Cider Making in the Keweenaw: Central and Copper Harbor, MI

CENTRAL, MI – If ghosts are what remain when people move on to the next realm, the ghosts of the Central Mining District are round and juicy and plentiful and multicolored. They’re apples. Tens of thousands of them, a legacy and an inheritance that Keweenaw residents cash in every October.

I was lucky enough to join in the harvest this year, making apple cakes, apple hand pies and for the first five times in my life, apple cider. Cider-pressing is a decent amount of work, so most effectively done as a group activity. Four of the five times I helped made apple cider I did it in Central.

Not a ghost town! Very much alive.

The town was built by the management of the Central Copper Mine to house as many as 1,200 workers in its 1856 to 1898 heyday. Now the town’s down to population two. But if your town is only going to have two men in it, you could do a lot worse, in my estimation, than Jim Vivian senior and junior.

They find and chop their own wood, build and renovate houses, forage for food and medicine, hunt and cure meat, and, to the point of this article, make world-class apple ciders both soft and hard.

Jim Senior was kind enough to take me out in his Kaboda, show me the foundations where the Cornish miners’ houses once stood, and the apple orchards that remain, long after the last miner drifted away. Some of these trees are twice his age, nearing 150 and the end of their productive lives. Most are younger, though, boughed under a burgeoning of fruit that we shake onto a plastic tarp, entangling a rake in the branches and pulling it, like Quasimodo tolling a bell.

A fifth-generation Keweenaw resident with mining roots, the elder Vivian has been working to re-invigorate Central as an historic attraction since he moved here more than 20 years ago, not long after the Keweenaw Historical Society bought it.

“In 1996, the historical society acquired 32 acres of the town and restored a number of the houses, created hiking trails, opened a visitor’s center, designated the area as the Central Mine Historic District and began offering tours,” according to  the Detroit Free Press.

The younger Jim, “Jimmer”, moved to Central more recently, doubling Central’s population. Their two houses sit side-by-side (with a modern “outhouse” between) and I imagine in the case of zombie apocalypse, half the area would make a beeline for the Vivian compound.

My first-ever apple-pressing was at Central’s annual community cider-making, and I took further advantage of the Cornish apple-tree bounty, making cider three more times with the Jim Vivians and Meg Vivian North and her husband (also Jim) North. That last time four of us pumped out something like 10 gallons of cider, in full-on no-messing-around production mode.

A mixture of apples from many trees is said to make the best cider. But I did go out of my way to make one single-apple gallon at the annual Copper Harbor pressing put on by Bricks Brewery royalty Jessica Coltas and Jason Robinson.

The apple I used was one of six researchers selected this fall from among 200 trees they tasted from looking for possible candidates for their heirloom orchard. The apple’s shape is called “sheepsnose,” and its flesh is tinged with pink.

A beautiful balance of acids and sugars, the single-press cider was too amazing not to share with everyone I met for the next two days. Here is a video of some of the apple shaking, picking, washing, demolishing, pressing, straining and drinking.

Apple cider pressings bring the community together in Central and Copper Harbor, MI.

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