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September 12, 2012

Cider mills keep ‘em coming back with old favorites, new traditions

By Tiffany Esshaki
C & G Staff Writer

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Kim Mauney tucks Paula red apples into bags for guests to purchase at the Franklin Cider Mill.

Another Labor Day is behind us, which means the onset of the fall season is close at hand. With cooler temperatures and falling leaves, many of us are turning our sights to the crisp apples, cider and doughnuts for which Michigan cider mills are known.

Of the numerous cider mills around the state, many have been in operation for more than 100 years. So when it comes to deciding which one to visit this fall, many families are looking for mills that stand apart from the rest while keeping with the spirit of the longtime autumn tradition.

Yates Cider Mill has been standing tall alongside the Clinton River Trail for nearly 150 years. The water-powered mill was converted into a cider press in 1876. Since then, apple cider lovers have flocked to the big red mill on Avon Road, at Dequindre, for a little taste of harvest seasons gone by.

Erica Titus is the daughter of Katie and Mike Titus, who now own Yates. She said the mill has more to offer its customers than just the traditional doughnuts and apple cider, which at Yates is pasteurized with ultraviolet light to preserve flavor. Guests can enjoy a variety of products, from homemade pies and jarred provisions to unique favorites like the doughnut sundae, which boasts a combination of vanilla ice cream, caramel and a homemade doughnut all topped with whipped cream and cinnamon.

Visitors can take their tasty treats out to the adjacent river trail to sit beside the sparkling water or stroll along the half-mile nature walk. For Shelby Township residents Michelle Berger and her daughter, the river makes for a little escape from the bustling city.

“My daughter loves fishing, and she couldn’t wait to come here,” said Berger, who found a spot to sit on a log alongside the river while her daughter fished. “We knew it was going to be a warm day, and it’s good to come outside and not be cooped up in the house.”

For those who really want a reprieve from city life, Blake’s Cider Mill on Armada Road in Armada is more than just a cider mill — it’s a true farm that encourages visitors to slow down and enjoy its country pace. Pete Blake co-owns the property with brother Paul Blake, as well as Blake’s Big Apple Orchard and Blake’s Almont Orchard. Pete Blake said he and his brother brainstorm new ideas each year to bring to their properties, so families can have a new experience every time they come to the farm.

“Blake’s has been around since 1946, and we offer more than anyone in the state as far as crops and activities for the family,” said Blake. “We’ve always had a family focus.”

In addition to the on-site cider mill with fresh apple cider and doughnuts, Blake’s has an entire store filled with farm-fresh produce and other items produced locally. There’s also a café where guests can grab a bite to eat.

But it’s the fun that families can have just outside the cider mill that draws most people out to Blake Farms. Youngsters can play in the vast children’s area, complete with a towering straw mountain to climb, wagon rides into the orchard, giant pumpkin jump pillows, pony rides and much more.

Blake said that the spring frost earlier this year has resulted in a meager apple harvest, which means there could be less to choose from on the farm, where visitors can pick the apples and berries themselves. But families looking for the quintessential fall experience should have no fear — Blake said the orchard and all the activities that go along with it are up and running as usual.

“We have the wagon rides, and we’ve planted over 500,000 pumpkins (to be picked). It’s a light apple year, but what’s here we’re offering up for people to come pick.”

In Bloomfield Hills, just on the cusp of historic downtown Franklin, is the Franklin Cider Mill, which opened its doors for the season over Labor Day weekend. Owner Barry Peltz said the first weekend of the cider mill season is always a draw for customers who’ve waited patiently for the mill’s signature apple cider and doughnuts.

“For the past five or seven years, we’ve had a group of young kids bring sleeping bags in front of the mill and camp out to be the first ones in Saturday morning,” he said of the opening day, Sept. 1.

Peltz said it’s the secret German doughnut recipe that’s been passed down in his family since the mill first opened nearly 95 years ago that sets the Franklin Cider Mill apart from others.

“They’re almost made to order. We never have more than one or two dozen made ahead of time, so the doughnuts are hot all the time. They look like what you find at other cider mills, but once you bite into it you know there’s nothing else like it. We have a proprietary mix, and no one else has our mix.”

The mill, on the corner of Franklin and 14 Mile roads, has been in operation since 1920. The property features the mill itself, vendor stands where guests can purchase fresh produce and other local products, and plenty of space to enjoy goodies alongside a quaint brook.

But it’s the unpasteurized apple cider and fresh doughnuts that keep visitors coming back each year. It’s such a favorite among locals, Peltz said, that many customers stop by on their way to work or school to grab some cinnamon and sugar covered doughnuts for their friends and co-workers.

“Nothing will seal a business deal like our hot doughnuts,” he said with a laugh.

All three cider mills will be open through the duration of the fall season. Hours, directions and other information can be found at www.YatesCiderMill.com, www.BlakeFarms.com, and www.FranklinCiderMill.com.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki at tesshaki@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1095.