Picklin’ peaches

Dear reader, 

This, of course, is the season for a peach story since we’re in the heat of the peach harvest. However, I again find myself distracted by my old tractor business as the more modern and experimental systems enter the antique category. Picklin’ Peaches is an odd combination of a peach growing and wood cutting story. The story originally appeared as the first installment of the column Of Grease and Chaff in Antique Power magazine in November 2008.

By November 1980, I had endured years of the concrete floor and fluorescent light world of my dad’s machine shop, an Iowa grain dryer plant, and finally, a Massey Ferguson dealership when I finally realized that I was meant to work outdoors. To switch to an outdoor job in November in West Virginia requires stubbornness and impulse — two qualities for which people of my nationality are often credited.

I cruised nearby Timber Ridge near Troane, Va. There were several apple and peach orchards up there, most using the latest equipment. When I found Whitham orchard with its old barns, spray rigs mounted on 1940s “Advanced Design” trucks, a pre-war Caterpillar dozer that peeked out from a weathered board shed and the green and red of old Oliver tractors, I knew that I was home. I stopped by and was hired.

Another feature that intrigued me about the place were the many wooden peach tree props — long, heavy forked poles — leaning against every building from the frequented machine sheds to the remotest pump house. Hundreds of these props could be seen standing tepee style along the dusty farm lanes. Like something from a Woody Guthrie song about the American roadside, these props seemed to boldly proclaim; “This is a place of timeless activity — we still do this here.”

I asked our foreman, Robert Ridenour, if we would be using these props in the summer peach season. He chuckled and said that the last time that they had used the props was about 10 years ago. My natural sense of history and nostalgia wasn’t aroused — it was inflamed. I pressed my older co-worker Bob Whitacre for more information. In his old-time West Virginia mountain accent and a gentle voice somewhere between Walter Brennan and a rusty barn door hinge, he told me the story of “picklin’ peaches.”

Picklin’ peaches was a local term for brandied peaches or peaches preserved in brandy. In addition to the obvious benefits, this method of preserving fruit also bypassed the labor-intensive process of pressure canning. An order had gone out from the company doing the brandying for small peaches so that several whole peaches could fit in their jars.

Normally, peaches are thinned rather severely so those remaining on the tree can grow to a marketable size. Without thinning, they grow small and numerous — so much so that without added support their weight could cause limbs to break. Picklin’ peaches were thinned lightly, if at all, and the props were placed to support the limbs.

Of course, placing these hundreds of props required extra temporary help. In those days, many local people depended on orchard work to supplement a modest farm income. Among them were members of a church in which even the mention of the use of alcohol was forbidden.

These folks are all gone now, but I remember seeing them around. They were old, dark and somber like the huge hemlock trees that shaded their church. In our climate, hemlocks only grow in the darkest, coldest hollows where the call of owls can be heard in mid-afternoon. The church no longer stands. Only the stone steps remain rising from the cold, mossy ground into the sun-dappled mist. The old outhouse at the foot of the cliff behind the church still stands among the ferns and gnarled trees and some people say that it’s haunted. If it isn’t, it should be.

Anyway, you can see the problem. These folks refused to work amongst fruit that they knew would be packed in liquor. Someone suggested that some of the peaches might wind up being packed in brine instead. The term “picklin’ peaches” was then adopted and the work went on.

Bob described placing these props — crawling under the heavy, scratchy, peach laden boughs hanging like beaded curtains in a Gypsy tearoom. The sticky heat, gnats and occasional bee stings that accompanied the task of managing the heavy, cumbersome poles made it easy to imagine that other religious compromises may have transpired in the heat of the day.

What caused the lucrative market for brandied peaches to suddenly subside may be a story lost to the ages. Though it’s difficult to imagine a college educated fruit grower behaving like a member of a Pacific cargo cult, Mr. Whitham insisted that the props be preserved should the demand someday resume. And so they stood, most protected by the eaves of the many buildings, until November 1980.

I arrived one morning to find the hay wagon (which was fitted with short sideboards for transporting ladders) hooked to one of the two Oliver 550 tractors. We then spent most of the day pulling this rig around the orchard, gathering up the peach tree props and stacking them near the old banked barn.

“Old 70” was an ancient Oliver Standard 70 which wore almost no paint but was regally adorned with rust and grease. The tractor had been purchased with a stuck engine for $50. The orchard crew had torn down the engine, freed it and reassembled it with no new parts. It ran great. The tractor’s drawbar saw little use these days. Old 70 usually sat in an open fronted shed with its rear PTO shaft attached to an air compressor and a belt-driven cordwood saw permanently mounted to the front.

Robert detached the tractor from the air compressor and drove it carefully (no brakes) over to the stack of peach tree props. The two men backed their personal pickup trucks into the area and I was invited to move my 1954 Chevrolet truck alongside them.

As we sawed, my coworkers kept glancing at me and were apparently trying to conceal laughter. I couldn’t imagine what was going on as I loaded the props, some fairly heavy, onto the saw. Robert sawed while Bob threw the firewood onto the trucks.

Of course, most of the props were apple and peach wood gleaned from larger prunings and the natural cycle of the removal and replacement of tired old trees. They were, however, supplemented by cuttings from the large forested area on the place. As I watched the growing pile of wood on my truck, I saw that it was a perfect mixture of firewood; poplar and pine to get things going on a cold morning — ash, maple, walnut and the fruit woods for a lively fire during the cold, windy days to come and oak and locust to keep the fire going overnight.

Each prop has a forked section that, as firewood, would be impossible to split if one needed it to be smaller such as for kindling or to feed a cooking stove. I noticed that my truck was receiving all of the forks. I stopped loading, looked at the truck for a long moment and then met the eyes of each man in turn. We laughed so hard that we had to stop the saw and take a break. When we resumed, my truck received a generous portion of straight-grained wood. As the pile of sawdust grew under Old 70, the era of peach tree props and picklin’ peaches — at long last — quietly ended.

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