RISING SUN - How many times have you ventured out of Gays Mills and struck up a conversation with someone only to hear “Oh Yeah! I’ve been there to the orchards!” It has a much better ring to it than “Oh, that is the town that flooded so many times it had to move!” Doesn't it?
Although Gays Mills got its name from the Brothers Gay and their flour mill, our real fame is in our apples. We are, after all, the Apple Capital of Wisconsin.
A quick Googling of Gays Mills brings up our village’s website which shares a slice of the apple history.
“Farmers in the Gays Mills area learned early that the land on both sides of the Kickapoo River offered excellent conditions for apple-growing. In 1905, John Hays and Ben Twining collected apples from eight to ten farmers around Gays Mills for exhibit at the State Fair.
“The exhibit won first prize, then went on to capture first honors in a national apple show in New York. This experience prompted the Wisconsin State Horticulture Society to urge a project of ‘trial orchards’ around the state to interest growers in commercial production. The society examined a site on High Ridge and planted five acres with five recommended varieties.
“By 1911, the orchard had grown so vigorously that an organization was formed in Gays Mills to promote the selling of orchards. Today, more than a thousand acres here produce apples nationally known for their color and flavor.”Our orchards have a long and rich history. Several orchards also offer apples that you can only find in little old Gays Mills. Just today, I learned that Kickapoo Orchard, established around the turn of the century and bought by its current owners, the Meyer Family, in the mid-1960s saved a heirloom variety years ago. Kickapoo Spice was formerly grown by Frank’s Orchard. It was saved from fire by Bill Meyer, and reestablished by the Meyers. It is the favorite apple or co-owner Julie Meyer, who says it reminds her of old fashioned spice drop candy. After eating a few today, I’d say it’s a perfect “middle of the road apple” not too sweet, not too tart. And it is very much what comes to mind when I think of a classic heritage apple.
Kickapoo Orchard is not alone in special apples that have stood the test of time. Stops to any one of Gays Mills’ six unique orchards will offer up a wealth of history and an abundance of apples of course.
I know many families make the annual trip to just one orchard every year for one specific variety of apples. Those are traditions that span generations for some families. However, with all that has been going on this year and our beloved Apple Festival being canceled, I have a challenge for you apple lovers. I urge you to grab your mask and add an orchard that you’ve never visited (or at least not in a long time) to your list. Your second mission is to try an apple variety you’ve never had before. Check out some of the heirloom or specialty varieties. Expand your horizons and enjoy one of the things that makes our community so, so special. Keep in mind too that any of our small orchards will be happy I’m sure to bring apples to your car if that makes you more comfortable as well!
This year, I have it on my list to try some varieties with unusual names like Winter Banana.Of course in the spirit of pandemic homesteading, I hope to preserve some of my seasonal treats as well. That is until I run out of new canning lids that is. But the jar and lid shortage is another column for another day. For now, the berries have all died off and the summer bids us adieu my mind is drifting away on the dreams of apple butter, apple sauce and of course piping hot apple cider. Because there is just something special about Gays Mills Apples.