THROW BACK THURSDAY - Remembering Maxinkuckee Orchard

Phyllis (Norris) Schoonover stands outside the 1865 Norris farmhouse, part of the original Maxinkuckee Orchards farm.
By: 
Jeff Kenney
Citizen editor

-- SCHOONOVERS MAINTAIN LEGACY OF OLDEST COMMERCIAL ORCHARD IN TOWNSHIP, BOUND FOR NATIONAL REGISTER --

Autumn may be on the verge of giving way to winter, but as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, Culver area folk are still enjoying not only apples, but other foods accompanied by all things apple: cider, butter, taffy, or just plain apples themselves. It's a flavor sure to conjure up cherished, age-old memories for many, but perhaps none more than longtime residents of the Lake Maxinkuckee area, whose microclimate, especially on the east shore, may be especially conducive to the flourishing of apple trees.

And while many living Culverites today nurture fond memories of the last of a number of historic orchards in the area (that of the Bigley family, along 18B Road at the old Maxinkuckee Village), and the fame of the Vonnegut name on the lake has led to much discussion of the east shore orchard in that name, the earliest Maxinkuckee orchard was, well, the Maxinkuckee Orchard.

The site of Maxinkuckee Orchard -- near the intersection of 18B and Peach Roads -- is on track to be added to the National Register of Historic Places (likely next year, under the guidance of Marshall County architectural historian Kurt Garner), the same year the Norris family, in whose name the orchard and farm were established, will celebrate the centennial of its first family reunion on the lake.

THE WELL-KNOWN NORRIS NAME

The Norris name has considerable cache as regards the history of the lake area. The Maple Grove House farm and boarding house in years past was an early Norris property situated directly on the east shore of Lake Maxinkuckee.

The keeper of the family's legacy here today is Phyllis (Norris) Schoonover, whose great-great grandfather John Norris arrived here in the mid-1830s from Orange County, Vermont, walking between this area (staying briefly with a friend in Fulton County) and Michigan where part of his family also settled. While some Norris’s stayed further north, John settled in Union Township along with wife Lydia and some of their 15 children, during a time when a handful of fellow settlers joined the primary residents of the day, the Potawatomi Indians.

John Norris, says Schoonover, "wanted free land." Family legend has always held there was a log cabin on the site at the time. John's son Ransom -- in whose name the property actually was, with other son Asa settling on the property east, across Peach Road -- built the current house back in 1855 (the date is marked in shingles on the roof of the house).

Ransom first set out the first orchard on his farm in 1850, though he was both a farmer and carpenter, building caskets and cabinets among other things. Ransom's son, who would become the Reverend Schuyler C. Norris, the eighth of Ransom and Mary Norris' sons, returned to his childhood farm in 1897, by which time it had been purchased by strangers, and purchased it back into the family (Schuyler Norris would pass the house along to his son Everett, whose daughter Phyllis, by then having married Jim Schoonover, bought the house. More on that shortly). Incidentally, Maple Grove House, at today's 2805 East Shore Drive, was operated by Harvey R. Norris, another of Ransom's sons. In fact, the Norris Inlet, a stream tributary to Lake Maxinkuckee, was so named due to its nearness to the Norris land.
Another notable local Norris, Dr. Norman S. Norris, whose father Harvey was another of Ransom Norris' sons, practiced dentistry in Culver from 1904 until the late 1950s, first at Culver Academy and later in the town.

EARLY ORCHARD DAYS

The original, 1850 Norris orchard included around 100 trees ranging in type from Northern Spy to Red Sweet, Pinack, Winesap, Talfahawken, Crooked Limb, Belmont, Baldwin, Soire, to Fall Walden, Jeanette or Never Fail, Rhode Island Greening and Jenny Lind.

And while the Norris farm was hardly new to apple trees, family history indicates the date the business was launched (by Schuyler Norris) was 1901, with it registered formally with the post office in 1913 as Maxinkukcee Orchards, the name under which it operated commercially for the next half-century.

Union Township had at least six commercial orchards at one time, Phyllis Schoonover wrote in an article in the Fall, 2002 edition of the Marshall County Historical Society Quarterly. Land for another of the earliest commercial orchards, the Vonnegut Orchard, was purchased in 1910, operating until around 1944. Fred Banks said his father bought the farm in 1915 and set out the apple trees at that time. Other early orchards included Benedict's (on the historic family farm, a bit west on 18B Road), the Mow, and the more recent Bigley Orchard, which started in 1928, winding down in the late 1990s.

Schoonover points out most all of the orchards were on the east side of the lake, the lake giving some protection from late frosts and freezes, and the growing climate benefiting from the north and northwest winds blowing across the lake.

STORING AND SELLING

The Norris' first storage building, says Phyllis Schoonover, was built in the winter of 1935 and `36 (it still stands today), and was "state of the art, by Purdue," at the time. An addition to that structure was added in 1955.

"My mom said she wouldn't sign a note unless (my father, Everett) put an elevator in," she recalls. "They're stored in the basement and he was carrying each bushel down those stairs."

Phyllis recalls that her father would take orders each summer and fall, and customers would pick up their apples and pay for them at the time.

Business, says Phyllis, was robust, but "it was hard work."

