By Stan Maddux
Agritourism is breathing new life into Williams Orchard, founded by a northwest Indiana veteran of the Civil War. Just over 1,000 people showed up for a grand reopening Labor Day weekend, but many of them didn’t come just to pick apples.
They were drawn by the wagon rides, petting zoo and bounce houses, along with beverages like cider and food served inside the original 1870s barn.
Brittany Oaks and her family from Chicago were searching online for things to do when the orchard and other happenings piqued their curiosity.
“I like it,” Oaks says. “We’ll definitely tell people we’re coming back out here again.’’
Jon and Robyn Drummond, Chesterton, Ind., were looking to break into farming when they noticed the 135-acre spread for sale after third-generation owner, Ken Williams, died in February 2018 at age 98.
Immediate family members retired from other careers weren’t interested in continuing the operation. The Drummonds jumped at the opportunity after setting foot on the property in the rolling hills of northern La Porte County, Ind. The history of the place and what it means to the community are also cited as major factors in their decision.
Jon says his dream was to get into farming after growing up on a small hobby farm in Holland, Mich.
The sale wasn’t finalized until July. But determined to have a fall crop, the Drummonds received permission to prune trees while the sale was pending. They also learned all they could about growing fruit, since they had no prior experience at raising apples.
“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 says.
‘’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 adds.
According to family history, Benjamin and Ester Williams married after he returned from the Civil War. They started the orchard after she purchased a couple of dozen trees from a traveling tree salesman. The Williamses liked what they saw and decided to make a business out of it.
What visitors say
Mark and Melissa Fisher from Indianapolis noticed signs about the farm reopening during trips to their part-time residence in nearby Three Oaks, Mich. They brought their four children: Patrick, 10, Liam, 8, Owen, 5, and Isla, 3.
“All of it,” Melissa says when asked what she likes most about the orchard.
Jessica Zarobinski recalls going there as a child to pick apples and brought her 3-year-old daughter, Gracelynn, to the reopening. Zarobinski says she especially likes the goats and miniature donkeys in the petting zoo and 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 says.
Plans include making the grounds available for weddings and other year-round private events. Meanwhile, Jon Drummond plans to continue with his career in the commercial insurance industry in Chicago.
Robyn left her work in development and fundraising for the University of Chicago and Purdue University to focus on the orchard and raising their children, ages 3 and 4 months.
“Neither of us has actually ever owned an orchard before, so it’s been a big learning experience for us,” she says. “It’s certainly been a lot of fun.”
Dark cloud after opening day
A damper was placed on the successful Labor Day weekend reopening of Williams Orchard by a tree picker stealing an estimated 20,000 pounds of apples.
According to La Porte County, Ind., police, on Sept. 22, officers were called to the orchard near the Michigan state line.
Jon Drummond reported apples were picked from more than 30 trees on the northwest corner of his orchard. He described some trees as being “picked clean from top to bottom,” according to police.
Police say a man is being looked at as a possible suspect. He and a pickup similar to a red Ford F-250 were spotted by a passerby on the property when the orchard was closed Sept. 18. Investigators were told the person of interest makes and sells apple cider on the side. During a recent visit to the orchard, he asked when it was open and if anyone lived in a house on the farm, police say.
Retail value of the stolen apples was placed at $27,000, police report.
Maddux writes from South Bend, Ind.