Berrien County’s Great Peach Boom!

Peach Tree

Berrien County's Great Peach Boom!

By: William John Armstrong

Michigan’s fruit farms, many of which are located in the famed “fruit belt” that runs along the eastern coast of Lake Michigan, are national leaders in cherry, apple and blueberry production. Surprisingly, Michigan’s first commercially successful fruit was neither the cherry nor the apple, but the delicate peach. By the mid-nineteenth century peaches made Berrien County one of America’s great fruit producers.

The first peach tree in western Michigan was probably planted by William Burnett, who established a trading post on the west bank of the St. Joseph River a mile upstream from Lake Michigan in the 1780s. Burnett planted an orchard near his post and was credited with having taken great pains in caring for it. When the first permanent settlers reached the area in the late 1820s they found Burnett’s orchard healthy and still bearing fruit. Besides a few peach trees, the settlers also found a few seedling peach trees growing along the east bank of Hickory Creek and at the future site of the community of St. Joseph.

The next peach trees planted in Berrien County were at the Carey Mission in present-day Niles Township. In 1826 the Reverend Isaac McCoy, founder of the mission, had a peach orchard of “two or three hundred” trees.

Berrien’s earliest permanent settlers brought seedling fruit trees with them and planted enough trees to provide for their personal needs. Because trees took a long time to mature, some of the more resourceful pioneers budded their fruits on the roots of wild plum trees to acquire crops more quickly. Most early settlers planted apple and pear trees that were hardy and relatively disease resistant. They also planted a considerable number of the more delicate peach trees. Nearly every pioneer family had at least one. The growing of peaches was slow to catch on, but when settlers realized the region was suited for successful cultivation of the climate-sensitive fruit, peaches quickly gained popularity.

The first shipment of a peach-related product was made by a settler named Brodiss, who lived six miles north of Niles. In 1834 he brought his seedling peaches by canoe to St. Joseph to peddle them. Three years later John Pike of Royalton Township sold fruit in St. Joseph from his orchard. In 1839 local banker Benjamin Hoyt sold his peaches to a cook whose steamer regularly shipped in and out of St. Joseph. The cook packed the peaches in barrels and took them to Chicago on speculation.

The following year local schooner captain Curtis Boughton purchased Hoyt’s peaches and transported them to Chicago where he sold them for forty-five dollars per barrel–an enormous sum of money. Each succeeding year Boughton sailed to Chicago with peaches; however, the amount he shipped was limited by the small number of peach trees grown in the area. These annual shipments marked the beginnings of southwestern Michigan’s commercial fruit industry.

Most of the early peach growers planted their trees in the corners of fence rows and not as orchards. This method of cultivation was inefficient and served primarily to meet the needs of the family. Not until the extremely cold winters of the 1840s destroyed the inland peach trees did attention focus on the large-scale commercial possibilities of growing peaches. Agriculturists and farmers began studying why the weather in southwestern Michigan was conducive for growing peaches.

While many believed soil to be the reason for the successful growth of peach trees, others suggested that it was the influence of Lake Michigan. Most of the explanations centered around the theory that the lake acted like a regulator, moderating the extremes of both heat and cold. In the spring, when early warming spells caused the inland fruit trees to bud, the cool winds blowing off Lake Michigan checked the premature growth of fruit along the shore. This cooling effect saved the trees from the killing frosts in late spring. In the fall, the lake delayed the early frosts, allowing the fruit time to ripen. Young fruit buds, developing for the following season, were given time to mature, while the young wood ripened sufficiently to withstand the approaching winter.

Another issue concerned the width of the fruit belt. Observers in the mid-1870s contended that it was a strip of land not more than two miles wide; others stated that it was three, five, ten or fifteen miles inland from the lake. In 1878 B. Hathaway of Little Prairie Ronde noted that the peach belt fell within the larger fruit belt.

While the experts discussed and debated the boundaries and the merits of the fruit belt, Berrien County growers expanded their peach production. Three requirements were necessary for growing peaches successfully: a moderate climate, an available market and transportation facilities. Berrien County offered all three. The local farmers also realized that they had stumbled across a crop that required simple cultivation and gave fabulous returns.

As Berrien farmers began specializing in a fruit crop, they recognized they needed a better quality peach. In 1842 Benjamin Hoyt began a nursery in St. Joseph using improved varieties of peaches imported from Long Island, New York. One of the varieties he grew was the Crawford peach. In 1844 he sent a few baskets of Crawfords to Chicago.