Apple growing also requires plenty of water and her father tried to get NIPSCO to run electricity to the area to enhance irrigation, though the company required $500 from Norris and several other area residents, though Norris was the only one in the immediate area requiring the service, especially true since he'd planted a second orchard in 1928 and `29.

As a result, he developed a system using storage batteries, a windmill, and a gasoline engine. As a result, Schoonover remembers being the only rural resident in the area to grow up with electricity in her home, a rarity indeed in the 1930s.

Cider at the orchard was pressed commercially at Leiter Ford at Cline's sorghum and cider mill until it burned in 1950 (later at Fribley's in Bourbon and later in Rochester). Customers could buy Norris jugs or bring their own and have it filled from a barrel. Apple butter was made in large open copper kettles over an open fire.

Schoonover also recounts a Culver Citizen article divulging her father's foray into the dairy business, since 90 percent of the family's income had been coming in only during the fall, while cash was needed to operate, of course, year-round. Growing up in the 1930s, Schoonover says she can't remember the dairy operation -- which included only about ten cows, whose milk was sold to the Pure Milk Association -- not being a part of the family farm.

Everett Norris did "truck farming," selling a variety of vegetables, flowers, and fruit around Lake Maxinkuckee, mostly by horse and buggy. He also worked several weeks each winter for the Medbourn ice house on East Jefferson Street in Culver, a common annual income source for many area farmers. Schoonover recalls a Maxinkuckee Ice House which was a cooperative for local farmers, rather than a commercial venture.

LATTER DAYS

Phyllis Schoonover recalls helping pick apples in the fall, earning three cents per bushel ("On a good Saturday, I could get a dollar!"). Before the advent of mechanical combines, local farmers were glad of the cash they could make helping harvest Norris' apples in the fall. After World War II, however, the arrival of combines meant local farmers had their own work to attend to, leaving Norris in a lurch for pickers.

"He got some to work," says Schoonover. "He paid by the hour instead of by the bushel, so they would be picked right."

Unlike the Bigley operation during the postwar period, Everett Norris opted not to hire migrant workers for his orchard since, he said, he couldn't properly house them at the farm.

Phyllis recalls her father being happy when the pesticide DDT came in, so he no longer had to spray with lead and arsenic.
"Every summer," she says, "the silverware turned black from the sulphur."

None of which seemed to have much adverse effect on Everett Norris' longevity (he lived to age 95).

Norris said he had "pretty much quit operating the orchard " in 1965, according to a monograph on Norris family history, when he was 69 years old, though Phyllis Schoonover recalls he was still doing some orchard work by 1970 when he had a heart attack.

The older orchard was cut down, though much of the newer orchard still stands. Schoonover notes apple trees will produce, under proper care, for 60 years or more.

THE SCHOONOVERS

The closest school to the Norris family during Phyllis' childhood was the one-room structure still standing in the Maxinkuckee Village just up the road. Her brother attended it, though Phyllis and her sister attended Culver schools (Phyllis graduated valedictorian of her class in 1946).

The children, however, were not allowed to attend Culver schools unless Everett Norris carried a petition to close the Maxinkuckee schoolhouse, which he did.

"It would have happened sooner or later anyway," says Phyllis of the end of a school dying out as many small, one-room operations were by the 1930s. "But there were some hard feelings (in the area)."
Phyllis met Jim Schoonover at Purdue University where she had started a degree in Pharmacy. She dropped it to earn a Butler University degree in Organ Performance and Master’s degrees in Music History and, later at Indiana University, Library Science.

Jim Schoonover, who served in World War II, had earned his degree in Mechanical Engineering and worked for General Motors while the two lived -- for 42 years -- in Speedway, Indiana. A noted artist and cartoonist,

Jim's most visible work was the well-known racing-themed street signs at Speedway. Phyllis worked as the Music and Fine Arts librarian at Butler.

Her brother, meanwhile, convinced Everett he needed to sell the Norris farm to a family member lest it leave the family, so the Schoonovers bought it from him on land contract.

They were celebrating Everett's 95th birthday when he fell. He later died, in 1991, and the Jim and Phyllis Schoonover retired that summer to the old house in 1992.

Not content to sit idle, Phyllis worked for the Marshall County Historical Society as an assistant for a time, continuing as an active volunteer up to today (she's probably best known as editor and usually writer of the Society's quarterly newsletter).

KEEPERS OF THE LEGACY

There have been some internal changes to the house, which in many ways strikingly retains the feel of its historicity, and the family has opted now to hire out to have the external painting -- probably the greatest ongoing work challenge -- taken care of.

Reflective of Phyllis' studies and love of music is the presence of a full pedal pipe organ in the main living area, a "kit" made for her.

The paperwork has been turned in for the house's National Register status, with the official designation likely during State Fair season in August. That's the same month the Norris family will gather, 100 years after the first family reunion near Lake Maxinkuckee in 1916, to recount a remarkable local legacy.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In addition to the beloved Bigley Orchard of more recent memory, the other significant commercial orchard on Lake Maxinkuckee was the Vonnegut Orchard, which readers can learn more about in a past article here: http://thepilotnews.com/content/vonnegut-family-member-recalls-orchard-y...

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