Sandhills Peach Industry: A Short History

by Taylor Williams, Agricultural Extension Agent

Peaches ventured into the Sandhills from outside investors, wanderers, and incurable romantics. The droughty sands of the region grew little else but longleaf pines, which in the decades after the civil war, had been logged to near extirpation. About 1871 the Raleigh and Augusta Air Line Railroad opened up the largely uninhabited land west of Fayetteville known as the "pine barrens. " Cutover land could be had for 50 cents per acre, and in 1895 James Walker Tufts founded Pinehurst with the opening of the Holly Inn.

While Southern Moore County was enjoying land speculation, a New England farmer named John Howard (J.H.) Hale was busily expanding his peach empire from Connecticut to Fort Valley, Georgia. Several variety of peaches named for him are still widely grown. Hale developed the iconic split wood peach baskets, and a means of shipping peaches by rail. A thriving industry developed with deliveries to New York and other urban markets up north.

As Pinehurst was developing its standing as a golfing destination, wealthy investors from around the US bought large tracts of land and began growing peaches. Among these were Raphael Pumpelly, son of a famous geologist, who purchased 500 acres at the highest point in Moore County which he named Samarcand, an homage to youthful wanderings to central Asia. Pumpelly, along with Ralph Page, philanthropist Frederick Taylor Gates, and Roger Alden Derby, scion of an old New England family, purchased large tracts of land and began raising peaches. Soon they had attracted a sizeable cohort of wealthy ex-patriots.

These gentleman farmers had for the most part no prior experience on the land. Katherine Ball Ripley, author of Sand in My Shoes, sojourned for five years in the late 1920’s. Describing her fellow orchardists, she wrote "They wore overalls through the day, and bossed a gang in the fields and in the evening put on dinner coats and entered into the resort life of Pinehurst. "

a 1895 photo of men in a peach packing shed

Sandhills peach crop enjoyed a niche in the eastern markets. The well drained sandy soil, perched on hills hundreds of feet above the coastal plain to the east, provided the air and water drainage needed to grow sweet, healthy peaches consistently each season. Fruit ripens three weeks after south Georgia peaches, and many weeks before those in Pennsylvania and Michigan.

The Great Depression hit in 1929, just as new production areas in north Georgia, whose fruit ripens only a few days earlier than ours, began to produce. Peaches which had sold for $4.50 per bushel now could hardly command prices above $1. Gentlemen farmers abandoned their orchards, or in some cases sold them to men who had once been their farm managers. Thus dreamers and builders ceded their gains to pragmatic realists who hung on, or even expanded orchards by means of hard work and a Scottish devotion to thrift. Many of today’s peach growers are the descendents of these men.

The industry has since shifted from dependence on shipments to lucrative northern markets to local sales.

The native sons and daughters of the Sandhills await each year’s peach season: they ask their farmer neighbors if the late freeze in March devastated the peach crop, nibble approvingly at early cling peaches in June, and clean out ice cream cranks and canning supplies for the main freestone crop in July. While other parts of the country settle for the sad little hardballs fraudulently offered as peaches in stores, locals know their peaches are superior by orders of magnitude. A peach shipped 3000 miles from California necessarily is picked immature. Such fruit misses the final swelling as sugars and flavors are provisioned in the tree-ripened peach. The hardballs may be more civilized to consume, but the primal experience of biting into fruit from the tree, gushing sweet juice down the chin, should be on everyone’s bucket list.