Door County Almanak, No. 2, 1985
“Here’s the story of how Wink bought the orchard,” said Audrey Larson, as she, Wink Larson, and I sat in the spacious living room of their Sister Bay home perched on a bluff, the hazy waters of Green Bay provide a background for the chickadees and goldfinches competing for birdseed just outside the window.
“Wink was in the real estate business then,” Audrey continued, “and found out that one of the last really big parcels of land left in Northern Door County was for sale, 740 acres of orchards. He bought the land, planning to develop it, but a Sturgeon Bay cherry processor talked him into running the orchard and cherry plant, at least temporarily: ‘$35,000 of easy money for two weeks of no work’.” Audrey laughed. “Wink tried it, and probably lost $35,000, but he fell in love with the land. He decided that there were too many tourists here already, and his family had been in the orchard business for years.” And so, the Larson Orchard came into being.
Wink Larson – orchardman, real estate developer, former Democratic Party Precinct Chairman – is a colorful local character.
The Larson Orchard is a family concern. Wink’s son, Mitch, like the three generations of Larson’s who preceded him on the Northern Door Peninsula, makes his living as an orchardman.
Like her husband, Audrey Larson is a Door County native. Her family founded and still manages Bunda’s Stores in Sister Bay. Audrey presides over the salesroom at the orchard, along with her mother-in-law, Hazel, wife of the late Everett Larson who lived at Appleport. Hazel, a native of Newport, has the strong, weathered face of an orchard matriarch.
Wink Larson’s daughter, Lisa, has not been bitten by the orchard bug, but rather makes her living as an assistant vice president for Banco in Duluth.
The Larson Orchard has a history every bit as colorful as Wink himself. In 1910, two partners, Bingham and Lawrence, founded the orchard. Wink introduced me to Louis Koessl, who at age 87, remains a living volume of orchard history. A dignified man who has retained a Germanic manner and speech pattern, Louis Koessl spoke of the early days of what is now the Larson Orchard with an encyclopedic assurance, recalling dates, names, and figures with ease.
“I worked the old Ellison Bay Orchard for Bingham and Lawrence in 1913, 1914, and 1915. All the other men who worked there then are dead,” Koessl recalled. He worked a sixty-hour week, was furnished room and board, and was paid thirty dollars a month.
Spraying was accomplished with a fifty-pound pressure sprayer drawn by a two-horse team. One man was required to stand on the rig, and another to walk behind as the outfit progressed slowly through the orchard.
Three mule teams worked up the land between the rows of trees where oats were broadcast by hand, and when ripe, cut, cradled, and bundled all by hand. A horse walking in a circle furnished the power for threshing the oats, which in turn were used to feed the horses and mules required for orchard work.
Cherries had to be picked by the stems in those days, Koessl remembered. His job was to haul the filled boxes from the orchard to a shed where they were weighed. He added or removed cherries to maintain a 28-pound weight per box. At 6:00 pm, the boat arrived at the Ellison Bay dock to pick up the cherries. On the way to Sturgeon Bay, stops were made at Sister Bay, Ephraim, Fish Creek, and Egg Harbor. At Sturgeon Bay, the cherries were transported by rail to their destinations.
But not only were wages considerably less back in the early part of this century. In 1912 or 1913, Koessl recalled, a boat stopped with a load of mixed fruit trees which sold for 8 cents apiece, quite a bit cheaper than the current $5.00 per tree cost. Orchard growers bought extra trees which were planed closely together in a trench and were transplanted later as necessary to replace trees that had died.
Of course, fruit commanded a much lower price than that it does now too, only two or three cents per pound.
The Tipperary section of the Larson Orchard is now one of the most productive plots. Louis Koessl remembers when he and Harold Gename cleared that land of timber and planted a field of oats for the horses.
Koessl and Wink Larson talked of pruning trees and agreed that apple trees can withstand the most vigorous of pruning. Koessl spoke of fruit trees that he tends which are nearly as old as he is, but still bears apples. “The harder you prune, the better apples you get,” he said. After a long life of hard work, Louis Koessl is still vigorous and alert; one suspects that if the adage is true for apple trees, it may be true for men as well.
During the 1930s, the Bingham and Lawrence Orchard became the Ellison Bay Orchard Company which fell prey to the depression and was bought after foreclosure by a wealthy Chicago attorney, Art Friedlund.
