For more than 300 years, making cider has been a fall tradition in southeast Michigan. The French who founded Detroit in 1701 planted vast orchards, and even before they matured began pressing cider from native crab apples.

Those first efforts reportedly tasted “bitter as gall,” but by the 1730s, Detroit cider had gained a noted reputation and was being exported to outside markets and military outposts. Detroit was presumably the source of the “cider and stronger beverages” consumed at cofounder Elisha Walker Rumsey’s coffeehouse during Ann Arbor’s first harvest celebration in 1825.

Washtenaw County was founded by people from New England and the Finger Lakes region of New York. Both were historic cider-making areas, and the settlers soon planted orchards of their own.

“A Washtenaw Farmer” wrote that in 1827, “I bought a few apples in Detroit, and on my arrival home, I planted some of the pips. In due course, they grew into trees and were planted out as an orchard.” By 1841, that farmer was making cider. Many other county orchards grew from stock sold by Ezra and Z.K. Lay, who in 1833 brought 25,000 fruit trees from New York and established a nursery in Ypsilanti.

Apples were an extremely useful product to early farmers, and cider was one of the main ways of preserving the calories and nutrition of the fall harvest. It was also a cheap and abundant source of alcohol.

When nineteenth century sources refer to cider, they mean what most of us today would call hard cider, or fermented, alcoholic apple cider. In the era before refrigeration and pasteurization, the sweet cider we enjoy at the cider mill today was a temporary pleasure, because it would quickly begin fermenting due to the wild yeasts in the apple juice and on the milling equipment. Anyone who has forgotten about a gallon of cider in the back of the fridge has seen, and perhaps tasted, this process at work.

Pioneer farmers stored freshly pressed cider in oak barrels in cellars or barns, where it would naturally ferment over the winter, turning into a tart, dry, and often funky beverage of 6 to 10 percent alcoholic strength. Cider was consumed by all members of the family, including children, who drank a watered-down “ciderkin,” with 2-4 percent alcohol.

A small homestead orchard could produce hundreds of gallons of cider in a single season, and many Washtenaw County farmers cellared up to sixty barrels for their own use. And by the 1850s, commercial cider-making was an important local business. The county’s earliest documented cider mills are David Henning’s mill in Ypsilanti (by 1855), Curran White’s 1856 Chelsea Planing and Cider Mill, and George Wiard’s ca.1861 cider mill in Ypsilanti Twp. Wiard’s is still in business today, and Henning went on to become a millionaire with his extensive apple and barrel-making businesses. He opened cider mills in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor and became known as the “Chicago Apple King” by shipping more than 100,000 barrels of Michigan apples (and cider) every year to the Windy City and beyond.

The 1860 agricultural census reported that Washtenaw County was Michigan’s leading producer of orchard products, and hard cider continued to be a popular alcoholic drink even as German-owned breweries proliferated.

John Williams built a large cider mill and fermentation barn at the corner of Webster Church and Farrell roads in 1867. Williams pressed the fruit on the south side of Farrell and piped the juice across the road to his cider house, where it was fermented. Williams, whose cider house still stands as the Crossroads Community Center, is said to have produced a “champagne-like cider,” a “men’s cider,” a “women’s cider,” and “cider for small boys.”

German immigrants’ preference for lager beer is often blamed for the decline of cider in America, but of the 119 ‘Washtenaw cider mills I have discovered in historic records, more than a third were owned by German Americans. This is perhaps because a majority of Washtenaw’s German population came from Swabia, in southern Germany, where Apfelwein was a popular beverage.

In 1899, Jacob Aray, his sister Martha Aray Day, and brother-in-law Benjamin Day made 1,500 barrels of cider annually at their mill in Pittsfield Twp. Before the Civil War, the Aray farm was a station on the Underground Railroad, and an African American family of cider makers is known to have run a mill on Michigan Ave. But very little has been written about African Americans and cider making, though they played a very large role in the southern states.

As the temperance movement gathered steam in the 1800s, cider occupied a gray area. Early reformers encouraged cider and beer as temperate alternatives to distilled spirits, but more extreme prohibitionists targeted cider, too–one Ann Arbor paper called it “The Devil’s Kindling Wood.” But the German immigrant populations of Ann Arbor, Chelsea, Dexter, and Manchester vehemently opposed any restrictions.

The importance of cider to local farmers appears to have been one of the main reasons an attempt to pass a local ban failed in 1888. Afterward, the Ann Arbor Argus wrote, “Our cider men, Fiegel and Aray, are still pressing out that good temperance drink, cider.”

1880s and ’90s were boom times. In 1887, Fred Parker built a cider and vinegar mill on Fleming Creek, which still stands at Parker Mill County Park. The same year, at the cost of $1,800, George Aprill of Scio Twp. built a 20-horsepower steam-‘powered cider mill at his farm on Scio Church Rd., primarily for the production of apple jelly.

George D. Wiard of Ypsilanti built a $10,000 factory for the production of cider vinegar, refined cider, and evaporated fruit. J.H. Barr and Son had another large mill in Saline, which was capable of pressing 3,000 gallons of cider in a single day.

In 1909, Washtenaw County had 102 cider mills of various sizes in operation. Though much of their production was being used for hard cider, more profitable cider vinegar and apple jelly were becoming important, mass-produced products, shipped around the country and internationally. The Ann Arbor Fruit Works, later known as the Ann Arbor Fruit and Vinegar Co., was started by G. Frank Allmendinger and Gottlieb Schneider in 1885. They converted and enlarged an old bottling works into a three-story cider factory behind their Ann Arbor Central Mills on S. First (now the Circ Bar).

