By Phil James
Growing peaches is not for the faint of heart! In early spring, one can’t help but fall in love with the sight of rolling hills blanketed with pink blossoms. But if the successful harvest of the fruit represented by those blossoms is the difference between staying in your own house or moving to the poorhouse, you’re living a gambler’s life.
In the early decades of the 20th century, the flowering of peach trees along the lower slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains elicited high hopes among country folks that winter’s worst had passed. The seemingly endless orchards of pink also represented the prospect of cash-in-hand, a coveted asset in a barter society.
From season to season and year to year, agricultural-based economies have always prospered or suffered by the timing of the natural elements. Once upon a time, Virginia newspapers broadcasted the growing conditions and prospects for prominent crops such as peaches and apples. “August 1905: Albemarle Peaches. Splendid Crop. The peach crop of Crozet and vicinity has been unusually fine. Prices obtained at New York and other markets have been very satisfactory… bringing to this community some $20,000 for summer peaches alone.” — “April 1907: Much Fruit Killed. Lynchburg in icy grasp. Severe sleet storm probably the worst in this month’s history… About 60% of peaches killed [in Crozet vicinity.] High up on the mountains peaches suffered very much from freezing.” — “July 1916: Rains Injure Early Peach.”
In a 1976 interview, retired local schoolteacher Marguerite B. Washington, 81, recalled, “The women used to work in the peach orchards in the summertime, but if the frost killed the peaches they couldn’t work. Then they didn’t have money to buy textbooks for the children.” A minor inconvenience such as a pesky morning frost on our windshields still has far-reaching effects on the lives of those in the fruit industry.
Newspapers also heralded the long-awaited bounty’s arrival to market. “October 1891: Lemuel Powers will sell at auction today 40 bushels of the Finest Peaches seen in Richmond this season… grown on the farm of Mr. Abram Wayland near Crozet in Albemarle County.” — “August 1902: Fine Peaches. Ten crates received by C.E. Sydnor, a prominent Richmond commission merchant, and at once disposed of. Of the famous Elberta variety, they were grown by Mr. W.G. Barksdale of Batesville, Va… some of the largest measured a foot in circumference.”
Excerpts from a Charlottesville Daily Progress August 1938 editorial titled “Golden Peaches” highlighted the vagaries of the fruit industry and the peach crop in particular. “Peach growing is a precarious business as anyone around Crozet, Afton and Greenwood will attest. It is a gamble, like everything that nature controls, but when one thinks of a draw of 320,000,000 bushels, the estimated aggregate of the north-Albemarle harvest, producing a jackpot of half a million dollars in a relatively small section of the county, the game is worth all the worries, the troubles and the setbacks.”
During the 1938 fruit harvest, 1000 workers of all skill levels were required just to pick and pack the peaches. Half of that number were laborers from other sections of the county and around the state. Most of the resulting wealth from the successful harvest stayed in the local communities, settling debts, lifting mortgages, and being reinvested in the land and facilities.
“My Dad was a farmer,” reminisced Brown’s Cove resident Clyde McAllister, “but when it was time to pick apples or peaches, he would hire himself out. My brother-in-law would put together a working crew and go to the orchards. They would stay there at the orchards while they were picking the peaches, living in what they called a shanty, or barracks. I’m talking back there in the early ’30s. Lumber, saw mills had them, too.”
Homer Sandridge, formerly of Mountfair, recalled that special era: “Picking fruit? That used to be an annual thing, the fruit business/peach business in 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.”
“At one time you could leave White Hall and go to Crozet [a distance of four miles] and never be out of sight of a peach tree,” said White Hall farmer Dan Maupin, whose family has been stewards of the same land since the 1700s.
The early fruit industry created a diversity of jobs. Steward Walton recalled those days: “Yeah, I worked for John James, over there pulling spray hoses in Zirkle’s Peach Orchard near White Hall. Used horses or mules or whatever it was they had over there. Ten cents an hour. I worked there full-time. Alton and Freddie Morris worked there, too.”
Woodie Keyton also picked peaches in Zirkle’s orchards. “At that time they had these Georgia peach inspectors come around to your orchard,” he recalled. “Tell you when they was too green and when they was ripe enough.”
Lemuel James, father of John James, was born in 1867 on the mountainside above Sugar Hollow. Like his father, he had a passion for honey bees. Purcell Daughtry grew up on nearby Pasture Fence Mountain and fondly recalled his old mountain neighbor. “Lem James would go in the mountain and hunt bee trees,” said Daughtry. “He had a big thing for finding them. How he cut ’em and got ’em, I don’t know. But he had a lot of bees. Must have been an expert with bees. And he rented them to the orchards for pollination. I reckon that’s one way he made a living.
“I was working in peaches there at John James’s. His son Jack and, I believe, Cecil McAllister, asked me to go possum hunting with them one night. I hadn’t heard of him possum hunting before and I don’t know why they asked me to go possum hunting that night. I thought, well, I was five miles from home, and I’d have to walk home and get my stuff and walk back, and then walk back home. So I said, ‘I want to go, but I guess not.’ Well, anyway, they had an old fellow—Jim Sandridge was the night watchman there at the orchard—to keep people from coming in and picking peaches when they was ripe. He stayed there. He was from up [on the shoulder of Buck’s Elbow Mountain] in Sugar Hollow. I didn’t go hunting, but next morning, first thing I heard, good thing I didn’t—they got shot at. Right up above the orchard, they treed a possum, could have been a coon but I think it was a possum, and the old man shot their lantern out.”
So… it seems that, like growing peaches for profit, neither was possum-huntin’ in a mountain peach orchard for the faint of heart.
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: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2014 Phil James