Under Friedlund, the orchard enjoyed its heyday. Approximately 350 acres were devoted to cherries and another 300 to apples. Over a million pounds of cherries were produced, and other 50,000 bushels of apples. Ten full-time employees lived on the orchard, including a superintendent, foreman, and head mechanic. 300 pickers were employed during the cherry season, and a regular village was created for them. Friedlund maintained a company store for the workers (the blackboard outside the door remains yet today), and a tent city, enough sixteen by sixteen-foot concrete slabs to accommodate forty tents. Two houses, four apartment buildings, plus migrant worker row houses and apartments in the main complex of buildings, provided housing for the army of workers who assembled to take part in the harvests each summer and fall. A fleet of a dozen tractors and as many trucks replaced the horses and mules of earlier years.
An artifact which testifies to Friedlund’s industry and willingness to invest money in his orchard survives yet today. He commissioned a Chicago surveying company to prepare a huge “blueprint” of the orchard. This tree census graphically accounts for every living fruit tree Friedlund owned. A legend listed the abbreviations used for twenty-five varieties of apples; a U marked those trees whose varieties had not been established.
But the Friedlund Orchard was not the only one to prosper during the forties. The Martin Orchard, located just north of Sturgeon Bay, boasted 750,000 trees, the largest cherry orchard in the world at that time. A neighbor, the Reynolds Orchard, tended 550,000 cherry trees. Ironically, a good season during the 1940s produced 400 million pounds of cherries in the U.S., all of which sold; present-day growers produce 300 million pounds of cherries and cannot sell all of them to a much larger population. The reason? Today’s high prices, orchardmen agree.
Despite his apparent success, Art Friedlund maintained that the only time the orchard made him any money was when he sold it in 1950 and bought stock in American Canteen. The new owners called their enterprise the Rolson Orchard, combining the names Roen and Olson. One of the co-owners, Captain John Roen, was a Norwegian immigrant who ran a big maritime salvage operation and was at one time half owner of the Sturgeon Bay Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, and now Bay Shipbuilding Corporation. Doc Olson, the orchard partner, was a prominent physician in Sturgeon Bay with patients that attributed his doctoring skill to a sixth sense. Cap Roen was at the helm of Roen Orchard alone from 1953 until Sam and Sadie Goldman purchased the property in 1958. The orchard flourished under their hands, but unfortunately, with the end of the marriage came an end to the orchard partnership. In 1968, the orchard was managed by a trust established through the Bank of Sturgeon Bay.
And shortly after, in 1970, Wink Larson decided to try his hand at orchard work.
Audrey recalled that first year. “It was a hassle,” she said. “We still owned the ski hill, and I ran that while Wink took care of the orchard.” The Omnibus ski hill, located south of Fish Creek, is no longer a Larson property. And the orchard runs more smoothly now. At least when the bureaucrats stay away. But that comes later.
The Larson Orchard is smaller than it was in its prime. Of the original 740 acres, only 450 remain. “I can’t afford to keep it,” Wink explains. “Land assessors make you a millionaire, except without any money. I tell the assessor I couldn’t sell it for half of what it’s assessed at.”
Despite his grumbling, Wink Larson is not headed for the poor house. While he plans to continue to sell off parcels of the land, he will keep at least 250 acres for orchard production. And the business will continue under the direction of Wink Larson’s son, Mitch when Wink hands over the reins. Presently Mitch and Dale Seaquist own and manage a cherry processing plant located on the Larson Orchard. (John McCool, an owner of twelve processing plants in Michigan, jokingly called Wink “the meanest S.O.B. of a father in the world” for selling Mitch the plant.)
But in the meantime, he has plenty to do to keep himself busy. The Larson Orchard consists of 120 acres of apples and another 40 acres of cherries. At the peak of the season, he hires as many as 40 workers, many of the same people year after year.
The Cortland continues to be the number one apple at Larson’s. “It’s the best all-around apple,” Wink explains. “It’s firm, it keeps.” The second most popular apple is the Delicious, a favorite eating apple for many people. The McIntosh, which used to be extremely popular, has fallen to third place, probably because it is softer than a Cortland and breaks down faster.
Other varieties to be found at Larson’s Orchard include Jonathans, McMahons, Northwest Greenings, Patton Greenings, Dudleys (an old early apple), Wealthies, and Yellow Transparents. No, he does not grow the popular Granny Smith apples. “They’re just a greening apple,” Wink laughed. “There’s nothing special about it. I think it’s just popular because of the name.”
