Orchards and Truck Farms


By dhowell - Posted on 08 December 2013

These recollections are from the 1920s–30s when I was growing up on our farm in Sec. 10, Manchester Township, Michigan. That was a world without many trucks, before extensive use of refrigerated (iced) railroad cars, and one served primarily by rail transit. Fresh fruit and vegetables had to be produced locally and distributed fresh as best it could in small surrounding areas. In this agrarian economy each small farmer family produced what they wanted. In villages like Manchester many residents had their own buggy horse, a cow and some chickens along with a small garden plot to produce some of their own produce.

I am speaking here of the farms specializing in orchards and large production of special produce such as celery, dry onions, carrots, potatoes, radishes, green onions and cabbage to supply on either a retail or wholesale basis the demands of those without gardens in the surrounding area. Some of it was shipped as far as rail transit would allow before spoilage occurred--perhaps Detroit, Ann Arbor, Jackson or Adrian. Oranges, lemons, grapefruit and bananas might stand longer trips, but not perishable fruits and vegetables.

Orchards

Three local orchards operated around here. Alber Orchard, Higgins and Weinlander Orchard and Schumaker Orchard. Alber was in Freedom Twp. and the other two in Manchester Twp. Higgins and Weinlander operated both an orchard and a truck farm on about 110 acres, an L-shaped farm between the west edge of the Village and Grossman Rd. where it went south along the east side of that road to what is now the Sportsman's Club. Trees covered the higher ground and "marsh" or lower areas drained with tile so the muck could be used to grow vegetables. The orchard was cared for in the winter when it was pruned, early spring when it was sprayed, and late summer and fall during harvest. The truck garden was taken care of during the prime, summer growing season, rounding out a full year of work for the operators. Extra casual labor was needed during both harvest seasons.

Onions

The onion field was across the road from the monument in Oak Grove cemetery, behind and west of the barn, part of which still is used for today's Feed Store. Instead of the marsh/pond there today, there was a tillable field of rich black muck, made useable by a well-tended system of drainage tiles. It was plowed with horses and then tended by men with hand tools. Onion seeds were planted with a one-row hand planter. The new sprouts were thinned by hand with a hoe. Hand cultivators pushed along between the rows kept out most of the weeds. Gangs of 10-12 jr. high boys were hired to pull the weeds between onion plants a couple times in summer.(I was one of them and received $1.25 for a 10 hour day of weeding on hands and knees.) When the bulbs had formed and the tops started turning yellow, onions were pulled and left to dry in windrows. At the right time more boys were brought in to top them at 3 cents a bushel so they could be shipped to markets and stores.

Celery, Carrots and Cabbage

Fields of these were along Grossman Road on the lowlands there. Carrots were sown like onions. Cabbage and celery were transplanted as young plants into holes pressed into the ground by spikes on a measuring board. (The Society has a special tool, a dibber or dibble, a cast iron pistol-like tool with a pointed end instead of a barrel, used by Jake Weinlander to punch holes by hand in the small areas that couldn't be marked with the longer measuring boards.) These plants could be cultivated and hoed by hand until mature. At harvest time extra help was needed to trim and pack each bunch of celery and head of cabbage for shipment. (In Old Manchester Village, p.44, crates of celery are shown in front of the cemetery monument.) Additional help was needed and this work was done at a few cents per case or bushel to pack the harvest for shipment by rail.

Apples, Peaches and Cherries

Orchard work during the year dovetailed with truck farm work. Orchards were pruned during the winter. They were sprayed in the early spring. We lived near the orchard and I recall hearing the gasoline engine spray rig through my bedroom window at night when it was operating near us. A horse drawn rig with a wooden water tank went up and down the rows of trees so operators could spray each tree. Water to make the spray mixture was drawn by special arrangement from the Village hydrant near today's Wolf's Westside Auto because the orchard well was too small and slow. Spraying was done in the still of moonlight nights so each tree received a full treatment. Some orchards brought in hives of bees to pollinate the blossoms. Higgins and Weinlander may have had their own bees and produced their own honey, I don't remember, but I'm sure our bees were close enough to do part of the pollination. Once the fruit began to grow, it could be left on its own until harvest in late summer and fall.

This orchard didn't permit "pick your own" but picked ripened fruit and sold it at the store or to local cider mills for juice. (At one time Manchester had an apple drying factory which needed apples to dry, but I don't recall Higgins and Weinlander working with them).

Some varieties of apples were ready for use in late summer while others could withstand early fall frost. Harvest apples were ready for threshers' pies in July, while Spys, Greenings, Wagners, and Steele Reds weren't ready until frost. Apples were sorted as picked and stored in crates in the barn for the steady flow of customers coming to take them away. Mass storage was not needed.

Radishes and Green Onions

Chuck Wurster specialized in these on his smaller truck farm in Bridgewater Twp. Parts of the farm and the buildings remain there today and one of his boys operates a large garden producing vegetables for sale there or at his home in Clinton. The larger fields across the road near a small stream are no longer tilled. Earlier, larger quantities of radishes and green onions were grown there and could be washed with water from the stream before being trucked to market.

Potatoes

The land now held by Du Russels in Freedom was operated by Tom Walton before them but I don't know who raised potatoes there earlier. This flat, rich loam soil produced fine potato crops, and still does. I can't recall other farms specializing in potatoes. I suspect many individual farmers may have over produced potatoes and sold their small surpluses locally. I recall that when my folks worked a farm on shares they grew twice as many potatoes as they needed and delivered half of them to the landlord who sold them. A large number of small farmers doing this would supply lots of potatoes to nearby families without gardens.