Skip to content Skip to left sidebar Skip to right sidebar Skip to footer

A Denney for Your Thoughts – Why would the apple fall far from tree? (Oct. 7, 2015 issue)

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, right? A fourth-generation grower in the Coffee Ridge community knows why. Selling apples from a building he built himself, Michael Willis remembered working after school to tamp sawdust into holes around supporting posts for one nearby, which his Dad built years ago.
Michael (Roy to his co-workers at Nuclear Fuel Services) is one of 11 children born to the late Franchard and Estella Willis, who made their home in the nearby rock house. He now has his own family and lives not far away on Apple Tree Lane. Come January, when he turns 62, he intends to retire from NFS after 43 years, but not from apple farming.
Noting that the whole family worked, he remembers nothing was said about days missed in grammar school, as they knew you were working. They grew crops other than apples, including potatoes for Bristol-based Moore’s and Terry’s potato chip companies. They dug potatoes when it was snowing. Then the price dropped to 97 cents per 100 pounds.
Work ethic was not all Michael learned from his father, whose motto, Michael says, was “If you’ve not learned something new today, you’ve wasted it.” That from a man with a fifth grade education who could have been an engineer, his son says, easily calling him “way ahead of his time.” He learned, too, that if a neighbor needs help, you go.
“I wouldn’t take a million dollars for it,” Michael said of a machine he uses to separate apples according to size. His Dad built it 35 years ago after looking at one in North Carolina. Another time he built a potato digger, after seeing one.
He could build anything and figure in his head faster than someone with a calculator. Others came to him with questions, Michael recalls, and he would ask them to give him a few days, then find a solution.
When chemicals used for spraying trees didn’t mix well with the cold mountain water, he experimented by adding apple cider that had turned to vinegar until he found a solution. When the county agent saw how his trees looked and asked what he did differently, Franchard shared information that wound up in instruction manuals.
As he carries on the tradition dating back to his Great-Grandfather David Ephram, carried forward by his Grandfather Jasper Willis and his own Dad, Michael says it’s a one-man operation now, but he does hire “local boys” to pick apples. With pruning, spraying, planting, there’s year-round work. Production has been pared down, though, to 1,200 bushels that sell in four to five weeks. He has 700 trees on seven acres and raises 12 varieties. He tells customers which are good for cooking or freezing.
As he looks around to the homes of uncles, aunts, cousins, Michael says he is related to almost everyone. When I asked why he thinks generations choose to continue to make their homes there, Michael got a well-where-else-would-they-want-to-be? look on his face. It turned to a big smile, as he remembered a man comparing the community to Eden and quoted as he pointed, “‘and, the apple tree is right down there.’”