Author Archives: Jesse Land

Leigh’s Garden Winery: A “Fruitful” Endeavor in the U.P.’s “Banana Belt”

A Taste of Bay de Noc Red, a sweet-wine produced by Leigh's Garden Winery at the Escanaba, MI winery.

A Taste of Bay de Noc Red, a sweet-wine produced by Leigh’s Garden Winery at the Escanaba, MI winery.

Who would have thought that Delta County could be a great place to produce international award-winning wines? Leigh Schmidt did. Well, at least he had a hunch that the area could be. In 2009, he opened Leigh’s Garden Winery in downtown Escanaba and each year has proven more fruitful than the last.

Leigh learned a bit about wine-making as a home-winemaker several years before retirement and planted his first cold climate grape vines in his backyard at his Escanaba home. Wanting to find vines that would survive in a climate like the U.P., he stumbled across the Minnesota Grape Grower Association and after several years of learning about the cold climate grapes being hybridized by the University of Minnesota, he planted a small vineyard in south Bark River on property leased in 2006.

After three years of caring and pruning and growing the grapes, his colleagues at the Minnesota Grape Growers Association pressured him to get started with the wine-making. By this time he was retired and could spend time in this “hobby”, not expecting half of what it has become today. Encouraged by community support and a fool-hardy stupidity, he invested in an historic building downtown which featured a bar as part of the tasting room and an empty cellar which became the winery production location. He established contact with two growers who were also growing Univ. of Minnesota hybrids and would supply him with quality grapes. He decided to take a leap of faith and made the move forward, not knowing the reception the winery would get, nor if it would endure through the very tight years of 2008 and beyond.

As word about the locally-made wines spread by word of mouth and some very limited advertisement, Leigh grew from 400 gallons the first year to 1,100 gallons in 2014. Leigh’s Garden Winery is now able to provide wine on a yearly basis to our local customers and the many tourists they see annually.They have also become a sort of information center about Escanaba’s downtown area, which he refers to as Old Escanaba. “We do our best to not only serve customers a taste of wine, but also project the friendly side of Escanaba.” says Leigh.

Leigh's Garden Winery offers Award Winning Wines in their Escanaba, MI Tasting Room.

Leigh’s Garden Winery offers Award Winning Wines in their Escanaba, MI Tasting Room.

In 2014, Leigh entered 5 of his wines in an international competition at the Cold Climate Grape Competition held in Minneapolis, MN and brought home 5 medals; three bronze, one silver and one gold.

Leigh and his staff offer approximately 15 varieties at the start of their season, which is April annually. They carry wines that are sweet, semi-sweet, and dry in both red and white varieties, trying to provide for the variety in taste of customers. They also feature some associated products and souvenirs, but let’s face it, people go to the winery for wine. When visiting the winery guests (21 years of age & older) receive two complimentary tastes of wine, or they can purchase a Leigh’s Garden Winery souvenir glass with 6 tastes. They offer this because they think customers should be able to taste a wine before they purchase it. Leigh is always quick to remind customers that his wines are made in very limited quantities and sell out in short periods of time, or over the course of the year.

Their home at 904 Ludington Street has been upgraded with some minor changes during winter months making the setting more appealing, relaxing and enjoyable to customers. The building they are housed in went up in 1881 and has some features related to the era. The bar, was added to the building in 1972, when Marlys Thone purchased it from King’s Bar once located a bit further up Ludington Street.

Customers enjoying a taste of wine at Leigh's Garden Winery

Customers enjoying a taste of wine at Leigh’s Garden Winery.

Leigh’s favorite part of what he does is the people that come through the door, locals and tourists. “They come in not knowing what to expect or having a preconceived notion of small mid-west wineries, and we just knock that out of their heads with our wines, our service and our friendliness. But you can find this all through downtown, friendly owners who work their shops, attend to and appreciate their customers, engage you in conversation, and are involved in their community. I know this sounds like an advertisement, but it is such a great place to do business, that once someone finds us, they come back.”

When Leigh isn’t busy serving customers his wines, he keeps busy tending the wines in the cellar or the vines in the vineyard, picking the grapes in season, and spending time with family and friends. Leigh has lived in Escanaba for over 40 years after moving here from Cleveland, Ohio and marrying “a local girl” as he says. Connie Bichler and Leigh met at NMU, and her first job as an elementary teacher for the Escanaba Area Schools brought them back to her hometown, Escanaba. He took a job with the Delta-Schoolcraft ISD. They raised two children, Emily and Soren in Escanaba and retired together about 11 years ago. Leigh says his connection to the Escanaba area grew stronger with each year as he learned to appreciate the people, the slower pace of life that was so different than a large city and the joy of nature here.

