How Bout Them Apples? Cider Mills, Regionalism, and Gentrification

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This guest post is written by Courtney Hilden. 

I have never gone a Michigan fall without cider.

After informally polling my friends, I get the distinct sense that cider mills are particularly big business in Michigan.  Even though other states grow more apples than Michigan, cider mills are a part of the cultural landscape.  It is true that apples are the most important crop in Michigan; last year alone, twenty four million bushels were harvested. But Washington State, not Michigan, is the biggest apple producer.  When I asked my Father, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, about cider mills, he said he didn’t remember them much.   

Cider mills are perhaps the most-Michigan thing out there.  The state’s official tourism board has an extremely detailed information about cider mills and apples. The Michigan university I went to sold apple cider on the lawn in front of the theater, right on the campus’ main road.  Perhaps not even that was enough cider to satisfy people, because while at the university’s literary magazine, someone—I can’t remember who—suggested we should bond as colleagues by going out to a cider mill.  

So I wanted to dig deeper into how cider mills and Michigander-ness was twined together.  

Because I have two degrees in English, I felt it was only appropriate that I go to cider mills named Yates’ and Blake’s.  Just kidding.  I chose these mills because they are frequently featured as Michigan’s best.  They both make it on numerous best cider mill lists.

img_0206Yates is located in Rochester Hills. Seeing how it is one of the first results when you search “cider mill,” it is probably now the second most famous thing about Rochester Hills, after being Madonna’s hometown. Yates is fairly simple; because it is just a mill with a few other smaller things attached, there are not even any orchards, something that most mills have. There’s a spin art booth, tents where you can buy Frankenmuth fudge and produce, a petting zoo, a pony ride, and a nearby park and trail around the river.  

Blake’s, on the other hand, is an entirely different monster.  For one thing, it is no longer a mom-and-pop operation; there are actually three Blake’s in southeast Michigan, all under the same management.  Because I grew up in Michigan and with cider mills, I thought it might be wise to check in on it, and wow: it seems to have metastasized. This particular one I visited now has a tasting room, a restaurant, a ciderhouse, a café, a bunny village, a petting village, a haunted village, a “candy corn bounce,” a quite literal mountain of straw, a train ride, a (possibly spooky) hayride, a funland, and two different animatronic displays that sing and make bad puns.  

During autumn, there is live music every Friday. They take it one step up from picking your own fruit: you can cut your own Christmas trees here. The place is decorated with hay sculptures, including one that looks like what happens when an apple orchard, a pumpkin, and a demon have group sex.  Nearby, there is a witch on top of a gigantic pole that occasionally cackles, so from certain angles it looks like this hay sculpture has a witch sitting on top of its head.  One of the hay sculptures looked like Pikachu, and, in retrospect, I wish now I had checked to see if it was a Pokestop.  

img_0225If all of this sounds overwhelming, do not despair: Blake’s has a drive-through.  You can come for the treats without even exiting your car.      

Blake’s budding franchise-ness does not stop there: You may have actually interacted with Blake’s, even if you have never been there.  They have licensed their own hard cider, complete with marketing to No-Shave NovemBeard dudes that would fit in just fine with the kinds of commercials played during Big Ten football games.    

Blake’s is an extreme example, but cider mills have become bigger business.  It started off small: you could pick your own apples.  Then you could pick your own pumpkins.  Then there were petting zoos. Now many cider mills have any combination of train rides, pony rides, hayrides, haunted hayrides, corn mazes, haunted corn mazes, haunted barns, and (not to be outdone by other seasonal activities) regular, old haunted houses. One of the other Blake’s advertises  zombie paintball.  

Even the petting zoos have gotten bigger; the nearby Westview Orchards has an impressive set of covered bridges connecting a few different pens so that goats can walk above you.   

img_0254I suspect that a day on the farm is amusing to people who have never farmed in their life, but these places seem increasingly suburban, which might be, of course, the point.  I suspect real rural life is not nearly this entertaining. 

(If you are an alien or robot and do not like food products of any kind, you are still in luck: Blake’s sells candles and wooden signs with sassy sayings on them.)

There are things about cider mills I find charming, even if perhaps in an amateur anthropologist sort of way.  That said, I find it disquieting that white people would pay to pick fruit and then turn around and demean people of color who pick fruit for miserable pay. 

Four or five years ago I heard a rumor that the Michigan apple harvest was so bad, cider mills were importing apples from Virginia, but the rumor said nothing about who was picking the apples, only their origin. Who is picking these apples in and outside of Michigan? 