In 1903, Charles E. Klager built a cider mill at 611 S. Main St. that used a gas-powered hydraulic press from Mt. Gilead, Ohio. Historic Alber Orchards and Cider Mill in Freedom Twp. still use their original 1890 Mt. Gilead Cider Press.

In May of 1918, two years before the nation went dry with the 18th Amendment and Volstead Act, Michigan completely abolished the sale of alcohol. But because apple processing was a major component of the agricultural economy, and because alcoholic cider “makes itself” without human intervention, even during Prohibition farmers were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of fermented cider per year for their own use.

Charles Klager’s cider mill continued to advertise “Sweet cider. Fresh daily. Bring your jug,” through 1925. It is anybody’s guess what was done with that jug once it left the mill. But while some cider mills were able to adapt to the new “dry” landscape, of the 119 cider mills that I have identified, only twenty-four were started after 1920.

The German community in particular resisted prohibition, and continued to make beer, wine, and cider at home. Because buying beer was illegal and expensive, hard cider became an economical alternative. Gottlob Schumacher recalled drinking it at Ann Arbor’s Schwaben Halle in October of 1923. Later in the decade, Wilhelm Metzger was fined $100 and placed on probation for five years after he was found to have been serving hard cider at his restaurant.

In addition to Prohibition, apple growing in the region took a big hit in the early years of the twentieth century due to outbreaks of pests and disease and the decline of the diversified family farm. Michigan’s apple industry began consolidating and shifting to the west side of the state, and railroads led to competition from national growers. The Great Depression further destabilized the area’s small family orchards, and urbanization disconnected many people from farm life, in which cider making (and drinking) played a large role.

Urban sprawl also took a toll. As late as 1940, an aerial photo showed large orchards covering the top of Broadway Hill, as well as along Traver, Sunset, and Newport roads. In the post-war years, these would all be swallowed up by housing developments.

But the advent of car culture also allowed people from growing cities to take short day trips, creating new opportunities. Some cider mills survived by focusing on direct-to-customer sales of sweet cider and donuts, as well as family entertainment and nostalgia for the past. Growers like Nemeth Orchards and Wasem Fruit Farm also sold directly to consumers at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, and still do.

Cutting out the middleman saved local cider mills, as did Michigan law permitting unpasteurized sweet cider to be sold directly to consumers. Though it carries a small risk of E. coli contamination if the fruit is not handled properly, the taste of the untreated cider right off the press is so much fresher that many aficionados do not even consider pasteurized cider to be cider at all.

The Dexter Cider Mill is a great example of a traditional cider mill. Michigan’s oldest continually operated cider mill, it was founded by Civil War veterans Smith Tuttle and William Van Natter in 1886. John Wagner purchased it in 1900, with his son Otto later taking over operations.

“Frankly, we can’t compete with the large growers, the big guys in the western part of the state,” Otto’s son, Frederick Wagner, lamented in a 1966 article. He said that he was not encouraging his kids to follow him into the cider business, as “it’s a passing thing.” But the family held onto the mill for another twenty-one years, and the Koziski family, who bought it in 1987, still run it today. Thankfully, Fred Wagner was wrong, and the lines stretch out the door on any nice fall day.

While the Dexter Cider Mill and Alber Orchards provide a more historic experience, Wiard’s Orchards in Ypsilanti Twp. and Plymouth Orchards & Cider Mill in Superior Twp. have made themselves into fall entertainment destinations. Plymouth, founded by Mary Emmett in 1977, offers wagon rides through the orchards, a petting farm, a hay bale climb, and live music on the weekends. Wiard’s has taken the fall entertainment destination even further, with u-pick apples and pumpkins, a country store, corn maze, “Night Terrors” haunted thrill park, petting farm, and miniature golf course.

Traditional hard cider never came back after Prohibition. It was often cloudy from the wild yeast fermentation, and “funk” was not something that people in mid-century America were looking for in their beverages. But since the early 2000s, hard cider has followed beer in undergoing an artisanal renaissance. Today, Michigan ranks #1 in the nation in the number of hard cider producers.

In Washtenaw County, Blom Meadworks carries a line of ciders, including a traditional cider made from local apples. Recently, Ore Creek Craft Cidery opened in Pinckney. Obstbaum Orchards make hard cider and brandy in Salem. And local breweries Edelbrau Brewing Company, Salt Springs Brewery, and Arbor Brewing Company all make hard cider from Michigan apples.

Original Gravity Brewing Co. in Milan carries dry hard ciders made from Nemeth apples. The Dexter Cider Mill has returned to its roots and now makes a line of hard ciders, and Alber Orchard has plans to start producing hard cider from its heirloom apples.

When my wife Andrea and I moved to our 1860s farmhouse a few years ago, we returned cider making to our corner of the county, likely for the first time since Milton J. Steffe closed his nearby cider mill in the 1920s. We gather apples from friends’ yards, local orchards, wild roadside trees, and from our own property. It’s the perfect fall activity with friends and family, each operating a station: sorting, washing, grinding, and pressing the apples, then creating the perfect blend. While working, we drink sweet cider straight off the press, as well as last year’s hard cider. It is labor-‘intensive work that really makes me appreciate the 1,500 barrels that Jacob Aray and Martha Day pressed back in 1899.

After the pressing is done, the cider is hauled down into our cool, stone cellar to wild ferment over the winter. The next spring, when I taste one of our traditional farm ciders, I cannot help but feel connected to the cider makers of the past.