Up through the mid-19th century, peaches were primarily a kind of feral resource for Southern farmers. A few distilled the fruit into brandy; many ran their half-wild hogs in the orchards to forage on fallen fruit. Some slave owners used the peach harvest as a kind of festival for their chattel, and runaways provisioned their secret journeys in untended orchards.
In the 1850s, in a determined effort to create a fruit industry for the Southeast, horticulturists began a selective breeding campaign for peaches and other fruits, including wine grapes, pears, apples and gooseberries. Its most famous yield was the Elberta peach.
Introduced by Samuel Henry Rumph in the 1870s, the Elberta became one of the most successful fruit varieties of all time. Other fruits flourished for brief periods, but southern peaches boomed: the number of trees increased more than fivefold between 1889 and 1924.
Increasingly, growers and boosters near the heart of the industry in Fort Valley, Georgia, sought to tell “the story” of the Georgia peach. They did so in peach blossom festivals from 1922 to 1926 – annual events that dramatized the prosperity of the peach belt. Each festival featured a parade of floats, speeches by governors and members of Congress, a massive barbecue and an elaborate pageant directed by a professional dramatist and sometimes involving up to one-fourth of the town’s population.
Festivalgoers came from all across the United States, with attendance reportedly reaching 20,000 or more – a remarkable feat for a town of roughly 4,000 people. In 1924 the queen of the festival wore a US$32,000 pearl-encrusted gown belonging to silent film star Mary Pickford. In 1925, as documented by National Geographic, the pageant included a live camel.
The pageants varied from year to year but in general told a story of the peach, personified as a young maiden and searching the world for a husband and a home: from China, to Persia, to Spain, to Mexico, and finally to Georgia, her true and eternal home. The peach, these productions insisted, belonged to Georgia. More specifically, it belonged to Fort Valley, which was in the midst of a campaign to be designated as the seat of a new, progressive “Peach County.”
That campaign was surprisingly bitter, but Fort Valley got its county – the 161st and last county in Georgia – and, through the festivals, helped to consolidate the iconography of the Georgia peach. The story they told of Georgia as the “natural” home of the peach was as enduring as it was inaccurate. It obscured the importance of horticulturists’ environmental knowledge in creating the industry, and the political connections and manual labor that kept it afloat.
As the 20th century wore on, it became increasingly hard for peach growers to ignore politics and labor. That was particularly clear in the 1950s and 1960s, when growers successfully lobbied for a new peach laboratory in Byron, Georgia, to help combat peach tree short life.
Their chief ally was U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell Jr., one of the most powerful members of Congress in the 20th century and, at the time, chair of the Subcommittee on Agricultural Appropriations. The growers claimed that an expansion of federal research would shore up the peach industry; provide new crops for the South – jujube, pomegranate and persimmons, to name a few; and provide jobs for Black Southerners who would, the growers maintained, otherwise join the “already crowded offices of our welfare agencies.”
Russell pushed the proposal through the Senate, and – after what he later described as the most difficult negotiations of his 30-year career – through the House as well. In time, the laboratory would play a crucial role in supplying new varieties necessary to maintain the peach industry in the South.