It was almost 100 degrees.
Not exactly the best weather for an outdoor festival.
Still, it was hard to find a parking place in downtown Clarksville on the Saturday of this year’s Johnson County Peach Festival, which first was held in the summer of 1938.
Tents filled the lawn of the Johnson County Courthouse as vendors sold arts, crafts and food items.
There was a time when Arkansas was among the leading peach-growing states in the country.
Peaches came from Johnson, Franklin, Pope and Faulkner counties.
There were northwest Arkansas peaches from Benton, Washington and Boone counties.
There were southwest Arkansas peaches from Howard, Pike and Clark counties.
There were Crowley’s Ridge peaches from Cross and St. Francis counties.
Peaches were shipped commercially to surrounding states, and roadside stands were common.
“All of the farmers around here used to have 20, 30 or even 100 acres of orchards,” Steve Morgan told us at his Peach Pickin’ Paradise between Clarksville and Lamar.
Cars were lined up at the entrance of the pick-your-own operation, which the Morgan family has owned since 1977. The family grows more than 20 varieties of peaches and nectarines on about 3,500 trees. Five generations of the Morgan family have operated orchards in this area.
James Griffin Morgan founded Morgan Farms in 1876 and grew a few peaches on the farm for personal use. George Morgan Sr. began growing peaches commercially during the 1920s. When George Morgan Jr. returned to Johnson County following his service in World War II, he began his own orchards.
Steve’s son Mark told Jessica Mozo of Farm Flavor earlier this year: “Grocery store peaches are picked firm so they can travel. We have the benefit of being able to leave our peaches on the tree until they soften and get their sugar. People can come pick peaches and eat them the same day. It’s a completely different product than what you find in a store.”
George Morgan Jr. and his wife Geraldine — Steve’s parents — began the pick-your-own business in 1977.
“People in the industry scratched their heads and wondered how my grandpa would get people to come out and pick all these peaches,” Mark Morgan told Mozo. “But he did it by staying open seven days a week, 12 hours a day, and building relationships with people so they developed many repeat customers. It’s also a fun family experience. We’re thankful when we see parents and grandparents bringing their kids out. Many grandparents worked picking peaches in the 1950s and 1960s, and they enjoy sharing that with their grandkids. We like to put smiles on faces.”
He noted that his grandmother, Geraldine, still helps out: “It’s pretty cool being able to work with my dad, my stepmom Carol, my brother James and my grandma Geraldine, who’s still involved. And now we have Kate (the daughter of Mark and his wife Shay) crawling around. We hope she will end up performing brain surgeries. But if she wants to grow peaches, that’s all right with me.”
“Peaches were introduced as a crop in Arkansas after the Civil War, as were many other fruits and vegetables, during the New South diversification movement in agriculture,” James Jackson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “This movement was brought on by the need to diversify crop varieties to avoid the economic risk of a single-crop economy, as evidenced by the overproduction of cotton prior to the war. The 1879 development of the yellow-fleshed Elberta peach variety in Marshallville, Ga., by Samuel Rumph made peach growing possible as a viable industry. The Elberta, named for Rumph’s wife, softened more slowly than other varieties. Because of this advantage and the development of refrigerated railroad transportation, peach transport became possible. As railroad spurs spread westward and into the countryside, commercial peach production first reached Arkansas in areas such as Crowley’s Ridge in northeast Arkansas, Clarksville and Nashville.”
The first Johnson County Peach Festival was held in the community of Ludwig on June 26, 1938. Several thousand people showed up, including Gov. Carl Bailey. The festival was sponsored by the Johnson County Fruit Growers Association.
Jennifer Koenig Johnson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Bailey crowned Miss Inez Mane Bohannon as the first festival queen — Miss Elberta — and autographed peaches. He was given a basket of locally grown peaches. Clarksville resident Frank E. McAnear related a vivid account of how the peach industry arrived in Johnson County and how peaches became an important part of the county. Other events included orchard tours, a potluck-style picnic and musical events.”
James Tolbert and Johnson Taylor had first raised Elberta peaches in Johnson County in 1893.
“In 1897, the Missouri Pacific Railroad became interested in this rising industry and, after negotiations, created a partnership including the peach farmers, the county and the railroad,” Johnson writes. “Despite financial and environmental setbacks through the years, the industry thrived and became an integral part of the county. … Since the first year, the peach festival has been held in Clarksville during a selected weekend in June or July. Events include musical performances, vendors, street dances, a greased-pig chase and contests (frog jumping, peach eating and terrapin derby). The beauty pageants include Queen Elberta, Miss Arkansas Valley, Miss Arkansas Valley Outstanding Teen, Princess Elberta, Little Mister, Teen Peach, Tiny Peach and Teeny Peach. Events also include a parade, a cardboard boat regatta, a race and a fishing derby. Festivities conclude with horseshoe and bass tournaments.”
