Friday, March 12, 2010

William Miller, Elberta Peaches, and the Ohio Connection

William Miller, Elberta Peaches, and the Ohio Connection

In our modern prepackaged, throwaway society, there seems to be nothing more natural than that fuzz coated morsel of nature, the peach. It is unfortunate that for most of us, eating a peach involves opening a can full of syrup, and digging out either squishy or crunchy chunks tasting mainly of refined sugar and recognized as a peach only because its color is vaguely yellow.

Yet those who are wily still can find and appreciate a variety of fresh peaches. One of our comrades in peach appreciation was a farmer from our own backyard. William Miller, a farmer and orchardist near Port Clinton, grew peach trees, and perhaps by being a cheapskate, gave to us in Ohio a great natural gift: the freestone, yellow, tasty Elberta peach.

Peaches have a lengthy history. The ancient Greeks knew about peaches, but as with so many things, the Chinese were familiar with peaches long before. Kung Futzu (Confucius) mentioned peaches, and China was growing peaches thousands of years before the Greeks. North America was introduced to peaches in 1629. Peach orchards were widely planted in the United States in the years following the Revolution. American peach growing hit a peak in the years from 1875 to 1890, when disease caused a decline in the business.

In the meantime, Elberta peaches were becoming America’s favorite variety of peach. They originated in Marshallville, Georgia in about 1870, when a farmer named Samuel H. Rumph planted pits from a Chinese Cling peach tree. The tree that grew from some of these seeds was pollinated by who-only-knows what natural orchard. Rumph, whose wife’s name was Elberta, named the fruit of this tree after his spouse at the suggestion of friends of hers who had tasted them. Elberta peaches spread throughout the American South, California and even to Michigan.

Cut now to our Ohio orchardist, William Miller. Born in 1844, he was a native of Portage Township in Ottawa County, Ohio. He served in the Union army during the Civil War. A modest man, Miller was fascinated with fruit, and while he owned a fine farm, also tinkered with fruit varieties. He planted his first orchard near Gypsum, Ohio, in 1868. Allegedly he considered grapes first, but his devout father gently suggested that he plant anything but the source of wine. But he did raise Bartlett pears, Baldwin apples, English walnuts, and a variety of other trees.

Miller was fond of fruit, and was always looking for something new. In 1892, a chance acquaintance with a man from Georgia tipped him off to the existence of the Elberta peach. He learned that there were one thousand Elberta trees ready to be planted, and he purchased them and planted them, the first Elbertas in Ohio. Curious neighbors watched the experiment, and were astounded when the crop brought as high as $3.25 a bushel. The Miller family proudly preserved the purchase receipt for the purchase of those first Ohio Elbertas.

Miller’s Gypsum-area farm contained 190 acres at the beginning of the twentieth century, about 55 of it in peaches. Apples, cherries, pears, plums, and a handful of cattle in a mixture of pasture and woodlot made up the rest. Oddly, Miller grew about eight acres of tomatoes, but he did that mainly to keep his orchard helpers busy during the off season. Between pruning, spraying, and harvesting there was little time wasted. Miller preferred married men as laborers, believing them to be more “reliable.”

William Miller was an active businessman in the Catawba Island fruit farming industry. He served as president of the Ohio Horticultural Society, and took an interest in the Elberta Hotel, where fruit brokers stayed when buying up the year’s crop. He lived in a fine house near Gypsum, and turned a profit which, if not spectacular, was solid. Death came to Miller January 28, 1914.

The world of orchards and fruit packing in Ottawa County has declined to a shadow of its former self. In the 1920s, roadside stands began to replace the commercial fruit companies. Always marginal because of spring cold snaps which killed peach blossoms, many farmers gave up growing fruit on the Catawba peninsula. Suburban sprawl has also taken its toll, as vacation homes and tourism have taken the place of fruit trees as the main land use of the area.

There may no longer be many chances to see peach blossoms flickering in spring sunlight, or smell the heady fragrance of peach picking, or taste peach juice rolling down your chin. But if you do see a roadside stand in the neighborhood of Port Clinton that advertises fresh Elberta peaches, get one, and think of modest William Miller. He would approve of your choice.

[The Miller family has a vast collection of letters, papers, and photographs at the Center for Archival Collections, Bowling Green State University. From it, I found especially helpful material in the October 27, 1904 edition of The National Stockman and Farmer, and an unattributed obituary clipping by one S. R. Gill. H. P. Gould, Peach-Growing (New York, 1918), discusses the origins of peach growing on pp. 1-4, 10-11.]

1 comment:

  1. I found your post after eating a peach grown not too far from Elberta, MI. I wondered if Elberta peaches originated here, but I see they did not. I find Michigan peaches are much tastier than ones grown in Georgia where I spent most of my life. Go figger!