About seventy percent of the Larson apples are sold locally through their outlet stores. The remaining apples are sold to Michigan processors and the Krier Preserving Company in Sturgeon Bay for sauce or juice.
Two of Wink Larson’s touches have made the retail store a popular place. At the end of the driveway sits a huge barrel filled with free sample apples. And inside the store sits a jug of cold cider and an urn of hot cider (Freshly pressed at the orchard), again free samples. It is very difficult to sample orchard produce and then leave empty-handed.
A showroom full of produce belies the effort and the headaches involved in nurturing and then harvesting the crop. While the cherry industry has become largely mechanized, apples still have to be picked and graded by hand. However, growers of both fruits have come to rely heavily on the findings of horticulturists, such as Dr. Gilbert at the experimental station operated by the University of Wisconsin just north of Sturgeon Bay. Clifford Ehlers, the Door County Horticultural Agent, serves as a clearinghouse, providing up-to-date recommendations regarding sprays and fertilizers and time of application that he has gathered from researchers. Sprayers, high-pressure affairs using air rather than water to disperse the chemicals have improved, too. Some growers prune with hedging machines, but because they are expensive and not as effective as hand pruning, Larson doesn’t use them.
Planting has changed also. Wink recalls a time in the past when the least productive portion of a farm was reserved for the orchard. He remembers helping his grandfather, John Larson, plant cherry trees. “We’d use a crowbar to chip away at a crevice and then stick in a half stick of dynamite with a wick fuse, light it, runoff, and let it blast away just to get a hole to plant a cherry tree in.” He laughed. “Then the tree was supposed to grow in that big hole!”
One of the biggest problems apple growers face is that the price of apples has not kept up with inflation. Every year the cost of equipment and chemicals escalates, but the $5.00 per bushel wholesale price has remained constant for the last ten years. “It’s killing the business,” Wink claimed. “With a $40,000 assessment on a 40-acre tract, there is no way you can get a return on your money. You might as well sell-off in five- or ten-acre plots and let people build houses on them.”
The productivity of Northern Door soil is a problem, too. It is difficult for the peninsula’s thin, rocky turf to compete with the rich orchard sold in Michigan.
And, ironically, the mechanization which makes the cherry industry so efficient is also working to kill it. “Imagine how you’d feel if your feet were set in concrete, and then some came up with a cherry shaker and fastened it onto your leg. It cuts the lifespan of a cherry tree from about 35 years down to 20, and when you remember that it takes six or seven years for a cherry tree to get into production, you’re left with only ten to twelve years of production.”
With the headaches and the diminishing financial return, why would anyone stay in the orchard business? “I don’t want to see all of Door County become a subdivision,” Wink answered. And he enjoys watching the fruit trees go through their seasonal change. “They look like they’re dead in the winter. Then in spring, you see those little green sprouts, and then the blossoms, and then the little fruit.” Anyone who has tended crops or even a garden knows what he means. “I like being a part of nature. It’s a clean-cut, fresh life.”
“I like all of the good people you meet in the store,” Audrey added, and Wink agreed. Many of the same people come back year after year. “And you get the winters off,” Audrey laughed.
However, Wink is not the sort to sit around and relax. He has maintained a broker’s license for years and has recently become more active in real estate work. And he is toying with the idea of making cherry and apple wine at the orchard. “We have the cherry and apple juice,” he said, “and the equipment – a German press, vats, pumps, and piping. We just have to go through the legislation.” He’d also like to plant some grapes, as a “way to keep some land from being developed as condos.”
Of course, Wink still finds time for politics. But while still a Democrat, he is no longer Democratic Party Precinct Committee Chairman, a position he held for many years. He laughed remembering the frustration and accompanied such a job in a county predominantly Republican.
I asked Wink if he saw any changes coming in his own life if he was considering retiring from orchard work, “I always said I was going to retire when I was fifty, but I didn’t,” he laughed. “Of course, everyone around here says I’ve been retired for fifteen years. I’m lucky to have a hard-working wife and a hard-working son.” He laughed again. “No, I have no plans for retirement.”
Louis Koessl comes to mind again, animated with memories of orchards from the past. It is said that sailors get the salt sea spray in their blood, and never really leave the seas until death. I suspect that the sap which surges every spring through the limbs of apple and cherry trees gets into the blood of orchardmen as well.