A little bit of Americana
On the northern edge of Dexter, where the Huron River flows into town, stands the oldest cider mill in continuous use in the state, and one of the few still using wooden presses.
"We still have the original washer, grinder, and crusher," says Richard Koziski, who owns the Dexter Cider Mill with his wife, Katherine. "People from the Henry Ford Museum have been here to observe. We share stories back and forth."
The site has been used since 1836, when Peninsula Mills started grinding flour here. In 1838 a sawmill and wool plant were added. The plant made yarn for stockings and blankets.
In 1886, William Van Ettan and a Mr. Tuttle built the two-story red-painted wooden cider mill. Apples were delivered to the second floor, where they were washed and ground into a mash called "pomace" that fed the press on the first floor. The river provided water for the twelve-horsepower steam engine and also helped keep the finished product cool. An early record reports that the mill "ran day and night in 1887 and produced 100 barrels in 10 hours." The owners shipped the cider, along with jelly they also produced at the mill, to markets by railroad.
Michigan was, and still is, a good state to grow apples. "Known as the 'Variety State,' Michigan is fortunate to have the type of climate that provides cool nights to build flavor, sunlight for color, and rain to swell the apple," Katherine Koziski writes in the introduction to The Dexter Cider Mill Apple Cookbook.
Besides making cider to sell at market, the mill also pressed farmers' apples for their own use. Longtime Dexter residents remember seeing long lines of horse-drawn wagons (and later trucks) filled with apples as farmers waited their turn outside the mill.
"Cider was a substitute for water," says Richard Koziski. "Wells at the turn of the century were often shallow and became polluted." Farmers could also let their cider turn to vinegar for preserving or cleaning, or to hard cider for recreational drinking.
In 1900, John Wagner bought the mill. It stayed in the family for three generations, as his son Otto took over, followed by Otto's son Frederick. It was the Wagners who, in 1953, installed modem bottling equipment. Middle-aged people in Dexter remember earning extra money as schoolkids washing one-gallon glass bottles for a penny apiece. The mill also used to make pasteurized apple juice and grape juice, using grapes from the Paw Paw area.
After Frederick Wagner died in 1981, his widow, Katherine, continued to run the mill with help from her children until the Koziskis purchased it in 1987. The new owners have tried to keep the mill as historically authentic as possible. The only major change is an addition, built in the style of the mill, where the Koziskis' son-in-law, Roger Black, runs an upscale produce market.
The cider mill is open from mid-August to mid-November. The Koziskis buy their apples from small family-run farms, and the whole family pitches in to help—including Katherine Koziski's mother, who makes pies.
Fall is usually a frantically busy time—but it's also a lot of fun, says Richard Koziski. "It's a little bit of Americana," he says.