Peaches and Dreams

by | Jun 1, 2011 | Features

The River Valley has a long history of celebrating its favorite food products with a festival. Altus in Franklin County has grapes and wine fests; Pope County celebrates Atkins pickles; Crawford County loves its spinach, but Clarksville in Johnson County takes the grand prize. Their 70th annual Peach Festival is the longest-running outdoor festival in Arkansas. 
Peaches are probably the most universally loved of all these celebrated foods. Not many people can resist a wholesome fresh picked peach, rosy hued and juicy with flavor; or those “oh so good” pies, cobblers, jams and jellies.

Nicknamed “Persian Apples”, peaches were thought to originate in Persia and later spread by caravan throughout Asia and Europe. Columbus probably introduced peaches to America and native Indians spread peach trees to many regions before the settlers arrived, according to a publication by the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.
Clarksville’s annual Peach Festival is more than a celebration of fruit. It’s also a celebration of the forward- thinking farmers of Johnson County who dreamed up a new way to supplement income when prices dropped out of the cotton market in the 1890’s.
Peaches were in high demand up North then and the climate around Clarksville, Ludwig and nearby Red Lick Mountain provided a perfect environment for peach orchards. The soil was well adapted and “air drainage” good for growing conditions. The Missouri Pacific railroad, which built a loading platform in Clarksville, provided fast transport to markets in St Louis and beyond.
Although commercial peach orchards have dwindled to less than five in recent years, at one time Johnson County reportedly had more peach bearing trees than any other county in the United States and much of area around Clarksville was planted in orchards, according to a recent installed wall poster about the Peach industry at the U of A Fruit Research Station on Red Lick Mountain in Ludwig.

In the late 1930’s, when the annual festival started as a pot luck picnic in Ludwig, until the early 1940’s peach production in the area was at its peak and the area produced 500,000 bushels a year.
The peach craze in Johnson County all started with an article on Elberta Peaches in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper back in 1893, according to a 1949 newspaper article in Clarksville’s Herald Democrat. JR Tolbert, editor of the then called Johnson County Herald and JJ Taylor of Ludwig, who both subscribed to the Atlanta Constitution newspaper, decided to give peaches a try and ordered trees at 5 cents per dozen. Three years later, the peaches “looked like cantaloupes in comparison and color ”to other peach strains with which the men were familiar.

Tolbert planted 100 trees and soon other area farmers like L.W. Mickel and M.D. Lamb planted 400 trees each. That’s when F.M. Farris, who owned an apple orchard nearby, decided to contact the railroad about shipping possibilities. Farris eventually went to work for the railroad and became a ‘”peach missionary” and sold 30,000 young trees to area farmers at two cents each. Soon other farmers planted peach orchards including the Taylors, Landthrips, Kings, Morgans, Pitts, Yarbrough and Holloway families and the Johnson County peach industry went into full swing.
Although a prolonged drought in the late 1930’s cause some orchards to become unprofitable, by the early 1940’s the peach orchards were back in business. In the 1950’s bad weather caused another set back to the industry and again drastically reduced the peach crops in Arkansas.

Because of the unpredictability of crops here, fruit brokers began contracting for peaches grown in more temperate areas, and the hey-day of peaches in Johnson County was over.
That didn’t stop all Johnson County growers. Lloyd Yarborough, who was a grower, packer and shipper of peaches from 1948 until his death in 1996, was very influential in the industry as past president of the Arkansas Peach Council, 1997 Arkansas Horticulture Society Hall of Fame nominee and Grower Magazine Grower of the Year and Arkansas Farm Family of the Year.
The King and Morgan families are also big names in the peach industry of Johnson County. Geraldine King Morgan, who grew up in Ludwig as a King and later married George L. Morgan from another peach growing family, was crowned Queen Elberta VI in 1947. A generation later, Geraldine’s daughter, Marilyn became Queen Elberta XXIX in 1970 and Miss Arkansas in 1971.
For many years Queen Elberta’s job description was to wear the crown and promote peaches, said Geraldine Morgan. Accompanied by community leaders, they caravanned to Fort Smith and to Little Rock stopping at all the towns along the way giving out samples of our sumptuous fruit, creating goodwill, and conveying an invitation to the Peach Festival. It was neighborly face to face marketing with a delicious message. What a thrill for a 16 year old Queen Elberta VI.

Just before Marilyn became Miss Arkansas, there had been serious discussion about discontinuing the Peach Festival, said Geraldine.
“The timing of bringing home the crown to Clarksville renewed resolve to carry on the tradition of the festival in spite of countless hours of work from volunteers,” she added.
Today, area peach growers can expect a full crop three out of five years and only a handful of peach orchards remain in Johnson County. For those that stay in the business, some diversify with other fruit and vegetable crops or raise cattle.
At Morgan’s Peach Pickin’ Paradise, five generations of the Morgan family maintain peach orchards on the same farmland. Although Geraldine is no longer involved in production, she said she “can’t resist dropping in during harvest time to enjoy the people and the peaches.”
How has the business changed? “In earlier days we would never have allowed people into the orchard to pick their own peaches. Now we urge them to do just that. It is a joyful experience,” said Geraldine.
Holloway Farm and Orchard west of Coal Hill on Hwy 64 Altus is another multi-generation peach farm. As a fourth generation grower, Fred Holloway doubled his orchard size in the last few years and added new peach varieties that ripen from early June until mid- August, although July is his big month for peaches, Holloway said.

“Not many people here are in the Peach business any more. It is labor intense because there aren’t mechanized tools so it’s all hand labor. Despite the work involved, Holloway said one reason he planted new trees because he want his boys (the fifth generation) to someday inherit the family business.
Other commercial orchards in the area are Larry Holben’s Triple D Orchard on Red Lick Mountain, the Richardson Family Peach Orchard in Clarksville and Cox Berry Farm and Nursery on Hwy. 292 and Hwy. 818, which has diversified to include strawberries, blueberries and other fruit.
According to Dan Chapman, Director of the U of A Fruit Research Station where a peach orchard is tested and monitored, “there is plenty of money in peaches but also a lot of risks (hail and frosts) and hard work. Peaches are not a friendly homeowner crop because they must be sprayed every week to ten days.”
However, he added, “There is nothing like a fresh peach just picked off the tree. It can’t be beat!”


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