Roy Mickley and the Early Fruit Industry by Sam Walmer
Roy Mickley lives in the house he built with his son, nine miles west of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. His wife died in 1983, after they had been married for 67 years, had seven children, and numerous grand-and great-grandchildren. At 98 Roy moves slowly to be sure, but his senses and his wit remain as sharp as those of a man one-third his age. Also his appetite, one of the few topics about which he is adamant: “I’m old enough to eat what I want and that includes salt and sugar. Always have, always will.”
Roy has been retired since 1960, when he sold his farm to its current owner. The land lies up the hill to the west of his house, and commands a spectacular view of the valley, with Gettysburg visible in the distance. Of the seventy acres, forty-five are planted in apples and peaches, the balance in woodlot. Today the farm is maintained by a large commercial operation, which, for the sake of efficiency, works the place as if the orchard rows are extensions from their own adjoining blocks. They grow nothing but fruit, but for a year or two between orchards the ground is given a rest, and sub-leased to a local corn grower. Despite the low fertility of these upland soils, the corn grower likes to rent orchard sites because they tend to dry out earlier in the spring than his bottom lands, lengthening the time he can run his big tractors in planting. This makes for improved efficiency. The corn farmer grows nothing but corn, which he sells for feed to farmers who grow nothing but cows, hogs, or chickens.
The operators have a straight rental deal with the absentee owner, and Roy is content to watch, having given up any proprietary interest long ago. The last of the apple trees he planted will come out soon to square off the corner of an existing block of peach. This will make the rows longer, and long rows are more efficient.
Roy was born half a mile further uphill to the west, in March, 1888. His father, Mervin, cleared their seven acres and Roy remembers stumps in the pig pen from the forest that had been there. Mervin Mickley worked all his life as a carpenter; “the best around. And I don’t say that because he was my father, but because he was.” Here, he and his wife would raise nine children, never with much money, but always healthy: “we got along fine. We weren’t the poorest, but we were still poorer than what they are today, and we always had plenty to eat. They ain’t got no poor people today.”
Slopes in this section of the county are steeper, the foothills and benches less extensive than to the east and north. These conditions allow an accumulation of topsoil with less fertility than elsewhere. Scotch-Irish settlers were drawn very early to this part: Perhaps the terrain reminded them of home; perhaps their traditions of trying to eke out a living from thin soil made them the first group willing to accept the challenge. Whatever the lure, they brought with them a tendency toward large families. Roy recalls the households in “Germany” (long disappeared) which lay just up the hollow when he was young: “John Shultz lived at the corner and had twelve kids, Bill Saum at the other corner had nine, next place had five and the next had five. Then there was my Uncle Jake who had twenty-two, fourteen to the first wife and eight to the second.” Roy’s parents both came from Families with nine children, and Roy had eight brothers and sisters.
The Mickleys had everything they needed within walking distance (Roy never even got to Gettysburg until he was fourteen). Their school was a mile uphill, and there was a flour and cider mill one mile down. A huckster made the rounds from town to bring people the few groceries they needed–beyond what they produced themselves. His route, partially visible today, was at that time the only connection between the homesteads in the woods and the outside. The system was pure barter, for no one had any money. People came down the path from their houses–invisible through the trees–bringing eggs, chickens, cider or whatever extra produce they had gathered since the last trip. This was traded for the things they could not produce themselves–cloth, salt, news, etc. The huckster took the produce to town and sold it at market; all that is, but the cider which he drank as he went, so he brought Roy along to drive, as “he would be about half crocked till we were half done.”
The Mickley children did not have set chores around the house; everyone pitched in and did what needed doing. The boys were kept busy year-round scrounging firewood, as cooking was all on a wood stove, outside in the summer. Much of the fodder for the livestock was gathered from fencerows or along the edge of the woods rather than divert precious cleared acreage to the production of animal feed. To carry the stock through winter, the family would trade labor on the big farms in the valley at haying or corn-cutting time, for a load of feed.
Roy’s first income came at age eight when he carried water to a crew cutting hay in a nearby field–he got two cents. The next day he eagerly reappeared with his bucket and got a nickel. Soon after, Roy and his brothers and sisters picked huckleberries in the woods and sold them in nearby Cash town to a huckster who resold them in Philadelphia. They got five cents a quart, and felt they were making real money. Always, outside income was theirs to spend as they saw fit, and Roy spent his on clothing. At age twelve he got his first regular job, hoeing corn for 25 cents a day, and “never cost Daddy a thing after that for clothes.”
