A Peach Of A Time

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*Note: The following appeared in the August 1947 issue of L. & N. Employes' Magazine

A Peach Of A Time

To Prove That “Chilton County Peaches Are Tops,” Growers And Civic-Minded Citizens Of Clanton And Thorsby, Ala., Stage First Annual Peach Festival

By Lou Nash

Auctioneer Tom McCord pointed a practiced finger at Lee Hornsby, of Eclectic, Ala., and said the one word “Sold!” with an inflection of finality. The high bidder mounted a gaily-bedecked platform on the grounds of Thorsby Institute to claim his newly purchased bushel of peaches.

They were plump Hale Havens, packed with an eye to a critical market. firm, juicy, sweet. They had just been adjudged the best all-around peaches in Chilton County, Ala., by a trio of experts; Lyle Brown, horticulturist with the Alabama Extension Service at Auburn; John Bagby, marketing specialist, also of Auburn; and T. M. Faris, agricultural agent for the Old Reliable, working out of Atmore.

When Mr. Hornsby reached the front of the platform he was greeted by a real “Peach of Peaches,” comely, young “Chick” Jones, Queen of the Festival, who kissed him playfully on the cheek, reward for his high bid. A few seconds later, Mr. Hornsby took a mansized bite out of one of his peaches. That bite and the few others required to get quickly to the luscious fruit’s seed proved rather expensive. The one peach, as things turned out, actually cost Mr. Hornsby $250.00!

This “believe-it-or-not” purchase was made with eyes wide open and against keen competition. . . But the actual peaches in the bushel were dispatched posthaste to Alabama Senators Hill and Sparkman, who delivered them to President Truman-who doubtless enjoyed some on his morning cereal. And the money that Mr. Hornsby and other high bidders paid for peaches auctioned off that day went into a fund to make the Chilton County Peach Festival for 1948 bigger and better than the first one, held at Thorsby this past July 16.

The celebration for ‘48 will have to “go some” to beat this year’s eminently successful venture, but Chilton Countians are used to thinking in optimistic terms. They’re proud of their fine cattle and produce, and are especially “sold” on their peach orchards, Their peaches are getting a national reputation, but no one in the county intends to lie back and rest on reputation alone.

Working as parts of a well-geared machine, County Agent M. R. Glasscock and his associates in cooperative extension work; the commercial peach growers of the county - some 450 in all; the civic leaders of Clanton, Thorsby and neighboring towns, and other interested persons, put on a grand show with an admitted dual purpose. The obvious entertainment value was frankly calculated to attract attention to the county’s fast-growing peach industry, bringing future customers. Educational features resulting from friendly competition between growers were designed to develop better peaches and more astute marketing practices by growers and shippers. The Old Reliable’s agricultural agent, the aforementioned Mr. Faris, cooperated with the various committees, doing his part to make the festival a success.

No festival, the planning committee wisely decided, was worth the name without a queen-and a king, of course, to keep the lady company on the throne. Picking the king was a quick process. County Agent Glasscock’s assistant, Cecil C. Carlton, was appointed to royal status by acclamation.

Choosing a queen was a more delicate matter, requiring finesse, fanfare and fuss - and, naturally, an adequate stock of feminine beauty. The committee concluded that the first peach festival queen should be the daughter of a peach grower. In short order several charming young ladies whose fathers grew peaches in Chilton County were declared “in the running.”

The night before the festival, the girls - 12 in number - paraded before five critical judges during a special banquet held at the Thorsby Institute dining hall for dignitaries, out-of-town visitors, and the press. The real reason for the gathering, however, was the - contest - and this one had a different twist. To make the judging a bit easier and more pleasant! - the girls appeared first in formal gowns; then in blue jeans, tomboy style; and finally in bathing suits. Essie Lou “Chick” Jones, Plantersville, was ultimately declared the winner, with Marjorie Bentley, Thorsby, and Edna Lane Johnson, Clanton, awarded second and third places, respectively.

The next morning, as the parade formed at Clanton for its brightly bannered route to Thorsby, some eight miles away, Queen “Chick,” her two ladies-in-waiting, her court and her dutiful king graced the lead float.

Before the “royal” entourage went a motorcycle escort of the Alabama Highway Police; the colors; Parade Director T. G. Brabston and his winsome companion, Peggy Elder, of Gadsden, Ala., recent winner of a beauty contest at Daytona Beach, Fla., and holder of the title “Miss Dixie;” the 604th Army Air Forces’ Band from nearby Maxwell Field; and several speakers’ cars.

Following the lead float came numerous committee and special-guest cars; the Alabama Boy’s Industrial School Band, Birmingham; Thorsby and Clanton floats and peach trucks; and an American Legion float. On several of the floats were young girls and boys, who threw “sample” peaches to spectators along the route.

The weather had been threatening all the early morning and the rain came soon after the parade got under way around 10:00 a. m. But, other than moistening the heads and shoulders of participants and spectators and slowing the parade’s progress a bit, the showers had little effect on the enthusiasm with which the occasion was received. Just about everybody from both towns and hundreds more from nearby towns and counties either saw the parade or gathered on the grounds of Thorsby Institute for the ceremonies.

