Bill Michaels Looks Back on 150 Years of Family Businesses
By WRILEY NELSON
Bill Michaels, owner and operator of the Fly Creek Cider Mill and Orchard, celebrated the 150th anniversary of his family’s business ownership in Otsego County in May. As he prepared for the end of the mill’s 2023 season, Michaels shared some of his six generations of family history with “The Freeman’s Journal” and “Hometown Oneonta.” He proudly displayed his extensive collection of historic photographs and documents that chart one family’s long involvement in small Otsego County stores.
“The first generation, Nehemiah Michaels, started his business in this county in 1873,” he said. “The store that is now in The Farmers’ Museum was his, originally located in Middlefield. He left the area for a while, then came back to run a market in the block where Mel’s [at 22] is now.”
“His son, William Henry, bought the old sheriff’s station, which was located near where the district attorney’s office is now, and rolled it on logs down to the current site of the wax museum,” Bill continued. “He started Michaels Market, which went down through his son and then my grandfather. My dad grew up in the store, endlessly sorting potatoes down in the basement, and didn’t want to keep doing that.”
Bill’s father, Howard Charles Michaels, served in the U.S. Army after graduating from Cooperstown Central School. He then worked as a carpenter and, together with his wife, Barbara Ann, purchased the historic Fly Creek Cider Mill in 1962. Bill purchased the mill from his parents upon their retirement in 1999. Howard and Barbara Michaels passed away in August and September of this year, respectively.
“I think what we’re most proud of as a family is the ability to provide employment in the area for such a long time,” Bill continued. “We’re very grateful for all the people who have sustained our family’s operations and visions. A photo of myself and my grandfather was posted on Celebrate Cooperstown recently, and many people commented to say that they or their family members had worked for us. It was heartwarming.”
Bill spent much of his childhood helping his grandfather, Howard Potter “Hi” Michaels, with the market on Main Street. He also helped his parents at the mill once they started working on it. He graduated from Cooperstown in 1985 and attended RIT’s hospitality administration program. His first job out of college was managing The Tunnicliff Inn and Restaurant in 1989 and 1990.
“I signed on for a six-month role and wound up there for two years, going through three chefs,” he recalled. “We updated the place a lot, adding phones, TVs, even screens and shades to the windows. After being there 24 hours a day, seven days a week for two years, I was burned out and vowed never to work in a restaurant again.”
“Still, my roots are here,” he continued. “I enjoy the lake and the area very much. It’s always funny to me how many tourists don’t even realize there is a lake here until they see it.”
After The Tunnicliff, Bill became half-owner and operator of the Lakeview Motel from 1992 to 1998. He took over the cider mill when his parents wanted to retire.
“My dad was a carpenter originally, so he gradually cobbled together the old mill building with a series of summer projects,” he said. “It was basically a shed attached to a shed attached to a shed. After a while, the roofline got to be a problem. In 2015, we tore down the old structures and built a proper two-story building with new electrical work, full heat, air conditioning, and insulation. Now we have a full second story and can open up the press to full view, which I think is the best thing we’ve ever done.”
“With the new viewing area, people can watch the cider being made from all angles, not just the little gallery off to the side,” he continued. “They can look right into the machine, and people find it mesmerizing to watch the old equipment from 1889 at work. They’re always so fascinated. It’s fun to keep that stewardship of the historic mill going. Even though the products and site layout have changed, that old press is still the heart of the mill. It takes constant dedication and maintenance. We always joke that we’re running a museum off of gift shop sales. It’s challenging but fulfilling, and it’s made a life for me and my family. I’m the sixth generation doing business in this town, and hopefully that will continue.”
The Fly Creek Cider Mill won the prestigious Best Tourism/Season Attraction Award at the 2023 Best of the Mohawk Valley Community Choice Awards Gala, sponsored by the “Utica Observer-Dispatch” and “USA Today.” Nominations began in March and more than 150,000 votes were cast for the awards in May. It is open from Mother’s Day weekend to shortly before Christmas each year; it will close for the season on Sunday, December 17. Next year will be the mill’s 168th season. For more information, visit https://www.flycreekcidermill.com/.