Enquirer Herald

90 years of peaches

Arthur Black and his two brothers grew up working on the family’s 500-acre farm, hauling loads of peaches that were picked in its orchards to its packing house on S.C. 5.

The Black boys — Eddie, Arthur and John — also pulled loads of 300-pound ice blocks from plants in York and elsewhere to the packing house, where peaches were sorted and cooled to 34 degrees for shipping.

Peach farming was big business in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the boys grew up. Refrigerated trucks, cooled by ice, carried loads of peaches to Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and other northern cities.

“I remember as a kid, you could go all the way west of York and up to Filbert, and you’d see peaches after peaches after peaches,” said Arthur Black, 62. “You talk about a pretty sight in the springtime.”

Peach growing in Western York County has changed during the years, yet it still attracts thousands of peach fans each summer, who choose baskets of the sweet, juicy fruits or set out into local orchards to pick their own.

The Black family, which has been growing and selling peaches from the family farm since 1923, this year will mark 90 years of peach growing. Black’s Peaches, 1800 Black Highway, will host a birthday celebration from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 3, with throwback prices, children’s activities and food.

The family’s history in York County — which dates to the late 19th century, long before the boom in peach growing — parallels the evolution in farming and in peaches.

Although the Black name goes hand-in-hand with peaches, the farm produces a variety of crops, from hay, cotton and wheat to pumpkins, tomatoes, melons and other produce. The family also has a history of local business entrepreneurship and public service.

“The whole family has done whatever they could do to make a living and stay here,” said Arthur Black, who makes his home on the family’s 500-acre property west of York, where his mother, Polly Black Rogers, brother, John Black, and their children also have homes.

The iconic Black’s Peaches produce stand, perched along S.C. 5 on a hill west of York and surrounded by peach orchards and fields of golden hay and wheat, harkens to the days of an old-fashioned general store, where people would gather to visit with their neighbors. “Peaches since 1923,” boasts a hand-painted sign over the cash register.

Arthur Black’s daughter, 35-year-old Beth White, who manages the roadside produce market, grew up playing on the farm, and working there with her two brothers, Paul and Christopher Black. “I’ve always loved seeing all the people who come here and talking to them,” she said.

Black said his great grandfather, Robert Black, started farming the land in the late 1800s, and the family later operated a cotton gin. But it was his grandfather, Arthur Lindsay Black, who planted peaches.

A.L. Black served two terms in the state Legislature, and is said to have successfully lobbied for the paving of the highway that slices through the family property, and which is named in his memory. A.L. Black was one of York County’s early peach farmers, but not the first, Black said.

Arthur Black and his mother, Polly Black Rogers, said A.L. Black was a friend of the late brothers Earl and Bratton Land, local farmers who learned about peach growing in a trip to Florida and decided to try their hand at it.

Black said his grandfather decided to grow some peaches, too, and he set out the Black family’s first trees in 1923. “It was an experiment,” Black said. “They didn’t know anything about it.”

But South Carolina’s sunny, warm climate proved hospitable to peaches, and during the next several decades, peach orchards sprawled over a thousand or more acres of York County farming land. Cotton was laid in by the Fourth of July, when the peaches were ready for picking, Black said, and peaches helped local farms have a year-round crop.

A.L. Black ran “a 20-mule farm” and a cotton gin, said Black, but he had other pursuits besides farming. He started a general store, Black’s Store on Black Highway. And he opened a dance hall and dug a swimming hole with a rope cable where local folks gathered in the 1920s and ’30s, Black said.

In the early years, Black said, the family farm grew only three kinds of peaches — Georgia Belle, Slappy and Elberta — and the peach season only lasted through July.

But research established new varieties of peaches, and the season grew to six weeks, then eight, then three to four months. The farm now grows about 25 varieties of peaches on 50 acres from June to September.

During World War II, A.L. Black and his college-age daughter were killed in an automobile crash, and his only son, Edward Clark “Punk” Black, took over the farm and the general store.

E.C. Black also made his mark in the community. He served in York County’s government for 20 years, first on the board of directors and later on the York County Council, from 1960 to 1980. He also started a small trucking firm, Black’s Trucking Co.

