Since the late 1800s, the term “Michigan’s Fruit Belt” has been popularly applied to the narrow swath along the western side of the state, extending from about St. Joseph to the Traverse City area. The region is favored with fertile soil, rolling topography and a climate adapted to growing most fruit grown in the temperate zone. The modifying effects of Lake Michigan keep extreme temperature swings to a minimum, protect the fruit trees from frost in late spring and early fall, and the region generally receives consistent rainfall. Before the days of highway trucking, the transit of fruit via railroad or ships on Lake Michigan allowed access to large markets like Chicago and Milwaukee.
Although the term “agritourism” has come into popular use in recent times, the idea took root in the Fruit Belt more than 100 years ago. Tourists and travelers along Michigan’s west coast have been drawn to farms, farmers markets and festivals for years. Motorists traveling along the West Michigan Pike (now U.S. 31) might have heeded an advertisement from the 1914 guide to that old road that, “No tour through Michigan is complete without a ride through the famous Fruit Belt.”
Farmers often would set up stands along roads and highways catering to travelers and vacationers hungry for fresh fruit. The Benton Harbor Fruit Market, established in 1860, claims to be the world’s largest market for fresh produce. The “cash to grower” wholesale produce market still caters to food brokers and distributors, with hundreds of farm families selling their crops, while smaller farms supply produce to retail customers. Although a current trend in agritourism today, it was common in years past for hotels, resorts and inns to advertise fresh fruits and vegetables from local sources in their menus.
Motorists could view vast orchards of blossoming trees in the springtime. South Haven celebrated the blossoming peach, apple, pear and plum trees in its annual Blossom Festival. The cherry orchards on the Old Mission Peninsula near Traverse City were host to the annual Blessing of the Blossoms.
A few farms opened their doors to vacationers during the summer months. The best known of these was the Tabor Farm in Sodus, halfway between St. Joseph and Berrien Springs. Established in 1893, it operated until 1990. Tabor Farm was more than just a summer resort, it was a country estate set down on 160 acres. The old-fashioned “farm touch” affected not only the dining room but also the whole life of the place. By 1941, 30 acres of the farm were covered by vineyards, 20 acres by apples, 10 acres by peaches, 6 acres by cherry trees and 4 acres by berries. There also were pears and plums. The guests were encouraged to pick and eat all the fruit they wanted in season. As expected on an old-fashioned farm, there were horses, cows, pigs, chickens, geese, ducks and, of course, dogs and cats. The “farm” grew over the years to include a 9-hole golf course, a swimming pool, 26 private cottages and a large farmhouse hotel.
The interest in agritourism has sprouted an interest in collecting fruit crate labels. Alpine Ridge “hydro-cooled” Michigan pears and prunes were shipped by Edward Pitsch Produce, along with “stero-cooled” Michigan peaches. Pitsch also shipped “Orchard Flavor” Michigan apples from his Comstock Park warehouse. The Oceana Canning Company of Shelby produced “Oceana County” water-packed Montmorency cherries. Also, from Shelby was the N.J. Fox & Sons farm, growers and packers of cherries, peaches, plums and apples. Great Lakes Fruit Industries operated out of Benton Harbor, advertising, “Nature’s favor makes Great Lakes flavor.”
BLUE Vintage Views columnists M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson reside in Grand Rapids. They are authors of the book “Vintage Views Along Scenic M-22 including Sleeping Bear Dunes.”