Leigh Schmidt, The Wine Maker in the Vineyard

Leigh Schmidt, The Wine Maker in the Vineyard

To learn more about Leigh’s Garden Winery, stop into the tasting room and chat with Leigh yourself. If you aren’t able to do get to the winery in-person, head over to their Facebook page where updates about winery happenings are posted on the regular.

– Written by Escanaba resident Carrie Bartel.

Dobber’s Pasties

A pasty from Dobbers in Escanaba

A pasty from Dobbers in Escanaba

Mix together hard work and tradition, some spices, rutabagas and some other local fresh ingredients; bake them in a delicious crust and you’ve got a Dobber’s Pasty. Originally called the “Red Onion Pasty Shop” and located in Negaunee, MI in the 1960’s, Dobber’s Pasties has been serving up their version of the staple of Upper Peninsula culture and cuisine for generations.

Brad Mantela, owner since 2008, and the third generation of his family to serve the Yooper delicacy, has brought the business into today’s competitive age. He introduced their website, revamped their facility to become USDA compliant as well as modernized the production process with new equipment. As one of the only USDA certified pasty production facilities in the Upper Peninsula, Dobber’s is able to ship their pasties to all 50 states and make products for wholesale and fundraising activities. The USDA certification was a very important step for Brad and his staff, it required them to change the layout, material, and equipment and have a federal USDA inspector in the facility every day they are in production. The hardworking employees at Dobber’s produce 10,000 pasties a week.

dobbers pastys escanaba michigan Folding crusts for post 2Brad knows that Dobber’s is truly something special, after all he and his wife Josie elected to carry on the family tradition in 2008 after the passing of his mother, Bonnie. She and his father Doug, who was nicknamed Dobber as a child, brought the pasty shop to Escanaba in 1975. That iconic name was added in 1989. “[In] our particular business, pasties, we are a destination for people. People are always telling us how they always stop in on their vacation. How they found us on the internet and sought us out. How someone told them they must have a Dobber’s Pasty. I should charge people to take their picture in front of our sign. You can’t believe how many people do that and take pictures of themselves or people in their group eating pasties.”

According to their customers, Dobber’s serves the BEST pasties in the Upper Peninsula (or anywhere outside of their own mother’s kitchen). They make pasties for both of their locations, Iron Mountain and Escanaba, in the Escanaba kitchen. They peel fresh local potatoes, chop and blend beef from whole muscle fresh meat, and hand peel 300 pounds of rutabagas a week. Along with the traditional beef pasty, they offer five other varieties; veggie, chicken, breakfast, ham & cheese, and pizza. While all are popular and delicious, the beef pasty remains the most popular and sought after. Want to learn more about what it takes to make a pasty? They also offer pasty making tours to visitors and community groups. In Brad’s words, “You get a little tour, history, and you get to make, bake, and eat your very own pasty.”

dobbers pastys escanaba michigan pasty closeup 2Brad sincerely values the communities his business has grown in, both in Escanaba and Iron Mountain. “When you need help, you can call just about anyone else in business and they will do amazing things to help. We know how special it is to be part of this unique business community, and I love the support from across the U.P.”

For Brad, his business and his life are really one in the same and he thoroughly enjoys it. “In fact, even though I am far from it, I had an employee ask me how I could ever retire. She could never see me not having my days filled with something business related. I have to agree.” Managing the day to day operations at Dobber’s keeps Brad busy, but he finds time to enjoy the typical U.P. activities; hunting, fishing, biking, hiking, off-roading with his wife and two children, Gabe and Victoria. Somehow he manages to find time to be very active in the community as a member of the Escanaba Rotary Club, a board member for the Gladstone Planning Commission, a precinct delegate for the Delta County Republicans, as well as an active member at St. Anne Catholic Church.

Brad looks forward to carrying on his family’s tradition for pasty making for many years to come. So, on your next trip through Escanaba or Iron Mountain, take a moment to stop in to Dobber’s and bring home a bit of Upper Peninsula history to your family. Head over to www.dobberspasties.com and send a pasty (or a dozen) to your out-of-town friends and family, we’re certain they will enjoy the Yooper sentiment.

