Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Apples by the Barrel

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By Phil James

Sorting and grading of apples was often executed outside between the tree rows at small orchards. Indoor mechanized conveyors afforded by larger fruit growers allowed that careful work to run more efficiently rain or shine—and after sundown. (Photo courtesy of the C. Purcell McCue family) Additional images accompany the print version of this story.
Sorting and grading of apples was often executed outside between the tree rows at small orchards. Indoor mechanized conveyors afforded by larger fruit growers allowed that careful work to run more efficiently rain or shine—and after sundown. (Photo courtesy of the C. Purcell McCue family) Additional images accompany the print version of this story.

For many folks, the onset of autumn with its accompanying sights and smells brings to mind nostalgic reflections of earlier days. The sweet aromas emanating from apple sheds herald that glorious season when wisps of fragrant wood smoke begin to slip from beneath kettles of bubbling apple butter. Leisure-filled outdoor festivals beckon with music, crafts and food for family and friends.

A century ago, the fall season signaled the much-anticipated slowing down from necessary labors of pruning, plowing, planting and eventual harvest. In remote mountain coves, however, towering heaps of sawdust hinted at other behind-the-scenes tasks that had taken place long before the seasonal bounty was safely under cover.

Stave and heading mills produced the raw components used to craft countless wooden barrels that were used earlier to transport and store apples. A USDA report on the “Production of Slack Cooperage Stock in 1906” noted that nearly 1.1 million staves had been produced by the 712 mills reporting from 31 states. Virginia’s mills ranked first in production of headings and second among stave producers.

Multiple staves fitted together and contained by hoops of wood or metal comprised the upright side of a wooden barrel. Headings were the caps affixed to either end. Crozet’s E.B. Hicks remembered the skilled craftsmen at the Higgs & Young factory on Railroad Avenue: “Mr. Arthur Harding from Batesville was a cooper over at the barrel factory,” said E.B. “I’d have to go there when I worked at the Fruit Growers. We used to sit in there and watch him putting the barrels up. He’d take a hoop and a stave and start around there and it won’t no time he’d have ’em all the way around. Had a special way of holding them. Had one of those old hatchets shaped like an adze with a curved blade on it. And all kinds of planes and things where he would rake around there and cut a groove to put the head in.”

Homer Sandridge was born at Mountfair in 1916 and remembered the surge of activity in the Blue Ridge foothills during the fruit picking seasons. “Picking fruit used to be an annual thing, the fruit business in Crozet, after trucks came along,” he recalled. “Everybody would work in the fruit for a couple weeks in peach season and then a few weeks in apple season also. Truckloads of them would go to Crozet. I did that a couple of years when I was growing up. Worked picking peaches.

“C.W. Antrim from Richmond owned Walnut Level Farm [near Mountfair.] It was in operation up there before Innisfree bought it. They had apple orchards. The thing I remember about that is, in the late twenties, they had two Model-T [Ford] trucks with solid rubber tires on the back. No inner tube or anything. The reason they got ’em was to haul barrels of apples to Crozet to the storage. I believe they would haul fifteen barrels.”

Horse-drawn freight wagons were supplanted by motor trucks. Within local regions, trucks began to assume some of the shipping burden that trains once monopolized. Because producers and co-ops could access distant markets, calls mounted within the industry to establish a “Standard U.S. Barrel” size. As the pace of modern times continued to step faster, the perceived romance of those slower, earlier days, when it took most of a community to bring in a fruit crop, was sacrificed on the altar of modernization and profit.

Fruit wholesalers servicing larger markets found it easier to promote perfectly shaped and sized shiny red apples, regardless of their flavor. The irregularly shaped yellowish-green Albemarle Pippin, once acknowledged far and wide as the “Prince of Apples,” eventually fell from favor in a highly industrialized marketplace, despite its superior taste and keeping qualities.

By the late 1940s, industrial factories had enticed the sturdy rural labor pool, long accustomed to only seasonal wages and a barter lifestyle, with year-’round indoor employment and steady wages. To restore some of the shine to the local fruit industry, in 1950 local civic leaders collaborated to establish a festival designed to honor and celebrate the region’s apple heritage.

That first annual Charlottesville Apple Harvest Festival included a pageant to select a queen. From among a group of young women representing the city and eight surrounding counties, Crozet’s Nancy Hughes Fox was selected as the first Queen of the Apple Harvest Festival. Crowned by then-Governor Battle, she and her court highlighted the event’s Grand Feature Parade.

Perhaps not since 1838, when two wooden barrels of Albemarle County’s finest fruit were shipped to England during the coronation of Queen Victoria, had so favorable a light shone upon our region’s horticultural heritage. Fitting, also, that two lovely queens framed its span of greatest distinction.

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 © 2003–2015 Phil James

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