Rite of fall: Donuts, cider draw crowds to Northville cider mill

James David Dickson
The Detroit News
People line up to enter Parmenter's Northville Cider Mill on Sunday.

Northville — As late summer turns to fall — with the smell of football in the air but games not yet on the screen — it's apple orchard season yet again in southeast Michigan.

For Emily Kushnirov, 31, of Northville, that means it was time for a trip to Parmenter's Northville Cider Mill for opening weekend.

"I grew up in Northville, so the opening of Parmenter's, it's a Northville day," she said Sunday morning. 

Opening weekend for the 146-year-old cider mill started a day prior, on Saturday, and its fall season will run through the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

Sisters, Tammy Bridges, left, of Madison Heights, Lesa Eickholdt of Madison Heights, and Debbie Mifsud of Northville, enjoy cider and donuts at Parmenter's Northville Cider Mill.

The 5-acre cider mill and brewery drew crowds of all ages, but mostly families exposing their children to a rite of fall in Michigan, one consisting of big laughs, sugary donuts, and tart cider. 

On Sunday Kushnirov returned to Parmenter's as a parent.

As son, Max, 3, played, and father, Vadim, 34, supervised him, Emily recalled memories of years gone past. She's pregnant with a girl who will someday join in the tradition. 

"That little shack right there, before they painted it  (like) Harry Potter, we used to write our names in it and write messages to each other," Kushnirov said, referencing a small building near the road. Then, pointing in the other direction, she said "there's a river back there that's always got a ton of ducks. It's a nice little hometown spot. It's fun to see (Max) enjoy it like I did."

Gallons of cider sit on the front counter of Parmenter's.

Cheryl Nelson, 71, is part of the third family to own Parmenter's. She and her husband, Rob, bought it in 1991, and their son, Rob, bought them out in 2006. 

In addition to a press room and a kitchen where the donuts are baked, Parmenter's also has an on-site winery, cider mill, and brewery.

The winery was created in 1982, more than a century into the facility's history. The brewery opened in 2014 and is open year-round, allowing for Parmenter's to have an all-seasons relevance it didn't have for most of its history, when everything centered around the fall.

Parmenter's has never had its own apple orchard, not from day one.

Cheryl Nelson, 71, is part of the third family to own Parmenter's. She and her husband, Rob, bought it in 1991, and their son, Rob, bought them out in 2006.

"Mr. Parmenter, when he bought it, he didn't need an orchard, because everything was an orchard, so people would just bring their apples in," Nelson said. "Everything along north and west of us was an orchard; it was nothing but apples. So he didn't need to have an orchard because farmers would bring the apples here, and he would purchase those from them."

But time has changed the geography around the cider mill. These days, Parmenter's is surrounded not by orchards, but by $1,000,000 homes in one of the toniest suburbs of Metro Detroit. There is no local ecosystem of farmers to rely on. For its apples, Parmenter's has to buy from growers on the west side of the state.

"It's more and more challenging," Nelson said of the facility, which only handles Michigan apples. "We truck our apples in from the west side of the state," as well as a grower in South Lyon and the Block's produce market in Romulus. "It's more of a challenge to get our apples in anymore. Somehow we are able to piece it together."

A bin of apples waits to be pressed into cider.

The Nelsons have always had to go west for their apples. The orchard system of old was gone by the time they bought the business.  

Nelson pointed to a box on the walk-up to the big building, which she said contained "18 to 20" bushels of apples. The press room would probably go through 15 boxes just on Sunday, she said. The facility started its opening week with about 30 boxes, until the next delivery arrives in a few days. 

Parmenter's three-month season is hampered by rain and extreme heat, Nelson said. On Sunday, though, the weather cooperated, with the high coming in just below 80 degrees. 

"It's very, very weather driven," Nelson said. "People want this weather, or to put their sweatshirts on. "Last year was a tough year because it started hot, then rain came in about mid-October."

Callum Gibbs, 22, brings gallons of cider from the packing and bottle freezer to the front counter for purchase.

While the high temperatures for the next week are expected to mostly hover around 80, the thunderstorms augured for Monday night and Tuesday afternoon will slow crowds considerably, Nelson said.

"We'll be dead in the water Tuesday," Nelson said.

Referencing the long line waiting to place orders for donuts and cider, she joked that Tuesday would be a good time for anyone to visit who wanted to beat the rush. 

Joe Martinez trekked to Parmenter's from Garden City. The location was not chosen at random.

It was part of his childhood, yes, but Sunday's trip was about more than nostalgia. It was about the food, too.

"We used to feed the ducks (in the Rouge River), even though you're not supposed to," Martinez said. "This is usually where we like to go, because they have the best donuts. They feel fresher, they feel softer, they're just better."

"I've been coming here my whole life," seconded Jackie, Joe's wife. Together on Sunday they exposed children Vivienne, 2, and Theodore, 6, to a tradition they enjoyed as children. 

"I remember going down by the creek every year and feeding the ducks, even though you're not supposed to," Jackie added. "Fall in Michigan, you think of cider mills. I want them to grow up with that memory."