It was 1986. The guy trying to win my heart took me to a quaint little donut shop for apple turnovers one Saturday morning. That was the start of our beautiful relationship with Robinette’s, a multi-generational family owned fruit farm. One turnover multiplied into many over the next few years. Poor college kids, we didn’t always have enough money to buy donuts come the weekend, but when we did, we’d cuddle into the corner picnic table near the fireplace and plan out our picture perfect future together.
About the mid-90’s, that same guy and I, we started taking our first baby to Robinette’s for donuts. Pretty soon, the kids and donut purchases both grew exponentially.
I can’t remember the first year we climbed the ladders into the cherry trees with our metal buckets to hear ka-plink, ka-plank, ka-plunk, but it turned into a family tradition every year come 4th of July week.
When our nomadic life landed us at Kuyper College apartments for the summer, we felt giddy at the thought of living next door to Robinette’s. We unloaded our Grand Rapids or Bust Chevy Astro van, and headed over to the Apple Haus to celebrate.
Jim and Bethel served as both the patriarch and matriarch of the family business and the host and hostess for the farm. You’d find Jim tending the flowers he planted in the whiskey barrels out front, shining up his Model A truck right next to the 1884 farmhouse they lived in on the property or chatting with customers about interesting places and people he’d met all over the world. Bethel worked behind the counter serving customers and leading school groups visiting on field trips.
For more than 100 years, and 5 generations, this farm has been a family affair. Jim and Bethel’s sons, their wives and grandkids all work the farm too. Now, they are the ones adding innovations to grow their small business and make a family friendly impact on our community.
When Jim heard we were neighbors for the summer, he invited us to be back door guests. “Why don’t you just walk through the orchard to come over for donuts?” He offered. And so we did. We marked the years, the kids growing up like the apple sapplings planted in neat rows. There were 10 summers that we meandered back and forth, through the orchard, arriving about the time the apple trees first blossomed pink and leaving just as the first crop got picked, bagged and ready for purchase. And all our friends tagged along. We could have won a popularity contest in those days. Everybody wanted to come over to the Websters’ place to walk to Robinette’s. The kids ate donuts on the porch swing while us mamas chatted at a picnic table. Then, they’d play tag on the shady lawn over and around the mammoth, mature trees. Those were the golden hours of the best summers ever!
Fast forward that decade and our oldest needed a summer job to help pay for college, so she started selling donuts behind the counter instead of buying them. A few years later, the next kid needed work too and she served food at the lunch counter. Then, the third kid was trying to boost her savings account and landed her first job supervising the bounce pillow while drinking cider slushies. Exclusive employee perks. Then last year, the baby’s first paycheck came from guess where? Robinette’s.
We’re still regulars at the Apple Haus. Always on the lookout for the day olds. Stocking up on honeycrisp apples all fall. But last year, I could tell Jim wasn’t designing the flower arrangements in the whiskey barrels anymore. I didn’t see he and Bethel around the shop. Then, this May, right around the time the apple blossoms burst into bloom, I heard the sad news of Jim’s passing and a few weeks later, Bethel too, departed this life for eternity.
4th of July week rolled around in the weirdest year ever. COVID robbed us of our time-honored traditions—parading in Ada in the morning and fireworks at Reeds Lake at night. Late spring freezes stole Robinette’s cherry crop. Record high water levels on the Lake snatched away significant portions of our beaches and there’s a constant churning of unrest. Peaked unemployment levels erode individuals and families’ financial stability. Suspicion of anybody who coughs is fueling fear and paranoia about sickness and dying. Exposed injustice has amped up racial tension to boiling over, resulting in retributive vandalism and violence. And it’s another polarizing presidential election year.
It’s easy to pick apart what’s going wrong in America about now but there’s also a bunch of stuff going right.
Which brings me back around to Robinette’s.
Robinette’s represents quintessential Americana at it’s very best! America has been and still is a place where families can work hard- real hard, extremely, perseveringly hard– to build a life, a business, and a civic impact for good.
When the donut and cider line extends down Four Mile Road come Fall, it’s not just about donuts and cider.
It’s about tradition.
It’s about the simple pleasures of food and drink and family and friends and nature.
It’s where people come to delight in the goodness of all that God makes grow.
It’s a celebration of another year that’s come and gone leaving its unique fingerprint on each of our stories.
It’s a new batch of photos marking time and memories with people we love best.
In this rugged individualist culture, the Robinette’s are family rugged. Year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, they steward their land, their resources and their business with integrity. And they do it together.
So this 4th of July, as I celebrated the birthday of the good ole’ USA, I reflected on the sweet lives of Jim and Bethel Robinette. If I weren’t a tea totaler, I’d raise a glass of Barzilla’s Brew in their honor…but I am, so I guess I’ll settle for an apple cider slushy. “Here’s to Jim and Bethel and all the Robinette’s before and after them. Your great American Dream inspires me!”