By Julia Purdy
MENDON — The Mendon Mountain Orchards family is going on four generations this year with the arrival of Amelia Charles.
The apple orchards crown the hillside in Mendon where Route 4 begins its climb toward Killington and include 24 acres, planted with 18 heirloom and hybrid apple varieties. Large apple-shaped, hand-lettered signs along the roadside announce “U-Pick Apples.”
The business includes a farm store, an eight-unit motel, and a working farm that raises free-range laying and meat hens, pigs and rabbits. Pumpkins and seasonal potted flowers and herbs decorate the tables in the open greenhouse.
The shop sells free-range chicken and duck eggs, locally produced maple syrup, honey, meats, fresh cider and both free-trade and Vermont crafts and gifts. A Keurig machine dispenses a broad choice of coffee blends, but the business is perhaps best known locally for its pies and turnovers.
The store is open year-round, and also has a presence at the Rutland Farmers Market.
Mendon Mountain Orchards has been a landmark since it was established in the 1920s by Dr. John Martin Thomas, a theologian and alumnus (and former president) of Middlebury College. The property had several owners until 1982, when Millie and Fred Steingress bought it.
In 2014, Jon Charles and his wife, Brittany, bought the business and orchard from his maternal grandmother, Millie Steingress, now 94. Millie was the “financial genius,” her daughter, Beth Charles, said in an interview, and Millie still lives in the attached house.
Jon, a Rutland native, grew up in Mendon helping around his grandparents’ farm and orchard. He works in the orchard and at the Rutland Farmers Market while Brittany runs the shop, raises the livestock and manages the motel.
Jon’s mother, Beth, helps with the books, and both parents lend a hand when needed. And “everybody bakes,” Brittany said.
The fourth generation, Amelia, doesn’t have a formal job at the business yet.
The new street sign on Route 4 reads: “Gale Grove pvt.” Until 2013, the family relied on David Gale, the orchard manager, who died that year at age 88. He was the grandson of Dr. Thomas, attended schools here, joined the Marines in World War II, graduated from Cornell with a degree in horticulture, and became orchard manager.
“He was a huge help, but died the year before Jon bought the farm, so Jon was on his own,” Beth said.
Jon relies on Dr. Thomas’ original maps of the orchard that show where the varieties are planted. The old-time pruners could recognize most apple varieties by sight, Jon said in an interview.
With the exception of the retail shop and 1960s-era motel, the property keeps the appearance of a working farmyard. A handsome rooster and several hens step sedately around the lawn. There’s even a resident fox, who recently carried off most of the grown ducks. Household pets include two dogs, two indoor cats, three guinea pigs and six geckos. Brittany would like to have snakes, but “Jon wouldn’t let me.”
Brittany has always worked with animals and said she prefers them to people, in some ways: they take life as it comes and don’t complain.
Brittany, a Massachusetts native, attended Essex Agricultural and Technical High School in Hawthorne, Mass. She has family in Burlington, and moved to Vermont nine years ago. She was working at the North Main Street Feed and Seed store when she met Jon.
She credits Millie with the orchard’s famous pies and turnover recipes: “Grandma’s the one who was always the expert cook.”
Beth said she and her husband, Dennis Charles, didn’t know what they were getting into when they purchased the business. But between Millie, David Gale, learning as they go, and the fresh infusion of the energy and vision of Jon and Brittany, Mendon Mountain Orchards is holding its own.
“Diversification is the key,” Beth said.
Brittany said she feels good that Mendon Mountain Orchards can provide the community with food that’s healthy, and that she knows the animals have been raised right. She said it’s important for people to see where their food comes from.
During the interview a customer showed up to pick apples. Brittany equipped her with a classic, red-green-and-white handled paper bag for the apples, a picker pole and a map, and told her how to locate the picking rows to find Macouns and Northern Spys.