Berrien County’s first sizable commercial peach orchard was planted in 1847 by George Parmelee of Bainbridge Township. At the time, growers believed that the only area suitable for growing peaches was in the immediate vicinity of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. Captain Boughton planted 130 peach trees in St. Joseph in 1849. About the same time, Eleazer Morton set out a peach orchard in Benton Township, while Dr. Talman Wheeler established the “Teetzel” orchard. These were the area’s first formal peach orchards; they began bearing fruit in 1852. By 1855 several thousand baskets of peaches–mostly Crawfords–were being shipped to Chicago annually. The fruit was sold for three dollars per bushel; the peaches were then peddled by street vendors for ten cents each.

Many years later George Parmelee declared that the first great rush to get into peach tree planting occurred when he contracted his first large peach crop to be sold in St. Joseph for fifteen hundred dollars. He maintained that the figure became overinflated as word of it spread across the county, but that it “did its work.” It became the impetus for a tremendous agricultural boom.

When news of the growing qualities of southwestern Michigan reached Indiana, Ohio and points east, a steady stream of families moved to the area to try their hand at growing peaches. In 1857 two Cincinnati, Ohio, bankers arrived in Benton Township, leased seventy acres from Henry Morton, and planted the entire tract with several varieties of peach trees. The orchard became known locally as the Cincinnati Orchard.

When the Civil War began, the departure of men joining the army created a shortage of manpower to work the state’s farms. While this shortage encouraged the development and use of new machines, like the reaper and the thresher, there were no such machines to help the fruit farmer. Growing fruit was highly labor-intensive, and it became difficult to maintain the orchards during the war. The planting of trees, however, continued to increase at a steady rate, and when the soldiers returned home in 1865 they found more peach trees than when they left. The Cincinnati Orchard, for example, had become so profitable that it was known among agriculturists throughout the United States.

By 1865 there were 207,639 peach trees in and around St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. There also were approximately 70,000 apple, 40,000 pear, 10,000 cherry, 2,500 quince and 3,000 plum trees, as well as “more strawberry, blackberry, and raspberry plants than could be enumerated.” But the peach was king, and many considered Berrien’s peach orchards the best in America. By 1870 approximately six thousand acres of Berrien County were planted with peaches. Peach orchards, or plantations as they were called, dotted the countryside; some orchards stretched as far as the eye could see.

By 1870 everything in and around Berrien County seemed to be related to fruit, especially peaches. The newspapers were filled with information (weather, diseases, new farming techniques, new peach varieties) concerning fruit cultivation. Papers written by growers and researchers were often quoted in their entirety; debates concerning the latest farming techniques also were included. Advertisements issued from fruit buyers, packers, men who ran trimming and spraying services, and growers who needed laborers to work in their orchards filled the newspapers. Packing operations sprang up across the countryside. New sawmills and veneer mills produced the rough stock for making apple barrels and peach baskets. The peach also was responsible, in large part, for the founding and early growth of Benton Harbor. Even the town’s first newspaper was named The Peach Orchard.

Farmers began making more money than previously imagined. The fruit from one acre of trees often brought in $5,000. Sometimes the profits from one peach crop alone paid for the entire land they were grown on. In its most productive years, the Cincinnati Orchard annually produced over thirty-seven thousand baskets of peaches and netted about $20,000 ($224,000 in 1993 dollars).

Farmers who had started out living in simple log cabins were suddenly constructing large farmhouses of the latest styles, as well as barns and outbuildings, and placing attractive picket or wrought-iron fences around their yards. Many of them bought fine horses and carriages, and donated money to build churches and schools and to facilitate improvements on county roads and bridges.

The late-summer peach harvest was a time of tremendous activity in Berrien County. First, the fruit was picked, sorted and packed in baskets or boxes. The baskets of fruit were originally covered with mosquito netting and bound with heavy cord; in later years peaches were shipped uncovered. The packages were loaded on wagons and taken to the markets in either St. Joseph or Benton Harbor. Although Benton Harbor was less than ten years old in 1870, its market surpassed the St. Joseph market in size.

Each day during the peach harvest, Benton Harbor’s streets were crowded with buyers, farmers, packers, merchants, teamsters, laborers, shippers and curious onlookers. Growers with their wagons lined up along Pipestone and Territorial roads waiting to enter the Benton Harbor market. Buyers often swarmed over the wagons, checking the fruit for freshness and quality, while haggling over prices with the growers. In 1869, during one thirteen-day period, 307,322 packages of peaches were shipped from Benton Harbor and St. Joseph.

The peaches had to be transported quickly and safely to their final destination. The fruit was marked, then taken to the docks or to the railroad depot and prepared for shipment. Before the railroad reached the area, most peaches were shipped by steamship to Chicago or Milwaukee and then distributed further westward. When the railroad reached Benton Harbor in 1870, peaches were more easily shipped by express across the Midwest.

