Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Apples & Peaches: Racing Fuel for Albemarle’s Prosperity

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In fair weather, apple orchard workers could grade and pack their bounty in the field, saving the time and expense of hauling the fruit to packing sheds. Wooden crates in this photo are emblazoned “Grown and Packed by M.L. McCue & Son, Appledore Orchard, Greenwood, Va., USA.” Photo courtesy of E.O. Woodson Jr.

The fruit industry fueled unprecedented prosperity in Albemarle County during the first half of the 20th century. Initially with apples, and later with peaches, Crozet seemed to be ground zero for much of that action in central Virginia.

When the harvest season arrived, there was work for nearly every available man, woman and youth. Jobs of picking, grading, packing, and shipping typically paid cash wages. That certainly was part of the draw for labor in earlier days when agrarian economies relied on the barter system. Cash-in-hand meant that those “extras” like children’s shoes and ready-to-wear clothing could be considered in the family’s budget.

For some, the fruit business was a year ‘round endeavor. Landowners had to keep their orchards clear of undergrowth. Dry seasons required irrigation. Damaged or underperforming trees needed maintenance or replacement. Husbandmen and arborists were busy planting, grafting and pruning. Progressive growers dedicated new land for planting, a labor- and time-intensive proposition, especially on steep, rocky mountain slopes that often were preferred for their updrafts and breezes that helped keep killing frosts at bay during the critical budding season.

The Bank of Crozet promoted the region’s stellar reputation with this colorful imprint on a 1917 business check. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images.

Nurseries had to stay ahead of demand. E.W. Robertson’s Piedmont Nurseries at Crozet advertised “250,000 fruit and ornamentals, vines, &c., embracing the well-tested sorts, and the most promising new.”

At Greenwood Depot, Tyree Dollins & Sons Nursery had earned the trust of customers as evidenced by this order received in March 1877: “Mr. Dollins, Please select and send me choice fruit trees for family use, good early and late summer and winter variety of Apple trees, 65 apple, many more winter than summer, 25 peach, 5 good pear and 5 plum trees. I rely on your better judgment, believing you can do as well or better than I can…”

The Crozet Cider Company incorporated “for the manufacture of cider, vinegar, preserves, jellies, jams and evaporated and canned fruits and the selling of the same.”

During the “off season,” cooperages were busy producing barrels to fulfill orders for the upcoming season’s projected harvest. The romantic picture of a lone cooper in his workshop, fitting together a barrel while fresh wood shavings curled at his feet, greatly understated the enormity of that profession built around the fruit industry. Woodsmen felled trees and bucked them to length; teamsters dragged and hauled those logs to stave and heading mills for the dangerous task of sawing and shaping rough billets and staves, which were then hauled to cooperages around the region.

A paper trail from central Virginia to Liverpool, England, illustrated the countless individual hands and business entities that prospered from the fruit industry from the late 19th century until the beginning of the local manufacturing era in the early 1950s. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images.

Each of these businesses required substantial investments in machinery and supplies. The inventory of J.B. Harding’s set-up in August 1908 near Midway on the road to Miller School might be representative of similar businesses in the region. It included but was not limited to: “one stave and heading mill, complete; one saw mill, complete; one 18-horsepower Huber Traction [steam] Engine; ten mules; two two-horse wagons; five four-horse wagons; 12-15 sets of harness; two buggies; two or three driving horses; two sets of buggy harness; about 300,000 barrel staves and stave billets; finished and unfinished barrel headings; 20-tons of millet hay; corn growing on 20-acres; also the following timber and timber rights: standing timber on 100-acres of the Cook farm and on 25-acres of Mrs. Wheeler adjoining Cook, and on 200-acres of land near Yellow Mountain, and on 30-acres of Stout land near Miller School.”

Like raising children, it took a community of various skill sets to bring a successful harvest to completion. Each member of that community had a stake in apples, peaches and similar fresh commodities. The Bank of Crozet loaned money for new start-ups and to bolster orchardists in bad weather years. Warrick Machinery sold conveyors for sorting and grading, spray equipment and wooden ladders. Greenwood’s E.O. Woodson and other blacksmiths shod the mules and horses, built and repaired wagons and wheels, and, aside from broken hearts, could mend nearly anything.

Coopers for the Higgs and Young cooperages were issued tokens for completed barrels. Incorporated in 1919, the Staunton-based business was touted as the largest manufacturer of fruit barrels in the state by 1929. Their affiliated workshops were located at Afton, Avon, Crozet, Fishersville, Jarman’s Gap, Massie’s Mill, Staunton and Waynesboro. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images.

Foresters kept the trees healthy and planted new stock. Crozet Print Shop produced colorful labels for baskets and barrels, and invoices for the business offices. Accountant Edward Bain balanced the financial records for orchards, farms, and cold storages. Farmers and dairymen grew the foods and provided the milk, butter and cheese to the grocers who kept their shelves stocked for an army of seasonal helpers.

Scientists and chemists like Brooksville’s Dr. William Alwood developed sprays and treatments for a constantly evolving subculture of fruit pests and diseases.

County-appointed Constables maintained the peace while the cash was flowing. Schoolteachers educated the next generations of community members. Churches provided sanctuary for spiritual sustenance and a much-needed day of rest. There, the faithful prayed for the early and later rains, for sunshine in between, and against the damaging effects of late frosts and freezes, and summertime wind and hailstorms.

When fruit “came in,” it was all hands on deck! Pickers climbed high into apple trees with buckets and baskets that they filled and lowered carefully to waiting “nippers,” often youngsters, who kept a ready supply of empty containers to send back up while they ran and emptied the fruit onto wagons standing by to haul the bounty to be sorted in the field or back at a packing shed.

The shout, “Water, Jack, shoulda been here and halfway back!” clearly was recalled a lifetime later by Taft Coleman who grew up around his father’s store at Mechum’s River Depot. Thirsty fruit pickers vocally would prod the lowly waterboy to pick up the pace with his sloshing water bucket and dipper. For youngsters lucky enough to be included in an orchard crew, the small monetary reward for a hot day spent hustling in the sun far outweighed the feigned disdain from the high-and-mighty fruit picker.

These brass stencils were used to identify the shipper and contents of apple barrels. Apple barrel stencils courtesy of Elaine Travis Clark, Phil James, and David Wayland.

Grading and packing crews, many of them homemakers earning the only cash money they would see during the year, sorted the fruit by size and quality, and packed the barrels just-so for shipping to wholesalers in large cities up and down the East Coast.

Abundant harvests that did not ship out immediately were stored at W.F. Carter’s (and later, Tom Herbert’s) towering six-story Cold Storage trackside in downtown Crozet, where yet another payroll of year ‘round workers was needed to keep that marvel of refrigerated engineering humming smoothly.

Prosperity—never before, nor since, did it require an entire community to come together to labor for the good of all. Nor did the fruits of a job well done ever taste so sweet! 

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 © 2003–2019 Phil James

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