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Gays Mills orchards enjoy bountiful harvest

What began as a trial orchard in 1905 has become the major industry and attraction for Gays Mills, with over 1,500 acres planted in apple trees.

The success of the orchards has made the village, and the orchards perched upon its ridges, a destination for people throughout the region. Visitors trek in from all over Wisconsin, northern Illinois and eastern Iowa.

Highway 171 is the ribbon of concrete that ties all the orchards, and the village they have made so well known, together. It forms an east to west path of produce.

At the east end of this path is Hillcrest Orchards. Their retail store is at the junction of Highways 171 and Highway 61.

Originally, Hillcrest Orchard was a dairy farm. It was converted to an orchard approximately 50 years ago. The current owner, Bob Zimpel, purchased Hillcrest in 1984. Terre Van Herren took over as manager in 2006, when Zimpel’s long time manager Alyce Salmon retired.

“We have the Snow Sweets coming in this week,” Van Herren said.” “They are a newer variety, an excellent apple. Golden Supremes are also a newer apple that are available now.”

The Snow Sweet apple is a University of Minnesota apple developed for cold climates, according to Van Herren. It’s a good apple for fresh eating, salads and sauce.

In addition to the new varieties, Hillcrest has Honey Crisp, Macintosh, Cortlands, Galas and more on hand as they head into Apple Fest weekend. You can also find vine-ripened tomatoes, potatoes, onions, squash and more.

Leaving Hillcrest and driving west on 171 toward Gays Mills, the next stop is Fleming Orchard. Founded in 1937, the orchard offers Honey Crisp, Paula Reds, Dudley, Macintosh, Cortland and Greening apples. They also offer Mutsu, a Crispin apple that is excellent both for fresh use and cooking.

The Dudleys are an heirloom variety that originated in Maine in 1877 as a seedling from a Duchess of Oldenburg tree.

Fleming Orchard also offers the rarity for visitors to see one tree that produces 27 varieties of apple. The tree was grafted in 1971.

“Things are coloring up a bit late this year,” said third generation orchardist Jim Fleming. “But, you’ll have that. Every year is a bit different.”

“Right now, it’s mostly the mainstays coming in. The Macs, the Galas and Honey Crisp,” Fleming added.

As you continue the drive west on 171, you will see the “Pick Your Own” signs at De La Mater Road that point you toward Starry Ridge Orchard.

A treat for families and pocketbooks both, Starry Ridge has been offering pick-your-own Spartans, Cortlands, MacIntosh and Jonathan apples since 1992.

Back on 171 heading west again brings you to one of the oldest of the area orchards, Kickapoo Orchard. Founded in 1913 by Harold Schubert, Bill and Marlene Meyer bought the orchard in 1964, adding retail space, a bakery and cider mill to the endeavor.

A master graftsman, Bill Meyer, has expanded the orchard varieties, adding many heirloom varieties.

“We have over 40 varieties with 140 acres in production,” said Julie Meyer. “One of our apples is the Wolf River, which is a Wisconsin original heirloom. We also have apples you won’t see anywhere else because of Bill’s work.”

Wolf River apples are prized bakers. The large apples hold their shape well during baking. Also being fairly sweet, Wolf Rivers need little sugar added for that perfect pie.

The Kickapoo Spice and the Dick’s Delicious are two varieties you can find nowhere else.

“Frank’s Orchard (now defunct) had a nursery. When they closed that out, we bought their entire stock of 3,000 trees,” Bill Meyer explained. “We didn’t really know what to do with them and planted them at the back of the orchard. A few years later, I went back and found the Kickapoo Spice. I picked some apples and brought them to the house. Marlene told me they were sweet and spicy.

“You won’t find these in any other orchard,” Meyer added.

“The Dick’s Delicious we got from Dick Gainor. He ran the nursery at Frank’s,” Meyer recalled. “He gave me several crosses he had made. Dick passed away before I got around to asking him about the parentage and we didn’t get the records when we bought the nursery. It’s a Red Delicious type, very mild.”