Before the arrival of the railroad, ships hauled peaches in and out of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph during the harvest season. On the busiest days, the passengers often shared deck space with baskets of the freshly picked fruit. The wooden-hulled side-wheeler Hippocampus was one of the hardest working early peach steamers. When she sank on the night of 7 September 1868, speculation abounded as to what had happened. Some said a loose plank, but when the ship’s few survivors noted that the vessel literally tipped up on one side and went under, it was suspected that the peaches had shifted enough to throw her off balance.

Other shipwrecks were attributed to the overloading of fruit, but these tragedies were accepted as a business risk associated with growing and selling fruit. Success and money continued to pour into the pockets of the farmers, shippers, owners of basket and packaging factories and fruit buyers. Just when it seemed that prosperity would never end, a disaster struck that proved more devastating than the loss of twenty fruit steamers.

In 1866 grower D. M. Brown, whose farm was just south of St. Joseph, noticed that some of his peach trees were afflicted by disease. Because it appeared on few trees he paid little attention to it. In 1868 St. Joseph growers John Whittlesey and A. P. Winchester noticed the same symptoms on some of their Crawford peach trees. The affected fruit prematurely ripened, the meat was unnaturally red (especially near the pit) and as the fruit approached maturity it acquired an “insipid and unwholesome taste.” The branches had slender, wiry shoots growing from them, with small, colorless leaves. The sap was orange in color, slimy to the touch and emitted a sickish odor. As the disease progressed, it traveled down the trunk of the tree where tufts of unnatural growth developed. The new wood and bark of the tree in this area became softer, lighter in color and spongy. The disease was identified as the “Yellows.”

Some growers experimented with preventive measures to counter the Yellows. Tree limbs were removed and various home remedies were tried, but nothing seemed to halt its advance. Five years later the Yellows, which spread with such speed that most of Berrien County’s great peach plantations were infected, cut a wide path of destruction through the orchards and frantic growers tried everything to stop it. They removed branches, slit bark and applied a myriad of concoctions from wood ashes, lye and salt, to potash, warm water and superphosphates.

On 5 August 1871 the local Fruit Growers Society gathered at the Benton Harbor Congregational Church to address the topic of diseased peach trees. The members discussed the various techniques they used to treat their trees. Grower Smith Horsey proposed a supposedly successful method for treating a tree infected with the Yellows. After the tree had shed its leaves he removed a portion of the soil around the collar of the tree, down as far as the roots. A bushel of unbleached ashes was poured into the hole followed by boiling water. The soil was then replaced. The same treatment was performed in the spring, before the leaves appeared. Some growers supported Horsey’s remedy, but others argued that the only way to stop the spread of the Yellows was to remove the affected tree limbs and burn them. Although members differed on the best way for treating diseased peach trees, they all agreed that suitable treatment would save them. Before the meeting ended, the secretary of the society was instructed to contact a chemist at Michigan Agricultural College (present-day Michigan State University) to analyze the problem.

As the Yellows was studied and researched more thoroughly, many theories were offered regarding its origin in Berrien County. The most likely hypothesis contended that the disease was introduced in 1862 on trees imported from New Jersey. The trees had been planted on the farm of D. M. Brown. Additional research showed that pollen taken from the blossoms of diseased trees and used to impregnate the pistils of blossoms on healthy trees spread the disease between them. In times of strong wind, diseased pollen moved far across the countryside to deliver its deadly cargo.

The devastation of southwestern Michigan’s peach culture came with the realization that there was no known cure for the Yellows. The only alternative was to cut down and burn the diseased trees. Armed with saws, axes, ropes, shovels and teams of horses, the Berrien County growers destroyed their orchards, even pulling the roots from the ground and burning them. Entire peach plantations were systematically destroyed in an attempt to stop the disease from reaching unaffected trees. By 1874 only 503 acres of peaches remained in the county. In 1877 the great Cincinnati Orchard also fell victim to the axe and firebrand.

The plantations hit hardest by the Yellows were located around St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. It was here that the early remedies were tried and the affected trees allowed to stand. Where trees were cut immediately upon detection there was more success in stopping the disease’s advance. When the Yellows was first detected in adjacent Van Buren County in 1873, the growers were well aware of its cause and what measures were required to stop it. The South Haven Pomological Society encouraged the Michigan State Legislature to enact a law to compel growers to destroy diseased trees at once. Passed in 1875, the act declared all fruit trees in Allegan, Van Buren and Ottawa counties infected with the Yellows, “shall be held to be without pecuniary value and their fruit unfit for use as food; and that, as the best known means of preventing the spread of such disease, both tree and fruit so infected shall be subject to destruction as public nuisances.”

The law met with little resistance. The growers took whatever measures necessary to prevent the Yellows from infecting their orchards. The method used to eradicate the Yellows was drastic, but it worked. The disease never gained much of a foothold north of Berrien County.