For their food, the family depended on a garden and a “patch.” From the garden, (the mother’s province mostly after being hand-dug by the men) came fresh vegetables through the summer and fall. The patch (or truck-patch) was bigger and so tilled with horses and produced the fifty to sixty bushels of potatoes the family needed for the year, enough corn to bake cornbread every day, and cabbage for a barrel of kraut. There was a cow for milk and butter, a hog or two to be butchered every year, and sixteen apple trees, of ten different varieties.
The varieties were chosen to make for a good combination of fresh eating, storing, and cooking, and to be preserved as snitz and cider. Snitz were slices, dried in the sun or bake-oven to be used in the winter or spring. Bigger farms might put up two barrels toward feeding their harvest crews–one sweet and one sour. Pie made from sour snitz was part of Roy’s favorite school lunch: Snitz pie and cornbread with brown sugar. Sweet snitz, made from Paradise sweet apples, were used to season meat in cooking. Culls from the little orchard were hauled down to the water-powered cider mill, ground to “pummies,” and pressed to release their brown, snappy juice, the barrel stashed in the cellar till hard. Long dull winters were enlivened by neighbors dropping by to join in a glass, and aman who put down two barrels alway had plenty of friends.”
The orchard on the Mickley Farm, as was the case with most of the fruit in the county at this time, was never intended to produce a cash crop, but only to provide for the family’s needs through the fall and winter. In big crop years, even with a large family, sixteen trees could produce a surplus. Some may have gone to feed the hogs, but apples make low-quality feed, mostly roughage, so not worth storing for that purpose, and many ended up on the ground to rot. The family saw it as a great windfall then when a “commission man” buying for a big-city fruit broker came by and offered to take any extra they had. They needed only to sort out the culls and pack the good ones carefully into barrels. These the buyer hauled away, and paid the Mickleys good money for their effort, the first ever for the fruit from their trees. Roy’s recollection of his family’s experience that year (between 1902 and 1905) must have been typical of events county-wide as the modern apple industry was born.
Adams County Pennsylvania is located on the Mason-Dixon Line halfway between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Washington, D.C. and Baltimore approximately equidistant to the south. Being in the web of connections between metropolitan centers has done little to reduce the rural atmosphere or mindset in the county, even today. One dramatic effect of its location though was the conjunction of Confederate and Union armies at the county seat in July, 1863. The Battle of Gettysburg occurred because of the intersection of major roadways, directed this way by the curve of the Blue Ridge Mountains as they cross into Pennsylvania. Today, the biggest single source of income for modern residents is tourism, resulting from this fortuitous and largely chance meeting.
The county’s other big source of income is also a consequence of the terrain. In the late twentieth century Pennsylvania competes with California for fourth place in apple production in the U.S., behind Washington, New York and Michigan; and Adams County produces more than any other in the state. While production elsewhere levels off or declines in the face of a flood of foreign and domestic competition, here the industry continues to grow, with more new trees going in the ground every year than are removed. Partly, this success stems from the rolling foothills and temperate climate of South-central Pennsylvania. Soils here in the hills are the deep gravelly loams on which fruit trees thrive. The low fertility reduces yields for corn and cereal farming, but is an advantage in fruit culture. Cold air’s tendency to flow downhill and settle into valleys combines with the relatively mild climate, to protect fragile blossoms on the trees planted on the slopes from late spring frosts. Also there is usually adequate rainfall, making expensive irrigation unnecessary. Natives claim a unique combination of minerals in the rocky soil makes for superior flavor too–certainly superior to “artificially” watered apples from the Pacific Northwest. (This trait remains unconfirmed by science, or the bulk of non-resident consumers.)
All of these factors add up to an excellent place to grow fruit, but there are other places equally well-equipped. What gives Adams County its special advantage are its four huge processing plants, among the largest in the world. These guarantee a market for the growers’ production (never certain elsewhere in a time of worldwide surplus), and often a profit besides (a true luxury). And the factories came to be located in the county because of an apple variety unique to the Appalachian region: The York Imperial.
