The Life of a Peach Grower's Wife
Red, yellow or creamy with a blush, round or peaked, chilled or warmed by the sun, cling-stone or free. It does not matter. As long as it’s tree ripe, it’s wonderful!
Before I came to Candor, I did not know how good a peach could be. That’s when I ate my first truly tree ripe peach. When I arrived in July 1948, fresh out of college, Candor was no longer the “Peach Capital of the World,” but it still claimed the title it had earned in the 1920s and 1930s.
However, peaches were still the crop around which the economy turned. The peach growers spent the winters pruning their trees and their springs fertilizing and spraying. Summers were a mad rush to get the fruit picked, graded and to market. The wives worked alongside the hired help at the pack houses supervising and grading. They usually handled the money, selling the “No. Two” peaches to truckers who came and bought them for resale.
If the market price fell, and it was not economical to ship peaches, they were sold “orchard run” from the field or pack house floor.
Back in the late teens and early ’20s, my father-in-law set peaches on his property in Montgomery County. Our farm was first set in peaches by Douglas Bird, one of those from the North who bought land and set peaches in Moore County hoping to make a fortune in those early days. He never harvested the first crop, and the property and the peach trees were soon acquired by my in-laws.
In the late 1940s, the orchards were dying and the land was worn out. Agricultural research had been working on a solution, and in the 1950s, there was a revival. Veteran peach growers or their sons treated their old peach land and planted new trees. My husband set most of our Moore County land in peaches.
It was exciting to watch the trees grow and bloom, and after about three years, I became a “peach grower’s wife.” Now I could join in the conversation with the other peach growers’ wives. I worried about spring freezes along with the others.
Now our freezer was stacked with homemade peach pies. The pantry was lined with jars of golden peach halves, spicy peach pickles and glasses of peach jam. Best of all, we had ripe peaches to slice on cereal, ice cream or cake all summer long. Another perk: I got to wear a money apron and sell peaches from the pack house floor.
Every morning after my husband left to round up the pickers, I loaded the four children, ages 3 to 9, into the car with a jug of Kool-Aid, and a few toys and books and drove to an old pack house about one and a half miles up N.C. 211 into Montgomery County.
While we waited for the morning picking, the older children, under the direction of their grandfather, put together the wooden crates we would use that day. The younger children helped me grade through the peaches from the day before into peck baskets and half-gallon cups for sale.
Along about 9 a.m. the first truckload of the day was followed by the pickup truck full of laughing, local farm laborers. Peaches were dumped from the field boxes on to the belt of the grading machine where my mother-in-law took out the “picking tickets” for tabulating the day’s pay to each picker.
The grading machine was an old one, but it was fascinating to watch. The workers picked out the mushy peaches before they were carried into the brushes that “defuzzed” them. As they emerged from the brushes, other workers picked out the “culls” (any peach with a blemish).
Then the peaches spun and rolled through different slots, which “sized them,” before they thundered down into bins. From the bins, laborers filled shipping crates with peaches measuring two inches and up. They were the “No. Ones.”
The full shipping crates were lifted onto the second-hand hydro cooler, where they were washed in ice water to remove the field heat. From there the crates were conveyed straight into a refrigerated truck the broker had arranged for hauling them to a big chain store in Raleigh, Richmond, Va., or New York City.
While everyone was busy with the packing process, the children built castles in the white sand under the pack house, and I waited on customers. For lunch the workers rode the truck to one of the five local grocery stores for beans, cheese, crackers and a soda. We staggered our lunch breaks so someone would be at the pack house all the time. After the day’s pick had left, and my husband carried the workers home, I read to the younger children between customers or helped my mother-in-law snap beans.
Customers came in many varieties. Most wanted freestones and asked for Georgia belles and elbertas beginning the first day of the season. They were the only two varieties they knew because those two had been around for many years. We had set out many newer and better varieties developed by professional researchers at the research station not very far from us.
Most customers wanted “just a few to eat,” but people at that time were still canning and freezing and bought by the bushel. Most enjoyed sharing their tips and recipes. Most appreciated the beauty and aroma of the fruit and handled it carefully. But not all. On any day we might hear these complaints: “too soft,” “too hard,” “too small” and once in awhile, “too big.” In the early 1960s we sold them $1 for a half gallon and $5 a bushel. The trick was to get the customer to taste one. Then we had made a sale — unless the customer was buying them to resell. Then it went something like this:
“How much you asking today, Captain?” a trucker would ask my husband.
“Five dollars a bushel.”
“What if I take 10 bushels?”
“Five dollars a bushel.”
“I can’t haul them for that,” the peddler would say. “I came 30 miles, and the man ahead of me is selling them for six. Besides, I know where I can get some just a pretty as these for $14.”
My husband would say, “Well, that’s where I would buy them if I were you.”
The market price was supposedly determined by supply and demand. A beautiful, bountiful crop did not always mean a good year. Some years many bushels were thrown away, and late spring freezes took care of the crop about one year out of three. Growing peaches was and is still a gamble. In about 10 years our trees began to die. Instead of replanting my husband reset our land in grapes — not as big a gamble.
Today the number of peach growers has shrunk. But local peaches are better than ever. Check it out. Those still in the business sell their peaches from their own roadside stands, and locals still think of Candor as the “Peach Capital of the World.”
Betty Lou Bruton is a local writer.
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