Phone: (906) 786-1880
Address: 827 N. Lincoln Rd. Escanaba, MI 49829
Website: www.dobberspasties.com

Ice Boats on Little Bay de Noc

This past weekend if you had a chance to come within view of Little Bay de Noc, you would have seen almost 45 iceboats zipping across the ice-covered bay. Both Friday and Saturday, the Four Lakes Ice Yacht Club held an International Skeeter Association Regatta (or Renegade Championship) on Little Bay de Noc. This was their first visit to our area and were welcomed warmly by the community.

Iceboat racing is head to head on an upwind/downwind course. Buoys are set at least one mile apart upwind and downwind and the boats race for either three or four laps.

ice boat escanaba michigan 2Deb Whitehorse, a Race Committee Member with the Four Lakes Ice Yacht Club was very happy with the weekend’s event. “We were all extremely pleased with the warm welcome we received from the local residents who were all extremely helpful and couldn’t do enough for us. We chose the area because it was the only suitable ice sailing site in a three state area, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. She also adds that “Local residents, like Jim Walsh of Gladstone, knew that the ice was perfect for us and was in contact one of our Menominee sailors, Mike Derusha. Terry Reynolds was also helpful with providing information about areas that we should avoid.”

ice boat escanaba michigan 1“We felt very welcomed in this area, kind of like rock stars! It was exciting to see the local residents come to the beach and either walk out on the ice or watch from the shore. The accommodations and food were excellent. If there are suitable conditions (no snow on the ice) on Little Bay de Noc and the timing is right, we will definitely be back! It was a great central location for our sailors in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.”

For those who missed this unique sport in action this weekend, and want to learn more about ice sailing, check out www.iceboat.org. To see more great photos from this weekend’s event check out www.iceboat.weebly.com.

SLEDDING AT LUDINGTON PARK, ESCANABA

Sledding at Ludington Park 4When visiting Escanaba, a stop at the historic Ludington Park is a must during any season. As residents will confirm, sledding down the snow-covered Lake Michigan hillside is a pastime shared by many generations.

According to Dr. Charles Lindquist, a park historian, the mile long, Ludington Park has evolved greatly over its existence. Even offering attractions such as a zoo around 1915 and a toboggan slide in the 1920’s. Most of Ludington Park as we know it today, came to be in the 1950’s. That’s when Aronson Island was built, along with the Karas Memorial Bandshell and water treatment plant.

Sledding at Ludington Park 2

As soon as Escanaba sees winter’s first dusting of snow, you will find locals racing down the hillside towards Lake Michigan on tubes, sleds and occasionally an heirloom toboggan. Growing up only a few blocks from the park myself, my brother and I made the trip down the hill so many times we resorted to using garbage can lids and cardboard boxes when our sleds broke from overuse. We spent many-a-snow day competing to see who could slide the fastest and farthest.

Brooklyn sled Ludington Park 2The area of the park that offers the “best” sledding is the portion of the hill above the soccer field’s north-end goal and Harbor Hideout playground. Once snow covers the hillside completely, someone, presumably tired of struggling back to the top of the hill, usually ties a rope to a tree or light post for everyone’s benefit.

Sledding at Ludington Park is free, but it isn’t fancy. There are no tow ropes to pull you back to the top and the hill only offers a straight-shot down to the bottom, with an occasional snow jump built by adventurous sledders.

But if you are looking a fun outdoor winter activity to wear-out the kids and banish the winter blues, which also offers spectacular views at sunset if I might add, this is your ticket. Besides, in today’s age of connected devices, obligations and stress, it sure can be wonderful to go back to a much simpler time and just slide down a snow covered hill on our backsides.

– Written by Escanaba resident Carrie Bartel.

Ice Fishing on the Bays de Noc: Part 1

As a Yooper, I think ice fishing is something everyone should experience, even if only once. With that said, I have never been ice fishing. My reason? I am afraid falling through the ice. So with my fear in mind, I talked to some experts of this outdoor U.P. tradition. You guessed it, I talked to some Yoopers.

