Mmmmmm … Michigan cherry pie!

cherry pie

Phil Power

Phil Power

Today’s piece is by former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power, a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center publishes the online Bridge magazine, where this article originally appeared. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments at [email protected]

July is cherry season, one of the great glories of summer in Michigan.

It’s a subject near and dear to my heart, as my ancestors were among the first people to plant Montmorency cherries (called “sours” to distinguish them from the dark red eating cherries, “sweets”) in northern Michigan.

My great- great grandfather, Eugene Power, started a family farm near Elk Rapids, today still a tiny town northeast of Traverse City, late in the 19th century. He was among the first local farmers to plant cherries, which thrived on the sandy, well-drained soil and for a time became the dominant crop in the area.

The location – between Grand Traverse Bay and Elk Lake – was perfect, as the lakes moderated the cold winter winds and usually delayed flowering in the spring until after the last frost. Even today, much of the land around Traverse City that hasn’t been raped by the developers remains in cherry orchards.

cherries on the tree10 cents for 30 pounds

My father, also called Eugene Power, remembered his first job was out on the family farm, picking cherries for 10 cents a 30-pound lug. That was a whole lot of cherries for a dime, but back in those days a dime went a whole lot farther than today. My grandfather, Glenn, who started out as a surveyor, helped lay out the newly planted cherry trees in long, straight lines.

There is a family picture of great-grandfather Eugene standing in his orchard, wearing a white shirt and necktie and a Panama hat, with a farm hand holding a pruning knife standing behind him.

It wasn’t easy being a pioneering family way back then. You couldn’t be sure the trees, once planted, would thrive or bear well. And there was always the risk of a late frost. Prices, too, bumped around a lot; a big crop meant low prices but high volume, while a small crop brought high price but low return. And capital, once lost, was very hard to regain.

A pioneering family

cherriesFamily legend says the Powers were all a bit eccentric. My ancestors left a secure position in Farmington – an Oakland County town they founded when they first came to Michigan in 1824 – to move up north and start a farm. My grandfather left the farm to become a businessman in Traverse City, while my father struck out on his own as an entrepreneur in Ann Arbor. And I started my own newspaper company, largely from scratch, in 1965.

But that was the way of the pioneers, my ancestors and the ancestors of countless Michiganders who made our state and our nation what it is and whose creativity and, well, eccentricity made all the difference in the new lands of the New World. Reflecting on this history makes me feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants looking back in pride on our accomplishments as a nation and hope at our shadowed future. It’s that spirit of hope and confidence that makes our July 4 national holiday so important to so many.

And so, just in time for the sour cherry season, here’s our family recipe for Montmorency cherry pie.

My father preferred his pie with vanilla ice cream. I’m more of a purist, so I skip the ice cream. But I do like the pie cold for breakfast.

Either way, it’s a delicious way to celebrate Michigan cherries and mark our national holiday.




A Cherry Apple Pie for Presidents Day


Parson Weems' Fable by Grant Wood

Parson Weems’ Fable by Grant Wood

I am a Scrooge when it comes to Presidents Day: Bah, humbug!

Abraham Lincoln in 1846, before his election to the U.S. House of Representatives

Abraham Lincoln in 1846, before his election to the U.S. House of Representatives

When I was in school we got two—count ‘em, two—days off in February, one for Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 and the other for Washington’s on February 22. Their actual birthdays were the actual holidays.

Then in 1971, our federal government decreed that most federal holidays would be celebrated on a Monday. A three-day weekend was nice enough for those of us in school or working in traditional office jobs – but it kind of took the wind out of the birthdays of two of our greatest presidents. I think the holidays had more meaning when they were celebrated separately.

What a relief that they didn’t change the date of Independence Day. Imagine celebrating the Fourth of July on July 2 or July 6! (Want to learn more? Stephanie Fenton’s Holidays column explores the strange history of Presidents Day.)

It’s still Washington’s Birthday

When I was doing research for this piece, I was astonished to learn that the official name of the holiday is still Washington’s Birthday. How would old George feel to know that his birthday is now always on a Monday? And how would old Abe feel knowing that he is officially ignored altogether?

I think Lincoln has always been my favorite president. He preserved the Union through a disastrous civil war. He was responsible for the passage of the crucial 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, even though it wasn’t ratified until after his death.

When I was younger I didn’t see nearly as much to admire in Washington. A great general, yes. Our first president? Big deal. Then in 1984 (was it really 30 years ago?) there was a wonderful TV mini-series about Washington starring Barry Bostwick. And I realized just how hard a task he faced as our first president.

George kept us together

We may have been “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” as Lincoln would put it fourscore and seven years later. But in 1776, and even in 1789 when Washington was elected (by the Congress, not We the People), who knew what that meant? Some of the early Americans actually wanted to make Washington our king! Luckily he would have none of that! The new nation could have easily fallen apart in its early years; indeed there were a number of rebellions against the infant federal government. It was Washington’s leadership that kept us from foundering.

Bobbie as a contestant on Jeopardy! in 2004

Bobbie as a contestant on Jeopardy! in 2004

Plus I’ve had a soft spot in my heart ever since George Washington helped me win second place on Jeopardy! 10 years ago. (My one and only game was broadcast on April 2, 2004.)

I was getting creamed by the guy who won that game by a wide margin and who went on to win about eight more. And due to a couple of stupid mistakes, I was in third place going into Final Jeopardy, which was in the category George Washington. The “answer” was this: “In 1798, George wrote to John Greenwood, a man in this profession, ‘I am …ready to pay what ever you may charge me.’”

I was no expert on GW. But I did know that George was famous for his ill-fitting wooden false teeth. So I guessed, “What is a dentist?” I was right! And I was the only one of the three contestants who got it right, salvaging a little bit of the ego that had been bruised by how poorly I’d performed in the game and moving me ahead of the third person.

A pie for two presidents

I promised you another pie recipe this week from Sweetie-licious Pies by Michigan pie-meistress Linda Hundt. This cherry apple pie is appropriate for both Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays because it’s an apple and cherry pie. Apparently Abraham Lincoln loved pies, especially apple. And of course we all know the myth about George Washington copping to chopping down his father’s cherry tree (first recorded in a book about Washington by Mason Locke Weems). What better excuse can there be to eat cherry pie every February?