Ozark history columnist Larry Wood discusses the history of growing peaches in the Ozarks and the impact that had on communities.
A few months ago, I wrote about the apple industry in the Ozarks, and a reader recently contacted me to ask whether I’d ever written about the peach industry in the region. The answer was no, but I’m going to change that right now.
The peach industry thrived in the Ozarks during the early 1900s. Probably the most prominent area for commercial peach growing was the Koshkonong-Brandsville district in the south-central part of the state. Peaches had been grown for individual consumption throughout the Koshkonong area and elsewhere in Missouri from the earliest pioneer days, but commercial growing did not begin until the 1890s, when the land was cleared and developed by outside capitalists.
Comprising parts of Howell and Oregon counties, the Koshkonong-Brandsville district extended along the Frisco Railroad from Pomona on the north to Thayer on the south, a distance of about forty miles. Nearly all the orchards were located within five miles of the railroad with loading points situated from one to three miles apart all along the railroad, because the peaches had to be transported to market in a timely fashion before they spoiled. Thus, the district was roughly ten miles wide by forty miles long, although not all of the acreage within that area, of course, was devoted to peach growing. In the fall of 1913, there were about 8,000 acres in the Koshkonong-Brandsville district with fruit-bearing peach trees and another 10,000 acres where new trees had been planted but were not yet bearing fruit.
It usually took three years from the time a tree was planted until it started bearing fruit. When the tree was three years old, it would usually yield about three pecks to one bushel of fruit. One acre could sustain approximately 100 trees, and in 1913 farmers could expect to get about a dollar a bushel for their fruit. So each acre would yield from $75 to a $100 during the third year. This figure went up in succeeding years. For instance, a four-year-old tree could be expected to yield about three bushels, or about three times what it produced in year three. In 1911, when prices were higher than they were in 1913, some growers made as much as $800 an acre from their orchards.
Nearly all peaches shipped from the Koshkonong-Brandsville district were handled by the Koshkonong-Brandsville Peach Growers Association, which was affiliated with the Ozark Fruit Growers Association headquartered at Springfield. Growers had to abide by certain restrictions imposed by the association, pertaining to how the peaches were cultivated, pruned, and sprayed. Nearly all the peaches grown in the district were of the Elberta variety. In the 1913 season, the association shipped a total of 398 train carloads of peaches, 380 of which were Elbertas. A few were of a variety that produced fruit earlier than the Elberta, and a few were later. Many growers averaged better than $100 an acre for their orchards in 1913, even though it was considered a disappointing year.
Most of the fruit produced in the Koshkonong-Brandsville district was shipped from either Koshkonong or Brandsville, but Pomona, West Plains, and a few other communities also had shipping sheds. Most of the fruit was sent to northern cities like Boston and New York.
Harvesting the peaches required an army of pickers, and during the season, people flocked to the area seeking employment. Most came by train, but many arrived in wagons and pitched their tents. Most of the picking occurred during the mornings, and after the day's work was done, many of the workers would go into town, usually Koshkonong seeking what meager entertainment there was to find. In 1913, about all Koshkonong offered in the way of amusement was a traveling theatrical show, horseshoe pitching, or a game of mumbley-peg.
Land in the Koshkonong-Brandsville district, for those interested in going into the peach-growing business, sold for $25 to $75 an acre, depending on whether the land was cleared or not, exactly where it was located, and the terrain. If the land needed clearing, a new grower could expect to sell his timber to the lumber industry for enough money to pay the cost of the clearing.
Larry Wood is a freelance writer specializing in the history of Missouri and the Ozarks. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or like his author Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/AuthorLarryWood/.