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.
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
Family 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.