Many growers in and around St. Joseph and Benton Harbor planted new orchards as soon as the infected trees had been destroyed. But the damage was done–during the 1879 season there, were only 78,299 baskets of peaches shipped from St. Joseph. This number paled in comparison with the great harvests of only a few years earlier. During a good year the Cincinnati Orchard alone produced half that amount. Berrien County dropped from being the foremost peach-producing county in the state–with more acreage than all other peach-growing counties combined–to ninth.

Berrien County’s peach culture was ravaged, but it did not die. When researchers discovered that the Yellows could be controlled through a vigilant culling of diseased trees from the orchards, and by planting only the highest quality stock, peach plantings again increased.

Encouraged by high market prices and the absence of any serious competition in the Midwest, Berrien County growers worked hard to reconstruct their orchards. In parts of the county, as well as the other peach-growing regions of the state, a virtual peach-planting frenzy occurred between 1884 and 1906. In 1898 the number of peach trees growing in Michigan peaked at about 12.5 million.

People continued to catch the peach-growing fever, and Berrien County’s fifty-year attraction with peaches was very much alive. Success stories abounded, inspiring people from all walks of life to try their hand at growing peaches. Two who were particularly successful were Frank Williams and Roland Morrill. From 1888 to 1890 Williams was the owner/editor of a newspaper called the Coloma Boomer, considered one of the country’s most eccentric newspapers. Despite his paper’s national reputation, he became a farmer, seeing a greater future in growing peaches. He was right. In 1897 the American Agricultural Society voted Morrill’s peach orchard, which was located just outside of Benton Harbor, as the finest in the nation. By 1902 Morrill was so successful that he was dubbed Michigan’s “Peach King.”

Berrien growers continued making large profits until one autumn night in 1906. On October 10 southwestern Michigan experienced a heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures; the thermometer plummeted to eleven to fifteen degrees Fahrenheit. The early snowstorm had a devastating effect on Michigan’s peach industry. Many trees still had their leaves and some varieties were still being picked. In Berrien County the number of peach trees dropped from 1,377,734 to 267,800; in adjacent Van Buren County the orchards were nearly swept clean. Only those growers with orchards located on high ground escaped severe damage. They remained optimistic, however; many viewed the freeze as a “great clearing house,” ridding the county of underproductive and worthless orchards. The growers had defeated the Yellows, insects and previous freezes; they determinedly replanted their orchards. But soon another adversity struck; this time they were powerless to defeat their new opponent.

With the introduction of the refrigerated railroad car, Michigan’s monopoly of the Chicago peach market disappeared. The Midwest’s most populous city could now receive peaches from all parts of the country, forcing Berrien growers to compete against growers from as far away as Georgia and New York.

The great Berrien County peach boom came to an end with refrigeration. Peaches continued to be harvested in the county, and farmers continued to make a living from them, but without the big profits-the risk of growing them was too great. Diversification became safer. Fruits such as apples, pears, plums, cherries and grapes were grown in ever larger numbers along Michigan’s fruit belt.

Today, Berrien, Van Buren and Oceana counties are Michigan’s largest peach producers. With nearly 8,300 acres of peach trees, these counties collectively generated 50 million pounds of peaches in 1992. But the great peach harvests of the late nineteenth century, which spurred a tremendous economic growth in Berrien County, are gone. The towns of southwestern Michigan continued growing after 1906, but the peach producer of yesteryear has taken his place in history with the fur trader, the copper miner and the lumber baron.

Bibliographic Note

Sources used include: Plant Pathology (1988), Catalogue of Fruit Growers & Shippers in the Great Fruit Region of Michigan (1873) by George Agrios; The History of Berrien and Van Buren Counties (1880) by Franklin Ellis; “Father of Peach Growing Here” (n.d.), Berrien Springs Era; “First Peaches Shipped to Chicago In Sailing Craft A Century Ago,” 31 December 1946, Benton Harbor News-Palladium; “Horticultural,” II August 187 1, Benton Harbor Palladium; Peach Culture in Michigan (1941) by Stanley Johnson; Reminiscences of the Lower St. Joseph River Valley (n.d.) by Stanley J. Morton; “The Peach Orchard,” 20 July 1877, Benton Harbor Palladium; Thirty-seventh Annual Report of the Secretary of the State Horticultural Society of Michigan (1908); “Williams of the Boomer Finds Fruit Growing More Profitable,” 25 March 1905, The News-Palladium and The Peaches of New York (1917) by Ulysses P. Hendrick.

This article was originally published in the May/June 1993 issue of Michigan History Magazine. Back issues may still be available from Michigan History Magazine. © 1993 Michigan Historical Center.