I cannot find any answer in all the tourist information on apple picking I looked through. The laborers in the field seem invisible.  I cannot remember a time when I saw actual workers picking apples; on my field trip for this article, I didn’t find any either. I felt I  was encouraged not to think about that work, but just to assume the land simply birthed fruit on a schedule, without any maintenance or work.      
It goes farther than that.  Many cider mills market themselves as not just family-friendly, but as places of great tradition.  Most cider mill websites have a history page, and they all seem to mention first and foremost how long they have been open,
some bragging about how they are as old as the state itself, but no one mentions that white people claimed land here before, during, and after the Indian Removal Act, the Treaty of Saginaw (which ceded more than six million acres of what is now Michigan, and forced Native Americans farther west), and the Black Hawk War, which ended with the Bad Axe Massacre.      

img_0230When I set out to write this piece, I was going to discuss how strangely tied up in Michigander identity the cider mill has become.  Many of the native Michiganders I know time their pilgrimages back home to coincide with cider mill season (or, as it is known elsewhere, autumn), even though summer is probably the ideal time to visit a state where all the jokes about the three season of winter and the two days of spring.  Last year, an East Lansing-based indie funk band put out a single called “Cider Mill and Chill”;once something has been meme-fied, you know it has become real, almost like Pinocchio. 

I was thinking about regionalism and local pride, especially in this age where apparently the only people with any cultural cache live in large cities on the coasts.  Sarah Kendzior writes the most eloquently about this phenomenon, but large parts of America have been left out of the economic turnaround, and thus, cultural and political influence.  It is easy to see this even in people’s attitudes.  

When I lived in New York City, people turned their noses up at the Midwest.  Everyone I have ever interacted with who has lived exclusively on the East and/or West Coast of America has this same bizarre, monolithic perception;in the minds of so many of the East/West Coast, urban, college-educated individuals I have encountered, both the Midwest and the South are lumped together as backwards, politically conservative, poorly educated, uncultured, and ridiculous.

Regionalism, and its related identities, state pride or localism, push back against this brand of classism.  The pushback, I suspect, is incomprehensible to those who dismiss Middle America: they manage to see it still as silly, without realizing that these identities are constructed around these geographic locations exactly because of East/West Coast classism.  Many of the Michiganders I know take pleasure in calling themselves exactly that, and associate it with a variety of things, including cider mills.  

img_0234I still believe those things about regionalism and classism, about the cider mill as a strange ritual tied up in identity, but it, of course, is even more complicated than that.   

And although this might sound, at face-value, about as respectable as Zizek discussing Kung Fu Panda, cider mills are another example of how we teach people ideology.  Children go to cider mills, and associate farm labor, particularly produce picking, as a diversion, as an entertainment. 

And perhaps for adults, the cider mill is even less than that, since it is seen as children’s entertainment, and while your mileage may vary, it might not even be good children’s entertainment.  Cider mills are a site of devaluing the labor of the working class, undocumented immigrants, and people of color, in several quiet ways. 

And this is the biggest problem with regionalism, at least as it is practiced right now: it whitewashes out people of color.  Midwesterners are always imagined as white, even though, for example, about eighteen percent are African American.

To be clear, there is plenty of racism to go around in this country.  Anti-black racist attitudes seem particularly prevalent in the Eastern part of America.  And Oregon, so often upheld as progressive, was originally founded with the explicit goal of excluding people of color.     

It would be easy to see that many cider mills now do special cider blends and homemade jerky and artisanal pickles and think of young, white Brooklynites making cheese, and associate them with progressive politics.  It would be easy to roll one’s eyes at cider mills as something people without access to “better” culture do.  

img_0244Cider mills are becoming more gentrified, but they are also a vestige of old school gentrification, both within and outside of Middle America.  When white people were first forcibly taking land away from Native Americans, many buildings representing white-coded civilization sprung up; cider mills are one of the few buildings from that time to retain their original form in modernity. They are sort of like that old joke about hipsters: They were gentrifying before it was cool to gentrify.  

Gentrificated areas often present themselves as authentic.  In many American cities, this authenticity is about living somewhere great art is produced.  For cider mills, the authenticity is about those rural family traditions.  

But, in reality, authentic rural life is much harder than cider mills present it.  Farmworkers often deal with workplace hazards like a lack of bathroom facilities and exposure to pesticides.   For undocumented farm laborers, the threat of deportation makes the job psychologically draining. And they often don’t make enough money to afford adequate health care.  

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Entry-level Michigan fruit picking jobs list their compensation at about eight or nine dollars an hour. Authenticity marketing not only erases the labor, but makes it easy to pretend that struggles and abuses don’t happen.  

When we go to cider mills, we are not really buying authentic rural food and experiences.  Cider mills have reshaped rural life into something more enticing.  When considering regionalism, we should resist businesses that try to define something as authentic, especially because it makes it easier for us to look away from continued labor problems.  We should be demanding more for these workers, by supporting migrant labor advocacy, voting for more health regulations and better wages, and more humane immigration laws.

Courtney Hilden is a story and script editor at Gamerstable RPG Podcast.  Her work has appeared in The Mary Sue and Harlot, among others.

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