Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Fruit Harvest in the Piedmont: All Able Hands Needed

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Workers in this orchard, from child to adult, were gathered together and cleverly posed to illustrate the season’s most bountiful apple harvest. Photo courtesy of Woodrow and Rosie Keyton. Additional images accompany the print edition of this article.

Those who have recalled Albemarle County’s earlier days of fruit growing have painted colorful pictures of a time when apple and peach orchards covered the land, and nearly all who were able shared in the seasonal prosperity.

Jobs were available for young and old, male and female. When the fruit was ripe, one’s availability was important. Even the youngest could be taught to paste labels on baskets, or if strong enough, to carry water to the pickers in the orchard.

Clyde McAllister of Blackwell’s Hollow said, “My dad was a farmer, but when it was time to pick apples or peaches they would hire themselves out. My sister’s husband would put together a working crew and go to the orchards. They had something they called a shanty, like barracks, and they would stay there while they were picking the peaches. I’m talking about back there in the early ’30s.”

Purcell Daughtry (1918–2010) was a highly respected businessman in Waynesboro for more than a half-century. “I worked in peaches at the orchard that John James (1889–1966) ran near White Hall,” he said while reminiscing on his years growing up in western Albemarle County. “All across there was orchards. It was five miles from our house, and I would have to walk there and then walk home. Jim Sandridge was the night watchman at the orchard, to keep people from coming in and picking peaches when they were ripe. He stayed there. He was an older fellow from Sugar Hollow. I remember that Lem James up in Sugar Hollow was an expert with bees. He would go in the mountain and hunt bee trees. He had a big thing for finding them. How he cut them and got ’em, I don’t know. But he had a lot of bees and he rented them to the orchards for pollination. I reckon that’s one way he made a living.”

Woodrow Keyton (1918–2014) of Pasture Fence Mountain spoke of one of the many jobs he had as a youth. “When I was picking peaches for John James, they had these Georgia peach inspectors come around to your orchard and tell you when the fruit was too green and when they were ripe enough. But my first work there was helping him haul peaches out of the orchard with horse and wagon. I would have to set the peaches up on the wagon. Many as I could get up there. Then get up on the wagon and place them. Get back off and go to another bunch.”

Homer Sandridge (1916–2004) was raised in the Mountfair community. His father Laurie was a laborer on James Early’s Mount Fair estate prior to taking over the community’s general store business. In addition to working in the store, as all of his siblings did, Homer worked out during fruit season. “Picking fruit used to be an annual thing around Crozet after trucks came along. Everybody would work in the fruit for a couple weeks in peach season and then a few weeks in apple season also. Truckloads of ’em would go to Crozet. I did that a couple of years when I was growing up. Worked picking peaches for Charlie O’Neill. He had orchards up there in Mint Springs on the side of the mountain.”

Virginia Wood Sandridge (1917–2013) said, “My daddy Wilson Wood (1874–1949) ran the farm at Walnut Level, the Antrim place up near Mountfair. Mr. Antrim had a huge store in Richmond. The farm had a big orchard. Used to pack apples every fall. Oh, gosh, it took them so long to get all the apples picked and worked up and shipped.”

The list of jobs created by the fruit industry was nearly endless: from the nurseries that supplied the quality rootstock to the housewives who carefully sorted and graded the fruit prior to packing; timber sawyers, coopers in barrel factories, fruit brokers with overseas business connections, blacksmiths, wagon makers, mechanics, printers…

Equally important were the “nippers”, the young ones whose job it was to quickly retrieve the filled baskets or buckets from the pickers, resupply them with an empty so that the process was not interrupted, and run and empty the full one onto a sorting stand or centralized collection box. With multiple pickers at work in the trees, the nipper could be the busiest and most in-demand laborer in the orchard, and those singing his name from atop a tall ladder never let him forget it!

One of those former nippers, farmer and businessman John W. “Bill” Clayton Jr. (1927–2014), remembered some of his own coming-of-age while still living at home at Mechum’s River.

“In the early ’40s, Pop had bought this Chevrolet truck with no cab on it,” Clayton said, “and I hauled peaches out of Emmett Wiley’s orchard at Jarman’s Gap and loaded them on the railroad car over here in Crozet, where they iced it [at Herbert’s Cold Storage.] Wiley’s fruit alone didn’t fill the whole car, so there were other orchards that shared freight space in the cars. Weren’t many trucks available to haul for hire, see, so I think everyone was loading ‘em. They were lined up over there.

“I was 14 and had just gotten my driving permit. I had this little ’34 dump truck they done put sides on. There was a Bahamian picking crew of a dozen or so that I picked up over at Joe Henley’s near White Hall. He was putting them up. I nipped the peaches out of the orchard during the day, and then took the Bahamians back to Henley’s. Then I had to go back and haul that day’s peaches to the rail car in Crozet. Sometimes I’d be three o’clock in the morning getting done. I had to have the Bahamian crew back up there at the orchard by seven, so I didn’t get much sleep.”

And as Virginia Sandridge exclaimed as she recounted those earlier times of large family groups and more than enough manual labor to last from dawn-to-dark, “Whoo-wee, those days—couldn’t nobody stand to work like that today. They were good old days.”

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2017 Phil James 

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