‘Tis the season for reaping the bounty of Indiana and Michigan orchards of all types and sizes, though many in the area still cherish fond memories of the sights, smells and tastes of several once-prominent apple orchards at or near the east shore of Lake Maxinkuckee —be it the tangy bite of cider, the warm sweetness of apple butter on bread or the simple pleasure of biting into an apple not long removed from a nearby tree.
An unproven theory once prevailed that a sort of micro-climate — a kind of miniature version of the fruit growing ecosystem of Lake Michigan — existed off the high bluffs of Maxinkuckee’s east shoreline, conducive to apple growing.
Myth or not, three major (and a handful of smaller, such as the Benedict Orchard) commercial orchards operated on the lake between the late 19th and early 21st centuries, with Bigley’s Orchard on 18B and Queen Roads the best remembered by contemporary locals. Bigley’s operated from 1929 to 2000 and was designated a Hoosier Homestead Farm (which recognizes farms owned by the same family for 100 years) in 1978.
The same status was more recently awarded to the Norris Farm-Maxinkuckee Orchard near 18B and Peach Roads, which also was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2016. The Norris home, in fact, still bears the date of its construction, 1855, in the shingles of its roof today and was built in the wake of the arrival of the first Norris to the area in the 1830s. According to the writings of Phyllis (Norris) Schoonover, who today still maintains the family’s historical legacy, the first orchard on the farm had been set out in 1850.
Maxinkuckee Orchards operated as a business from 1901 to 1965 under the leadership of Everett Norris and with the help of family members — including Phyllis herself — and hired laborers.
Likely the longest-forgotten locally, but arguably most notable orchard on a more national scale (due to the fame of its name), was the Vonnegut Orchard, which was first purchased and laid out in 1910, though it began promoting its commercial operations in the early 1920s.
Famous author Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who spent childhood summers on the lake and praised its impact on his persona and writing — was the great-nephew of Emma Vonnegut, who held court over orchard operations with the aid of her son, Walter. The Indianapolis Star hailed Emma as the “most successful woman orchardist” in a 1930s article.
Vonnegut Orchard would eventually boast more than 1,000 trees and occupy a significant amount of land along the east shore of the lake south of and along 18th Road (in fact, the foundation of the orchard keeper’s home can still be seen just off the wooded, southeastern edge of the Culver Academies Golf course, even today).
Emma continued to oversee the business up to her death in 1939 at age 89, which brought an end to the orchard’s operations and within the ensuing decades, the last traces of apple trees from the once-prominent local landmark disappeared.
A tangible connection to the Vonnegut Orchard story saw something of a renaissance in recent years with the renovation, as close as possible to its original specifications, of the 1890 home of Emma Vonnegut and husband Clemens Vonnegut Jr by a group of Culver Academies graduates. The house, today known as The Clemens Vonnegut Jr. House, was Emma’s home with her husband before the latter died and Emma took up residence at the orchard property across the road. The Clemens house is a rental home and is also opened from time to time for history tours.
Surely the most widely-remembered Maxinkuckee orchard by area apple lovers was Bigley’s, headquartered on 18B Road at the site of the last east shore Potawatomi band, that of Chief Nees-Wau-Ghee.
In fact, the Bigley family began its tenure on the land just two years after the 1838 removal of the Potowatomi (known as “The Trail of Death”) with the purchase of land by John and Susanna Bigley. Their son Thomas, born in 1851, would clear the land which resided in what became known as the Maxinkuckee Village (some readers may have noticed that recent research and informational efforts have begun regarding the Village, under the direction of the Antiquarian and Historical Society of Culver), along 18B and extending east past Queen Road.
Thomas Bigley’s grandson, John Fisher Bigley, built a popular general store near the Maxinkuckee Landing whose iconic water wheel is still remembered by many locals. John also planted the family farm’s first apple and peach orchard in 1928, though it took another decade for fruit production to really take off.
Initially selling apples in the family’s front yard, John Bigley’s orchard fame grew such that, by 1940, his photo was featured on the cover of Hoosier Horticulturalist Magazine for his innovation and success as an orchardist.
By 1947, Bigley’s Orchard’s first storage building was constructed which also allowed for an orchard store, the farm now boasting some 3,000 apple trees and stretching across 65 acres along the west side of Queen Road. Bigley’s trucks began making the rounds not only to Culver buyers but stores in a variety of communities within a 75-mile radius. Eventually the business added a successful sales operation in Kentucky, where apple growing was difficult.
John’s son, David Bigley, who, with brother Bryce, has kept the family orchard’s history, told the Culver Citizen newspaper several years ago that crowds from as far away as Illinois flocked to the orchard store each fall, snapping up pies, donuts, Bigley-grown fruits and vegetables of all sorts, apples, apple butter (made by area Amish cooks from Bigley apples), and family-recipe apple cider, still recalled with abiding fondness by generations of locals.
Orchard patriarch John Bigley passed away in 1994 and his wife, Bea, three years later. Sales had already begun to decline, with John’s sons chalking up the change in part due to people cooking less from scratch with apples but especially to the growth of a culture of supermarkets and ‘big box’ stores, wherein large, cheaper supplies of fruit are often transported across country or even worldwide, rather than from local producers. Bigley’s Orchard was too small to compete with such volume but too large to sustain itself economically by selling to the handful of specialty markets still open to handling their fruit.
Labor, too, had become an increasing challenge for the family and so the year 2000 saw the official end of Bigley’s as a commercial operation.
Today, the old sign designating Bigley’s Orchard’s locale and its status as a Hoosier Homestead farm — in the same historic village where part of the great novel “Ben Hur” was written in the 1800s — still hearkens passerby to cherished memories of leaf smoke in the air and the lilting sweetness of those most quintessentially autumn tastes and smells of all things apple — traces of a rich orchard legacy off the east shore of Lake Maxinkuckee.