Midwest Fruit Belt
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: MARCH/APRIL 2004)
You've heard of being in the right place at the right time. Under a springtime robin's-egg-blue sky, as your car dips and twists on roads that wind through acres of tidy grapevines and tousled fruit trees overflowing pink and white, it hits you: This is what that perfect fusion of place and time feels like.
When April tumbles over to May, this southwest Michigan region at the bottom tip of the Midwest's fruit belt -- our most prolific fruit-bearing area -- offers a postcard-perfect image. The abundance of fruit trees is the key here. Long before their branches turn harvest-time heavy, they're lit with blossoms. These beautiful byproducts alone are reason enough to jump in your car, roll down your windows, and head out for a spring day's drive on the winding two-lane roads of and around Berrien County.
There's so much happening in this region now, just after the last bit of snow has melted. Shimmering, blue Lake Michigan is always a sight (and, incidentally, its climate-moderating effect helps make the blossoms possible). Cruising among small lakeside towns and those that dot the countryside, you'll come across orchards, wineries and the historic Blossomtime Festival -- all beautiful reasons to stop and stretch your legs, while soaking in southwest Michigan's springtime beauty.
Peeling red-and-white barns and well-traveled gravel roads attest to the area's lengthy agricultural history. More than 200 years ago, the region's first apple orchard was planted on the banks of the St. Joseph River. The fruit flourished, and others followed -- peaches, apricots, plums, pears, strawberries and cherries.
This fruit industry was well underway in 1906, when the Reverend W. J. Cady blessed the blossoms and encouraged his Benton Harbor parishioners to drive their horse-drawn wagons through orchards to view them. So began the official Blessing of the Blossoms, the nondenominational service that opens the Blossomtime Festival, a weeklong celebration during the anticipated prime flowering time at the end of April and beginning of May that unites about two dozen agricultural towns.