Billy Singleton knows peaches.
As former president of the Chilton County Chamber of Commerce and author of “Hidden History of Chilton County,” which comes out in October, he has to know peaches. That’s because the fuzzy fruit is one of the backbones of Chilton County’s economy, both in agriculture and tourism.
And in his 33 years in Chilton County, Singleton has learned a lot – and written a lot – about the county’s peach heritage.
“Local history relates that the first reference to growing peaches can be traced to a Native American village that was situated along the western bank of the Coosa Rover on land that would eventually become Chilton County,” he says. “The Upper Creek Indian village was known as Pokana Talahassi, or Old Peach Orchard Town, as translated by George Washington Stidham, first chief justice of the Creek Nation.”
And that truly was just the beginning.
Singleton points to T.E. Wyatt’s “Chilton County and Her People,” which gives P.C. Smith, who came to Chilton County from Georgia around 1875, credit as the first to raise peaches commercially in the county, and in 1898, Mr. and Mrs. Martin Petersen, who moved to Chilton County from Iowa, bought a farm in Thorsby and were the first to set out peach trees in that town.
Why Chilton County? Wyatt’s book had the answer to that, too. “The climate and soil of Chilton County are simply ideal” for growing peaches, he wrote. The Encyclopedia of Alabama said the hilly landscape also helped farmers cultivate peach trees.
Those early peach-growers may have been going it almost alone, but over the decades, growing peaches has become big business in Chilton County. By far the state’s largest producer of peaches, various numbers have Chilton County providing 70-80% of the state’s considerable crop, resulting in about $6 million in sales.
The people of Chilton County have found ways to capitalize on their peach preeminence aside from the money that comes in from exporting them.
“I believe the public relationship between Chilton County and the state’s leading commercial fruit began with the first Chilton County Peach Festival held in 1947,” Singleton says. The 75th festival, in which a Peach Queen is selected, took place in June.
That first festival staked Chilton County’s claim to be Peach Capital of Alabama. According to an article Singleton wrote about the founding of the festival, growers in Chilton County in 1947 harvested more than 5,000 acres of peach orchards with about 1 million peach trees.
About a half-century after that first peach festival, in 1993, the Big Peach water tower went up at the exit ramp on I-65 that leads to downtown Clanton. It marks not only Chilton County’s peach heritage, but it also looms over Peach Park and Durbin Farms Market, just two area tourist stops that serve up fresh peaches and other local goods.
“For the people of Chilton County, the peach is more than an agricultural and economic staple,” Singleton says. “It serves as a source of pride and symbolizes the sense of community and quality of life that make the Peach Capital of Alabama a great place to visit and an ideal place to live.”
Alec Harvey is executive editor of Business Alabama and Joe De Sciose is a freelance contributor. Both are based in Birmingham.
This article appeared in the August 2022 issue of Business Alabama.