“He said he had to have something besides farming and peaches to make a living,” said Polly Black Rogers, who remarried after E.C. Black died in 1985.

Arthur and John Black, and the eldest brother, Eddie Black, who died of cancer in 2000, began working on the farm at a young age. “We worked with peaches from the time we were big enough to be put on a tractor,” said John Black.

Arthur Black remembers driving a Ford 601 tractor to ferry bushels of peaches from the orchards to the packing shed when he was 9 years old. “I wore the tires bald that summer,” he said.

At the height of peach farming, Black’s peach packing shed was once one of about 40 York County peach packing operations, said Arthur Black. The farm employed 50 to 75 people to pick peaches during the season.

During the 1970s, John Black said, the farm also grew 25 acres of Concord grapes. At first, he said, the grapes were picked by hand and shipped to a Welch’s plant in Spartanburg. Later, there was an automated picker, and the grapes went to a winery in Chesterfield County.

But of the three sons, Arthur was the one interested in farming. In 1972, when he came back to York after finishing at Clemson University, the farm shipped its last three truckloads of peaches north.

Black said the market was flooded with peaches, and the only thing the family got back for the three loads of peaches was a shipping bill. The peaches, he said, were never sold.

E.C. Black wanted to get out of the peach business, but the younger Black said he didn’t want to let it go. So they started the roadside market and the pick-your-own peach business, which did brisk sales.

“People would come and pick their own and share the peaches with friends and neighbors,” said Polly Black Rogers. “They would bring their trucks and cars, and they would just fill them up with peaches.”

One day in the 1970s, Black said, he sold 3,000 bushels of pick-your-own peaches. “People did more canning and freezing and putting up fruit,” he said. “It was a more frugal time.”

As a young farmer, Black said he learned a lot by sitting at Black’s Store, where many farmers gathered, and listening to seasoned veterans talk of their farming successes and failures. “Experiences are expensive, and if you pay attention, you can get some pretty good knowledge,” he said.

Arthur and E.C. Black ran the farm together until the elder Black died in 1985. Eddie and John Black engaged in several other York business ventures on S.C. 5, including the trucking company and a Massey Ferguson tractor dealership. John Black still runs a sand and gravel business there.

Farming has never been a certain way to make a living, and Black weathered his share of ups and downs. One year in the 1980s, he said, early peaches were killed by a freeze, but he had a fine crop later that season.

“Nobody had peaches; they were going to bring a lot of money,” Black said. “We were going to start picking them that Monday. And then a hail storm came up and beat up every one of them. There was nothing left.”

Black said he has grown immune to fretting over such tragedies, and he now accepts them as part of farming. “It goes from famine to feast in a heartbeat,” he said.

About 15 years ago, with the advent of agritourism, the farm began hosting tours in October. Last fall, some 4,000 children visited with school groups or with families to enjoy hay rides, a corn maze, tours and pumpkins.

“It’s a little nostalgic,” Black said, noting that a family of four can enjoy several hours of simple fun for $25. “In today’s market, $25 doesn’t take a family of four very far.”

Like his father and grandfather, Black also has devoted time to community service. He served for a dozen years on the York school board, and is president of the York County chapter of the S.C. Farm Bureau.

Black, who handles the farming operation himself these days, said he has no plans to retire. But his daughter wonders who will take over, and how to save the immense farming knowledge her father has acquired.

Black’s two sons, Paul and Christopher, still live on the family property and are raising their families there. Paul is a lineman for York Electric Coop; Christopher is an educator, now principal of York Comprehensive High School.

And peaches are popular summer treats, although Arthur Black noted that people don’t buy them in the large amounts they once did. Fewer people can and freeze peaches or other produce, he said. But peaches do lure people to the stand, where they buy other produce.

The produce stand, once only a seasonal operation, has been open year round for the past six years. Arthur Black’s wife, Marsha Black, runs the Cotton Belt Bakery and there’s also an ice cream stand.

It’s still a place where people stop in to visit — and buy peaches and produce — and Beth White said she hopes it always will be. “I think you need places like this to keep you grounded,” she said, “and remind you of a simpler life.”