Also on hand are Red Frees, Sunrise, Zestar, Sansa, Ginger Golds, Stellas, Jersey Sweet and more.

For those who want their apple baking done for them, Kickapoo Orchard also offers their own Apple Pizza, a confection of crust, apples, a buttery topping with slivered almonds, sugar and spices, then topped off with soft caramel. The orchard’s bakery also offer pies, turnovers and more.

The Kickapoo Orchard Salesroom offers all their apples, cider and a selection of regionally produced food and bodycare products.

Kickapoo Orchard cider is a high demand item. Besides supplying customers with cider for drinking, Kickapoo now supplies cider to several brewing operations. New Glarus Brewing and Furthermore Beer both offer seasonal beers made with Kickapoo Orchard cider. Yahara Bay Distillery makes apple brandy with it. Weggy Winery, Stone Cliff Winery and Primrose Winery make apple wines from the cider.

For those who want a bit of the outdoors, Kickapoo also offers a corn and sunflower maze. The successful maze wanderer will find a lovely spot mid-hillside to sit and sip their cider or coffee while gazing out on hills covered in apple trees, flowers and woodlands.

Next on the trek west down 171 is Sunrise Orchards, the largest of the orchards with a retail facility and packing shed that sits perched above the village of Gays Mills.

It’s not all apples in their salesroom either, Sunrise offers their famous apple cider donuts, producing as many as 300 dozen an hour. They make as many as 36,000 dozen each season. 

Apple shoppers can also pick up a cup of hot mulled cider as they wander the displays of apples, jams, jellies, baking mixes and more. Sunrise even offers cider slushies and an old-fashioned candy display for the young and young-at-heart.

For all the selection in the salesroom, it’s really all about the apples at Sunrise. With over 30 varieties of apples on approximately 235 acres, it’s a serious business that has kept four generations of the Teach family very busy.

Some varieties are already sold out, but you can still be assured of finding Wealthy, Jonathans, Jonamacs, Macintosh, Honey Crisp, Gala and Cortland for sale.  Golden Supremes and Lura Reds should be coming on soon.

Two more orchards are located to the east of Gays Mills.

Continuing on 171 toward Mt. Sterling, a left on Stevenson Road will take you to Turkey Ridge Road and the orchard by the same name.

Turkey Ridge Orchard is the only certified organic orchard in the Gays Mills area.

With a selection of mostly heirloom variety apples, they also offer raw cider for sale from the farm, apple cider vinegar and sauces and pie fillings.

West Ridge Apples is located on 171 on the west ridge above Gays Mills near Mt. Sterling.

With Honey Crisp, Macs, Greenings, Cortlands and Galas on sale, the 35-year-old orchard owned by Galen O’Neal rounds out the West Ridge offerings with a wide array of locally produced edibles. Cider, jams and jellies are to be had, as is a wide selection of fresh produce. The fall crops of onions, potatoes, squash and gourds are on hand with tomatoes, eggplant and freshly picked corn still coming in.

Other not-to-miss stops in the orchards to the east of Gays Mills include Apple’licious Pie Depot and Norskhaven Gift and Coffee Shop.

Located on the south side of Highway 171 between Sunrise and Kickapoo Orchards, Norskhaven offers visitors a wide selection of regional and Wisconsin-themed gifts along with coffee, malts and a Carmel Apple Pecan Pie Cake that makes a visit well worthwhile.

The shop had more than one prior incarnation as a tavern before owner Luann Goplin bought the property and took the plunge into retail. The shop added a new tearoom upstairs for this year.

Apple’icious Pie Depot is found on the south side of 171 between Fleming and Hillcrest Orchards.

Offering up pies, turnovers and more, the Depot also takes pre-orders for those who want to make sure they get their slice of freshly baked pie. All their pies are 100-percent hand made from fresh fruit ingredients.

Welcome to Gays Mills and make sure you enjoy all the orchards and Apple Fest 2011 have to offer.