out during Labor Day weekend for a grand reopening.
Many of the patrons didn’t show up just to pick apples. They also were drawn by the wagon rides, petting zoo and bounce houses, along with food and cider served for the first time inside the original 1870s barn.
Brittany Oaks said she and her family from Chicago were searching online for things to do in the area when the orchard and the new happenings posted there peaked their curiosity.
“I like it," she said. "We’ll definitely tell people we’re coming back out here again."
Jon and Robyn Drummond grew up in Holland, Mich. They were looking to break into farming when they noticed the 135-acre spread in Indiana near the Michigan state line for sale.
Third-generation owner Ken Williams of nearby Three Oaks, Mich., died in February 2018. He was 98. Immediate family members, according to Jon Drummond, retired from other careers and were not interested in continuing the legacy. So, the Drummonds jumped at the opportunity after setting foot on the property in the rolling hills of northern LaPorte County, Ind.
“It just felt like we were in the right place at the right time, and it was just such an important part of the community that we really wanted to preserve,” Robyn Drummond said.
Jon Drummond’s dream was to get into farming after growing up with a couple of goats and a few other animals on a small hobby farm in Holland. His wife’s hankering stemmed from having relatives involved in agriculture.
The sale wasn’t final until July, but determined to have a fall crop, the Drummonds received permission to prune trees and do other work on the farm while the pending sale made its way to closing.
The Drummonds also learned all they could about growing fruit because they had no previous experience at raising apples.
They estimated the grand opening drew 750 people. The next day, about 300 people had come out, with more trickling in a few hours before the gates shut.
“It was kind of mission accomplished as far as let’s get this thing launched, and let’s make it part of the community again," Jon Drummond said.
According to family history, Benjamin and Ester Williams married after Benjamin returned from the Civil War. They started the orchard after Ester bought a couple dozen trees from a traveling tree salesman. Later, the Williamses liked what they saw and decided to make a business out of raising apples.
Mark and Melissa Fisher from Indianapolis noticed signs about the farm reopening during trips to their part-time residence in Three Oaks. They brought their four children, Patrick, 10, Liam, 8, Owen, 5, and Isla, 3.
“All of it,” Melissa Fisher said when asked what she liked most about the orchard, while sipping cider next to her bag full of freshly picked apples.
Jessica Zarobinski of LaPorte, Ind., recalled going there as a child to pick apples and brought her 3-year-old daughter, Gracelynn, to pass on the experience.
Zarobinski said she especially liked the goats and miniature donkeys in the petting zoo and the four longhorns inside a separate fenced-in area.
“It’s nicer for the kids to have more things to do to keep them entertained,” she said.
Future plans, Jon Drummond said, include having food trucks from Chicago on at least one of the weekends during the season, which lasts until about Halloween, and later opening the grounds for weddings and other private events year-round.
He’s also focused on having a peach crop next year after the polar vortex killed the buds on peach trees at the orchard and other farms in Indiana and Michigan.
The Drummonds now live in Chesterton, Ind., but divide their time between their residence and the farm.
Jon Drummond has chosen to keep his job in the commercial insurance industry in Chicago and tend to the orchard part time, while his wife left her career in development and fundraising for the University of Chicago and Purdue University to dedicate herself full time to the orchard and raising their children, ages 3 and 4 months.
“Neither one of us has actually ever owned an orchard before, so it’s been a big learning experience for us," Jon Drummond said. "It’s certainly been a lot of fun."
Maddux writes from New Buffalo, Mich.