Based on the comments I received from my friends and family members, I learned to dress warm, not to fall through the ice and that the BEST way to go ice fishing for the first time is to go with someone who knows what they are doing. I was also advised to bring beer, build a heated 12 foot by 12 foot ice shanty, and to watch out for the Loch Ness monster. I’m not going to elaborate on those last bits of guidance. Instead, let’s focus on the “good” advice.  You should consider this a very basic How to Get Started Ice Fishing Guide written by someone who is has never been ice fishing

Staying warm and dry while you are ice fishing will greatly affect your level of enjoyment. Let’s face it, you’re probably going to be sitting for hours on a bucket on ice. Just as with most other outdoor winter activities in the U.P., wearing layers, keeping skin covered and staying dry are crucial. Waterproof boots and outerwear and extra gloves and socks are strongly suggested. We all know ice is cold, so bring a blanket and cushion to sit on and those nifty hand warmers and while you’re at it, get some for your boots.

While we’re on the subject of ice, according to several local ice fishermen, “There is no such thing as SAFE ice.” It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to be aware of the local ice conditions before and during your ice fishing excursions. Stay away from areas where there is water flowing or standing over ice. My best suggestion is to talk to locals about what they are seeing on the Bays and do your own research. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources posts weekly fishing reports available online and by phone (855-777-0908). The reports include local ice conditions, the types of fish being reported and which bait seems to be most popular.

As for the advice to find someone who knows what they’re doing and get them to take you ice fishing, I think it’s pretty sound advice. Ice fishing has been a tradition here in the U.P. for generations. Families have been venturing out onto the ice to catch fish, tell stories and “just get away” for as long as people have lived on the shores of the Great Lakes. Talk to local family members, we all have an “Uncle Mick or Grandpa Leroy” who may be willing to sacrifice an afternoon of time on the ice to pass along this tradition. Lacking a friend or family member to be your personal guide? There are several fishing guides for hire in the area. Simply talk to any one of the local bait and tackle shops, they can make recommendations.

Head on over to this post on VisitEscanaba.com for more information about ice fishing gathered by the Bays de Noc Convention & Visitors Bureau. There you will find details about the Michigan DNR’s requirements for Ice Shanties and license fees, as well as Maps, Fishing Guides and locations that offer winter access.

Please stay tuned for a continuation of my experience going ice fishing for the first time.

– Written by Escanaba native Carrie Bartel.

Ski the Days River Trails

days river trail bridgeThe Days River Trail system just a few short miles from Gladstone, Michigan is one of the most scenic and enjoyable set of cross country ski trails in the area.

5 Loops – 8.6 Miles

A series of five stacked loops, ranging from easiest to difficult, make up the five loops, with only the furthest (5th) loop classified as “difficult.” The first four loops are either easy or moderately difficult trails that should be well within the capability of most skiers. (I’m not very skilled yet and I was able to ski them without much trouble.)

Oh, and in addition to the five stacked loops there’s a 2.3 mile dedicated skate/ski loop for those looking to skate!

Trail maps at each intersection make it very easy to find your way around, and there’s a rustic (read no running water) outhouse in the parking area.

dais river trail gladstone mi 3 My Experience Skiing the Days River Trail

I wasn’t able to make time to get out and ski the Days River trails until March. And of course, March in the Upper Peninsula often brings a little rain, as it did the day I decided to finally get out there and ski. The rain made the trails a bit icy for my ski, but overall they seemed really well groomed. I just wish I would have gotten there in February!

My dad and I are both novice cross country skiers, but were able to ski the first four loops without much trouble. We stopped a couple times at the top of some of the bigger hills to take a breather, but there wasn’t anything too difficult.

days river trail map gladstone miThat said, the trails were definitely fun and interesting. There were more ups, downs and turns then any other trail I’ve skied recently. A good part of the trail follows the Days River, part of it skirts the Gladstone Golf Course and all of it goes through a nice mix of forest. Much of the trail goes through pine forest but there were a couple really pretty sections of birch forest as well.

From the parking area, around the first four loops and back ended up being just under seven miles. It was a great ski on a set of beautiful trails and I’m looking forward to getting back there!

Side note: the Days River Trails are also popular hiking and biking trails in summer.

How to get there:

To get to the Days River Trail, from the intersection of M-35 and US2&41 in Gladstone, continue on three miles toward Rapid River and then turn left (west) off US2&41 onto Days River 24.5 Rd. Drive two miles and look for the trailhead on your right.

3 miles north of Gladstone (near Escanaba) Go north on US 2/41 from Gladstone to Days River Road, then west on Days River Road 2 miles. Parking is on north side of road.