In 1939, a swimsuit-clad couple wed in an enormous tank of Door County cherry juice. While the “juice” might have really been colored water, the effort to promote the most important crop on the northern Wisconsin peninsula was sincere.
A Door County farmer planted the first three acres of tart cherries in 1896. The peninsular temperature – a little cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter than adjacent areas – and shallow, alkaline soil grew perfect cherries. An industry was born. Cherry farming and tourism both took off. By 1959, Door County had more cherry trees than anywhere else in the U.S. But soon after, Michigan surpassed Wisconsin. And in Door County, tourism surpassed cherries. The two are still tied closely together.
I spent a few days in as a cherry tourist. I saw no cherry juice nuptials, but dipped my toes into a cherry’s life cycle, from sapling to pie.
In the Orchards
“If you’re driving around in the county and you see some real nice orchards, those are ours,” says Dale Seaquist, the 83 year-old patriarch of Seaquist Orchards. His Swedish grandfather planted his first cherry orchard in Door County in 1912. Dale Seaquist planted his first in 1948. Now he has orchards of all ages, from saplings on up, scattered around the county.
We stand in one of his orchards, each tree loaded with up to 7,000 tart, bright red Montmercy cherries. Seaquist has arranged to demonstrate mechanical harvesting to our small group. This involves a large machine clamping onto a cherry trunk, heartily shaking the tree for about five seconds, and catching the plummeting cherries in two wing-like structures that rise up from the machine. The cherries move down a conveyor belt into a tank filled with water. The water cushions the cherries as they land, so they don’t crush one another other. As cherries settle in the tank, they displace the water. At Seaquist, the machine cruises down orchard rows, filling an 1,100-pound tank every minute and 20 seconds.
The driver isn’t eager to slow down. “Don’t let him flatten you out!” Seaquist calls, nimbly staying out of the way as the machine bears down on us.
Mechanized harvesting became mandatory after the boom years of the 1940s and ‘50s. Laws grew tighter about housing standards for migrant workers. Famers couldn’t afford to make mandated improvements for a harvesting season lasting only a few weeks. Michigan cherry production rocketed ahead.
Early harvesting was much slower that what we see in the orchard today. Dale Seaquist remembers attaching a boom to his tractor and shaking individual branches.
At Orchard Country Winery & Market, enthusiastic tour guide Jordin Gegare tells us that eight people working full time could hand pick half an acre of cherries in two and a half days. A mechanical harvester can pick half an acre in one hour. The exception is sweet cherries, whose fragility necessitates hand picking. Consequently, tart cherries are king in Door County.
After the first few explosions, I grow accustomed to the loud booms which accompany cherry season. Blasts from air cannons scare away birds, the cherry’s primary predator. Seagulls are the worst. “I’m sorry, but those things are disgusting and I hate them,” says Gegare, a graduate in English/law/tax codes who is following her passion of tour guiding. Seagulls break the branches with their weight, knocking cherries to the ground and messily scooping them up with their beaks.
Nor is Dale Seaquist charmed by those of the avian persuasion. His solution for cherry-crazed robins? “You let them eat so many cherries that they can’t get off the ground. Then you drive over them with your tractor.” He’s joking. I think.
In Oregon, where I live, I usually see Rainier and Bing cherries for sale. The Montmercy are the brightest red I’ve ever seen on a cherry, more like the red of cherries depicted on a potholder or candy wrapper. At Orchard Country, we pick buckets off the trees, making the tiniest dent in the 56 million cherries they grow annually. The cherries slip right off their stems and into our hands and mouths. These tart cherries are plenty sweet.
Orchard Country has a dedicated u-pick area (they call You Pick). They also have a Cherry Pit Spit, where visitors can participate in competitive pit spitting. Measurements are marked off every five feet. The ladies’ record is 38 feet, while the record for men is 48. At 18 feet, my first attempt is my best. Then I get a little too determined, and suck in to prepare for spitting, almost inhaling the pit. But as owner Carrie Lautenbach-Viste cheerfully points out, if she has to do the Heimlich maneuver on me, the forced expulsion might set a new record.
Dedicated cherry tourists should head to the Door County Historical Museum and watch the 15-minute historical video. It starts all the way back in 1862 with apples, the cherries’ predecessors as the favored local crop. The video charts the rise of the cherry industry and the Depression-era struggles. During World War II, 250 German POWs were captured in North Africa and sent to pick cherries in Door County. Then came the boom years, when growers lined up for blocks at the Fruit Growers Coop, sometimes spending the night in their truck as they waited to unload.
Alas, when Michigan rose to cherry prominence, planting more and bigger cherry trees, Michigan growers soon dictated cherry prices across the nation. And, as the video points out, as women joined the work force, the art of cherry pie baking was lost. Apparently Mom really is to blame for everything.
The historical museum opened in 1936 and is housed in its original building. Stained glass windows depict four periods of Door County history: Indians, fishing, sailing and logging. According to Ginny Haen, assistant curator, many people visit to trace their genealogy, and the museum is most popular on very hot or rainy days.
A Segway Tour
Visitors who want to see cherry orchards in a whole different way can sign up for a tour with Segway the Door. Owner Nick Dokolas, dark-haired and athletic, rides the two-wheeled battery-powered vehicles with total ease. I am not so graceful.
This is my first attempt at Segway riding, and I find the initial minutes pretty rough. Hip movement controls direction, and dismounting without running over my toes seems impossible. I feel like a character in the Harry Potter books, trying out my magic broom for the first time. One tip: Don’t wear flip flops.
Fortunately, I don’t have to bail off suddenly. Once we get the Segways going, we hit speeds of at least 10 miles per hour. Nick, a former elementary school teacher from California, is attentive and manages to keep our entire group upright. We coast down roads, on gravel, and through the long grass of a cherry orchard. By the time we reach the orchard, we’re adept enough to pluck and eat cherries while riding.
Good Things to Eat
My favorite way to eat Door County cherries is right off the trees. However, cherries are incorporated into scores of drinks and dishes in restaurants and products for sale in country stores around the peninsula. Here are a few favorites:
• Cherry nut bread at Seaquist Orchards’ Farm Store, a huge, inviting space packed with good things to sample
• Cherry pie at Orchard Country Winery
• Door County Salad with dried cherries and cherry vinaigrette at Galileo’s
• Cherry jam and cherry salsa at Wood Orchard Market
• Cherry coffee cake at The Village Cafe
• Cherry margaritas at Fred & Fuzzy’s – I’m not a drinker, but my colleagues pronounced these both tasty and strong
Finding souvenirs and gifts for those back home is easy during Door County’s cherry season. I leave with several jars of jam, cherry salsa, dried cherries, cherry almond muesli, cherry pastry and a chunk of cherry cheddar from local favorite Renard’s Cheese. Don’t forget to stock up for yourself, too. Cherry season only comes once a year in Door County. Delicious and all too brief.– Story and photos by Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor
If You Go
Door County www.doorcounty.com
Seaquest Orchards www.seaquistorchards.com
Orchard Country Winery & Market www.orchardcountry.com
Door County Historical Museum map.co.door.wi.us/museum
Segway the Door tours www.glidenew.com
Watch for Tart Cherry Recipes coming from Teresa on Sept. 9th.