Blake's opens its fall season with 75th anniversary celebration
If your fall bucket list includes a trip to the cider mill, apple and pumpkin picking, a corn maze, animal petting for the kids, and a haunted hayride, you can find it all at one location: Blake’s Orchard and Cider Mill in rural Macomb County, about an hour north of Detroit.
While many family-owned cider mills and farms around Metro Detroit offer a cornucopia of similar fall festivities, few, if any, match Blake’s Orchard and Cider Mill in terms of the breadth of activities, apple varieties, and elbow room. Blake’s may very well be the Disneyland of ciders mills and fall fun in southeast Michigan and beyond.
What’s more, the family-run operation, now in its third generation, pours libations most adults would enjoy after a day of autumn activities with the kids: hard cider. Blake’s is one of the largest producers of hard cider in the country.
With its cider press in full operation and trees laden with apples, fall is an ideal time to visit Blake’s Orchard and Cider Mill. And this fall is especially apt because the family enterprise is celebrating a milestone anniversary.
“We are especially excited to mark our family’s 75th year anniversary and welcome our returning and first-time guests to our properties this fall,” said Andrew Blake, president of the Blake Family of Companies. “The farm and apple orchards started it all in 1946, and, over the years, that expanded to year-round attractions, experiences and events that is now a tradition for many families and we are honored to create those memories for generations.”
To commemorate the family’s milestone, Blake’s has released a limited-edition Apple Pie Hard Cider, available in its Fall Bushel of Blakes, a dozen 12-ounce cans of a variety of the company’s autumn-inspired hard ciders. The new cider pays tribute to the family’s apple orchard roots with a base of dessert apples combined with hints of cinnamon and vanilla. It’s available on tap as well.
A family venture
Blake’s began as a family venture, the relocation of mom, dad and children from Detroit to the country. In a three-bedroom farmhouse in Armada, Gerald and Elizabeth “Lovey” Blake raised their 13 children while tending to a 100-acre farm with orchards of apples and fields of sweet corn. That first season, the family lost their apple crop because of frost, one of a series of setbacks endured over the years.
“It was a difficult time, something we didn’t really realize,” recalls Peter Blake, second generation and co-owner who cut his teeth driving bushels of apples and sweet corn to Detroit’s Eastern Market and a grocery chain warehouse. “The first 20 years on the farm were not financially successful. Our parents kind of sheltered us from economic woes during that time. What we didn’t know, we didn’t know.”
Andrew Blake, a third-generation family member who runs the company with his dad, mom, uncle and other family members, said his grandparents realized operating a commodities farm wasn’t going to work financially for such a large family. They noticed, too, that with more and more people moving into the suburbs, there was a yearning to return to farming roots and agricultural experiences.
So, in 1968, Blake’s built and opened a cider mill on their farm, a move that allowed Gerald Blake to give up his full-time job as a tool and die maker for Chrysler and devote his attention full time to the farm. The Blakes also opened up their orchards to customers, allowing them to pick their own apples. At the time, most farmers only allowed the public to come in and pick after the best fruit had been harvested.
“We wanted to let people come out and pick the prime stuff,” says Paul Blake, a second-generation family member and co-owner. “It was part of our philosophy of being family oriented and promoting family values.”
With those moves, the family business took a positive turn. In the early 1980s, Blake’s added a petting farm. And then they planted acres of Christmas trees, beginning a cut-your-own tree tradition. Later in the decade and beyond, Halloween-esque amenities, including a haunted attraction, haunted hayride and Zombie Paintball, became staples of fall entertainment.
“In order to stay relevant as agritainment, you have to diversify to keep the public interested and coming back,” Peter Blake says. “That’s one of our strong points as a family -- we try to be innovative.”
Today, Blake’s is a 1,000-acre farm and orchard, growing more than 40 apple varieties and other crops, including pumpkins, strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes and sweet corn. The operations also include a 100-acre Christmas tree farm, a cider mill and hard cider production facility and a host of family entertainment amenities. Its three locations include the recently renovated Blake’s Backyard, a more adult-geared venue with a tap room, marketplace and greenhouse and indoor/outdoor seating. About 10 family members help run the operations.
Blake’s Hard Cider has put the family-run enterprise on the national map. Its varieties are available in 20 states and the Blake’s produces about 850,000 cases a year. The company produces about a dozen varieties a year, including limited-edition flavors.
“We needed an agricultural product that we could produce that would be authentic to our story and something we could be served year round,” recalls Andrew Blake, who began tinkering with the making of hard cider while attending Michigan State University.
Andrew convinced his father and his uncle to put up a small tasting room on the farm as a trial business in 2013. Immediately, they struggled to keep up with demand.
“Customers loved it,” Andrew says. “Little did we know there was this huge demand. We found a distributor who was looking for an independent family craft cider. It all came about just at the time hard cider was growing in the alcohol beverage space. We’re fortunate enough to have not made too many mistakes along the way. We have a great community behind us.”
A year-round destination
As the years have passed, Blake’s has evolved to become a year-round destination, drawing generations of families in the fall and other seasons year after year. Its three locations attract about 2 million guests annually, making Blake’s among the most visited destinations in Michigan.
“Blake’s can definitely be considered a visitor attraction year-round because they developed some innovative events and festivals that draw an out-of-town crowd,” says Renee Monforton, vice president of marketing and communications at the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Autumn is a beautiful time of the year in southeast Michigan and cider mills are a definite attraction within our region, for residents as well as regional visitors.”
With the last of summer slipping into fall, farm and orchard activities are in full swing at Blake’s. Haunted weekend program will kick off Saturday and they include Zombie Paintball, Spookyland 3D Maze and haunted hayrides.
To also mark the anniversary, the family has introduced the Blake Community Scholarship Fund, a commitment to provide $50,000 in scholarships over the next 10 years to students planning to study agriculture or the skilled trades. The scholarships are available beginning with this school year, open to graduating seniors attending Armada High School or any Macomb County high school.
“It is still amazing to see how the humble family farm my parents built in 1946 has evolved and grown into what it is today,” Pete Blake says. “What has remained consistent over the past 75 years is our continued commitment to our community, environment and a passion for providing visitors with a memorable family experience. We look forward to sharing this special celebration with our loyal guests.”
Blake’s Orchard & Cider Mill
Open 8 a.m.- 7 p.m. Sun-Thur, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri-Sat.
Haunted Weekends: Sept. 18-Oct. 31, 6 p.m.-11 p.m. Sat., 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Sun.
Blake’s Nighttime Bonfires: Sept. 17-Oct. 30, 6:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
For more information about other events, visit blakefarms.com