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture operates its Fruit Research Station in Johnson County. What originally was known as the Peach Substation began near Lamar in cooperation with the Johnson County Fruit Growers Association and the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation. It moved to its current location on Red Lick Mountain in 1959. The current headquarters building opened in 2007. Two years later, the building was named in honor of Cole Westbrook, who was the resident director from the start of the research facility in 1948 until 1976.
A peach substation also opened in Howard County in 1948.
The peak year for peach production in the state was 1940 when almost 2.3 million bushels were shipped. Late freezes in 1952 and 1953 following warm winters spelled doom for the Arkansas peach crop.
“Production sank to 150,000 bushels, hurting both producers and brokers,” Jackson writes. “Brokers contracted with growers in California, Florida and southern Texas — places without a late frost. The Arkansas growers lost the market, and the impact was devastating. For Howard County growers, the only option was to pull up the trees and convert land for other purposes, often for pasture for cattle or to raise chickens. Johnson County fared little better. Growers learned to expect a full crop in only three out of five years while others reported that profits had ceased as far back as 1950.”
Morgan said he lost half of his crop due to a late freeze in March of this year. That night saw temperatures drop as low as 23 degrees in parts of the orchard. He might have lost all of the crop had he not hired a pilot to fly a helicopter over the trees during the evening.
I witnessed the terrapin derby during my walk around the Johnson County square. I also bought peach jellies and jams.
The visit to the Johnson County Peach Festival brought back memories of an equally hot day two decades earlier when I attended the festival with the state’s new governor during his first weekend in office. I had joined the staff of Gov. Mike Huckabee on his first day as the state’s chief executive — July 15, 1996. I accompanied him to Clarksville the following Saturday so he could ride in the Johnson County Peach Festival parade.
I was dressed in a coat and tie since it was a far less casual time. Members of the governor’s staff were expected to dress that way. The state trooper who accompanied us, Bill Stotts, also was dressed in a coat and tie.
As the parade was about to begin, I envisioned Stotts walking the route on one side of the car with me walking on the other side of the street. Being new, I asked him: “What do we do while the governor is riding in the parade?”
Stotts looked at me, smiled and replied: “I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I’m going to sit in that air conditioned police car over there and cool off.”
It was my first lesson in learning to relax a bit on the job.
In addition to peaches, coal mining once was an important part of the Johnson County economy.
“The emergence and use of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad, which was completed from Little Rock to near Clarksville in 1872 and on to Fort Smith in 1874, as well as telegraph lines, connected Clarksville and other towns in Johnson County to the rest of the nation,” Johnson writes. “Likewise, the coal mining industry increased in size and provided jobs for many citizens in the county. Coal had first been found in 1840 on an outcropping on Spadra Creek, and barges began shipping coal to Little Rock and other places in 1843, though it was not until the advent of railroads in the county that the industry became profitable.
“The principal population centers connected with coal mining were Coal Hill, Spadra, Jamestown, Hartman, Montana and Clarksville. Fletcher Sryglay, the land agent for the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad, recruited many European immigrants for the coal mines, adding to the cultural diversity of the area, especially in the emergence of Catholic and Lutheran populations. However, the use of Slavic immigrants to break a strike led to what’s called the Jamestown War, in which many men died.
“Coal Hill, settled in 1876 and originally known as Whalen’s Switch, was a violent and dangerous place in the latter part of the 19th century, reporting numerous incidents of drunken fights, murders and robberies. However, in 1887 and 1888, Coal Hill shipped 10 times as much coal as the rest of the state. Between 1910 and 1920, it was the second-largest town in the county. This success was in part due to the employment of the convict lease system, in which prisoners served as veritable slave labor. An early strike in 1886 made public the horrors of the system in which convict miners were kept in filthy quarters and whipped if they did not meet their daily quotas. An 1888 legislative inquiry resulted in a few minor changes to the system, though convicts continued to be used for mining coal for years to come.”
While the coal mines are a thing of the past, there are still natural gas wells in Johnson County. The first well to produce profitable quantities of gas began operating in November 1921 five miles northwest of Clarksville. Arkansas Western Gas Co. built an eight-inch gas line in 1929 from the Clarksville Field (then the largest in Arkansas) to Fayetteville.
Each summer, though, it’s neither coal nor natural gas that they celebrate in Clarksville. It’s the peach.