Primarily designed for the benefit of the average citizen, the program nevertheless drew a representative group of officials, including Lieutenant Governor J. Clarence Inzer, of Alabama, principal speaker at the formal exercises, and crowner of the king and queen.

After the coronation, Master of Ceremonies Brabston introduced the following, who spoke briefly: Gene Flowers, representing the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce; the festival’s general chairman, J. Archie Ogburn; Mayors Roscoe Maddox, of Thorsby, and Leo Thompson, of Clanton; Probate Judge W. L. Parrish; of Chilton County; Andy Smith, of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce; Erskine Ramsey, well known Birmingham businessman and philanthropist, who also earlier served as a judge of the queen - choosing; and Lyle Brown, horticulturist from Auburn, mentioned earlier in the article.

In his short talk Mr. Brown pointed out that while Chilton County now has perhaps as many as one million peach trees (some 5600 acres in the county are now in bearing orchards and another 1,000 acres are newly set, according to the county agent’s office), the problem of meeting industry competition had to be considered. Other states, notably Georgia and South Carolina, it was explained, are heavy producers, and were to be competed with by improving the quality and size of individual peaches grown. He warned that spraying trees for insect control, pruning to produce larger, tastier peaches, and “ring-packing” the fruit to create greater eye-appeal, were a few essentials not to be neglected by growers and shippers.

As Mr. Brown spoke we recalled our pre-festival tour of Grower R. M. Roper’s large peach orchard, where some 20 pickers were hard at work gathering the fruit; and we remembered seeing the systematic packing facilities of the Chilco Packing Company, operated by this same Mr. Roper and his partner, John Deramus, both of Clanton. Chilco’s peach-loading shed-the only one in the county-located on the Old Reliable’s right of way, adjacent to the freight station and depot at Clanton, has two primary purposes: to speed the loading process - since peaches are highly perishable; and to make a marketable “package” out of every single basket of peaches put on the refrigerator cars.

To accomplish these two aims, Chilco has a most modern system of peach graders and conveyor belts. The company employs around 50 Chilton County residents - when cars are being loaded - to supply the selection know-how so essential to the set-up.

Once the machinery is started, nimble hands fly to keep up with the moving peaches. First all fruit which is spotted, too small, or too ripe is culled from the other peaches. The remaining fruit is then sprayed with a sulphur powder-to discourage brown rot - and “defuzzed” by a brushing process. Both of these steps are accomplished mechanically. As the peaches roll out of this machinery they are again culled by hand, so that no poor fruit be allowed to move out.

“All peaches must be firm,” one of the young ladies explained. “If they’re the least bit soft, we throw them out.”

The peaches then roll down little slanted alleys, the sides of which diverge as the fruit moves on its way. The narrowest, and therefore smallest, peaches drop first, of course, and land on the “small” conveyor belt; the “mediums” fall next; then the large-size peaches, and finally the “jumbos.”

All fruit which is up to a certain size-standard is used in the “package” -- either bushels or half-bushels-but the jumbo and large sizes are employed as “faces.”

“Faces”- peaches which the buyer sees first- are arranged by hand into metal rings, exactly the size of the top of the basket. Seasoned fitting of the fruit into proper places in the ring makes for a really attractive basket. Such “ring-packing” as the Chilco Company does is considered a marketing “must." 

After the rings are filled with peaches they are conveyed down the line, where other packers add a heavy paper liner, slightly smaller than the basket to be used; this liner is filled with peaches, baskets are put over the liners, then the baskets are flipped over- by a mechanical means. Finally the baskets are labelled, stamped and loaded on the cars.

At festival time, Mr. Roper and Mr. Deramus” were shipping Hale Havens, yellow; free-stone peaches, and the Hiley variety, a white-meated free-stone. Earlier Chilco had sent out its Fair Beauty peach - a: yellow semi-cling. The famous Elbertas move out later, around the latter part of July.

But the real treasure of the county, as emphasized by Mr. Brown during the festivities at Thorsby, and as pointed out during a tour of the orchards, lies in the rich, sandy loam characteristic of the area. Care of this soil and the products coming from it has become the concern of the Extension Service, working with the Alabama Polytechnic Institute and through the county agent.

Lieutenant Governor Inzer cited the fact that Alabama as a whole has passed its “corn and cotton days,” and Luther Fuller, of Montgomery, congratulated Chilton County on its great diversity of crops. First-grade crops of watermelons, tomatoes, beans, cantaloupes, strawberries, and many others testify today to the fine results being obtained by means of crop-planning and community cooperation.

That joint action brought about the queen-choosing contest, the parade, the peach-judging competition, the orchard tour and the ball game which followed. It generated a festival dance held in the Thorsby gymnasium that night. But it also put the light of public recognition on a bang-up agricultural job being done by Dolphus Gentry, E. N. Bentley, C. J. Mitchell, A. B. Jones, H. and A. D. Headley, the aforesaid Mr. Roper and Mr. Deramus, and a host of other peach growers.

It might be said in closing, therefore, that when Lee Hornsby bought his $250.00 bushel of peaches, in effect, ‘ at least, he didn’t pay too much for them. For they represented the very best product of a people not afraid of hard work and planning: a people determined that the whole nation shall someday regard their first festival motto: “Chilton County Peaches Are Tops,” as a household phrase.

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