George Espantman made his way in business in America and ended up in Belgium owning the largest orchard in southeast Wisconsin
George Espantman lives in the middle of an apple orchard in the Town of Belgium, and that’s the way he and his wife Kay like it.
In some ways, it reminds him of his parents’ country home in Iran — which he prefers to call Persia — where there was a large orchard.
Most of his family’s property was taken over by the government during the Ayatollah Khomeini regime, Espantman said.
Espantman is a successful businessman who owned a half dozen appliance and TV stores and an import-export business in Milwaukee before he retired in 1995 and bought the apple orchard, which he named Appleland, as an investment.
“I thought I knew something about growing apples because we had an orchard, but I didn’t know anything,” Espantman said.
He soon learned the business and introduced innovative methods that resulted in higher fruit yields and more efficient ways of picking and packing the apples.
At age 83, Espantman still calls on customers and his wife handles the books, but the management of what is now the largest commercial orchard in southeast Wisconsin is handled by his grandson Nick Bares.
It is a business Espantman, whose Iranian name is Shah Bahram but is known as George, never envisioned owning when his parents sent him as a 16-year-old to be educated in the United States in 1946, shortly after the end of World War II.
Espantman practices the ancient Zoroastrian religion, which was founded by a Persian prophet in the sixth century B.C. When the country was taken over by Muslims, many Zoroastrians went to India. However, Espantman said, his family owned businesses and property in Iran so they stayed.
“I would have become a U.S. citizen long ago, but foreigners cannot own land in Iran, and we still had holdings there. We had city and country homes and commercial properties. We may still own property, but I’m not going there at my age to find out,” said Espantman, who became a U.S. citizen nine years ago.
“I love America. I don’t like that my property went to support the Iranian government. I would have preferred it was used for something good. I wish I had donated it to the Zoroastrian Society to help people.”
The last time he was in Iran was in 1968 to visit his father, who died of cancer later that year. His mother visited several times after that, but died in Iran.
His parents visited the U.S. numerous times, staying three months each time, the longest allowed by their visas.
When anyone left Iran, Espantman said, they had to turn their property over to the government to ensure they returned to claim it.
Espantman went to the United States on a student visa and planned to return when he got his engineering degree.
He remembers traveling by truck from Iran to India to catch a train, hanging onto the outside railings because there wasn’t room inside the train, then taking a boat to San Francisco.
He wasn’t allowed to take money out of Iran, so his father arranged for a cousin in India to give him money for the train and boat passage. It took three months to get to San Francisco, he said.
“I arrived with $500 sewn into the lapels of my clothes,” Espantman said.
His parents sent him to New York because his brother was studying economics at Columbia University. Espantman attended Boro Hall Academy in Brooklyn, where he learned sufficient English in one year to get a high school diploma. He then went to Chicago to study engineering and obtained his engineering degree at Milwaukee School of Engineering.
“When I finished school, I couldn’t get a job because it was during the Korean War and factories wouldn’t hire foreigners,” Espantman said.
The Boston Store in Milwaukee hired him as a TV technician and repairman.
“I remember once a customer called the store and said, ‘Can you send me someone who speaks English,’” Espantman said. “I could talk English, but she couldn’t understand my accent.”
He worked for one year at Taylor Electric in Mequon, then opened his first appliance store. With each new store, he formed a partnership with the person who managed it.
Espantman may have gone back to Iran had he not met Kay Buchanen, a young woman of German and Irish descent.
They fell in love and married in 1949.
“My mother was a little upset. She was afraid we would be leaving and going to Iran,” Mrs. Espantman said.
“As soon as his family heard, they dashed over here, and they were wonderful. His parents were broad-minded and accepted me.
“I knew our cultures were different, but it worked out. The hard thing at first was communication. He didn’t speak much English and I didn’t know Parsi (the Persian language also known as Farsi).”
She was raised Catholic, but their five daughters weren’t raised in either faith.
“We let them do what they wanted,” Espantman said. “We have three Catholics, one Lutheran and one who doesn’t have a religion.”
The women in the family reluctantly left their home in Mequon to move to the orchard, but now Mrs. Espantman loves it.
The girls graduated from Ozaukee High School.
Only one daughter, Manajeh and her husband Ed Bares, were interested in working in the orchard. Their son Nick is now in charge.
From age 5, Nick followed his father as he sent pickers into the field and oversaw the grading of apples, even correcting someone he didn’t think was doing a good job, his grandmother said.
“This is the only job I’ve ever had or wanted,” Nick said.
His brother Jacob, who tried dairy farming, recently joined the operation and oversees pickers in the fields.
The original orchard was 80 acres. Espantman bought land in the Town of Port Washington and now the orchard has more than 130 acres. They plant 2,000 new trees annually and add two or three new varieties each year, Espantman said.
“We’ve ordered trees through 2015,” Espantman said. “Some varieties are limited, and you have to order early to get them.”
A computerized camera sorting system that ensures the best apples go to customers was added three years ago when the production area was enlarged. Depending on the variety of apple being packed, Nick chooses the size and percentage of red color he wants, and only apples that meet that standard continue on the conveyor belt. During a recent run, top-quality McIntosh apples had to be 70% red.
“This isn’t the latest equipment,” Nick said. “There are some cameras that actually show the sugar content of each apple.”
For now, he and his grandfather will rely on the old-fashioned way — tasting the fruit.
The company store at the Belgium orchard is closed. Their 20 varieties of apples, peaches, plums and cherries, plus pumpkins and other local produce, are sold at Appleland Farm Market, 4177 Hwy. 57, Fredonia. The store is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.