Yorks were discovered in York, the neighboring county, in the early 1800s. When a farmer saw boys eating apples they had found under the leaves of a wild tree, in the springtime, he took immediate interest as the fruit was still sound many months after its season. Eventually, scionwood from that original tree was disseminated widely enough for the variety to acquire a reputation as the “Imperial of keeping apples”– hence its full name. The apple is lop-sided, rock-hard and homely, its texture holding the attraction to processors. Any apple can be made into sauce or juice, but slices are where the money is, and Yorks make the best slicers, being so solid that the chunks tend to stay whole in the can, not turn to mush as with other varieties.
Locals have long cherished their Yorks to lay up for the winter, believing the peak flavor does not come until mid-January anyway. Before the factories though, the development of a significant commercial market outside the county had to wait for the beginnings of a modern transportation system. Even the Imperial of Keepers could not stand up to the rigors of travel in the mid-19th century, when a week was required for teamsters to make the round-trip from Baltimore to Pittsburgh and back. When a rail link was opened in 1884 to the western part of the county, growers had their first fast, smooth access to the outside. But domestic consumers were well-served for the time being. What sparked the transition to a modern industry after transportation had been provided, was the discovery that Englishmen loved imported Yorks, and would pay a premium to have them shipped over.
In 1890 Adams County was only twenty-sixth in the state in apple production, with counties closer in to the big cities ranked higher. But the opening of the European export trade, and the ensuing heavy plantings of Yorks, assured future prominence in the industry. All that was needed was time, and the efforts of people like Roy Mickley to make it happen.
Noah Sheely is credited with planting the first commercial apple orchard locally in 1878. A county history written in 1886 describes him as “the largest fruit grower in adams County having 2000 bearing trees, 700 York Stripe, 1000 York Imperial, and 300 other varieties– all winter apples.”
Roy marks the start of the modern industry as coming with a visit by Sheely’s son, Dan, to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1902. Dan Sheely brought back the first commission man to see the local orchards, one Mr. Bunker. He was sufficiently impressed, and sufficiently impressed Sheely, that the farmer immediately planted a huge new block, known ever after as “Bunker Hill.”
With this breakthrough, word got out and other commission men began regular visits to the little farmsteads in the hills, paying cash for good fruit. After a few years the buyers took to sending in crews, which followed behind, sorted, and packed the apples into barrels as they were bought. By having his own men do the packing, the buyer could be assured of good quality when the barrels were opened at their eventual destination. This system must have meant more profit for the buyers, else they would not have taken on the new expense, but growers were not so enamored of the resulting heaps of culls. In Roy’s opinion, this early drive for quality was the impetus behind another new development: The use of chemical sprays, and again Dan Sheely was the pioneer.
It seems Sheely had heard of the use of lead arsenate sprays elsewhere to control codling moth (with San Jose Scale, the two worst pests attacking apples at the time). He went to the drugstore in Gettysburg and ordered ten pounds of the material, enough, he hoped, to try an experimental spray. The pharmacist in alarm, exclaimed: “Why Dan–that’s enough to kill off everything in the county!” Which it would have done taken straight, which formulation was its main use up to then to the chemist’s knowledge, to kill rats. In this amount, much diluted, the material could be used safely, though (as we will see later) if not used properly it could leave potentially dangerous residue on the fruit. For now, at least in Roy’s experience, the very earliest use of chemicals coincided with the first stirrings of commercialism in apple growing. The new fruitgrowers, little more than hobbyists by modern standards, and formerly motivated only by the desire to provide some variety in their family diet, became determined after only a few year’s sales to maximize profits by cutting costs. Dan Sheely’s visit to the pharmacist took place in 1904 or 1905. By 1910 “anybody that wanted to grow apples for money was spraying.”
In 1905 Roy was part of a four-man crew hired by one of the commission men to pack fruit in the vicinity of the Mickley homestead. Wash Biesecker was the boss–qualified no doubt, by the fact that he owned the spring wagon on which they traveled with their equipment. When the crew arrived, the farmer would have all his apples picked and in a heap on the ground, barrels at the ready. Roy’s job was “facer.” Facing was the careful and even placement of the first layers of fruit in the barrel. Flawless fruit, uniform in size, was carefully set in the bottom, stem end down. A snug fit was essential, so they could not shake against each other and be bruised. The next layer was reversed, stem end up, and placed with the same care and precision. Then the barrel was filled by pouring in choice fruit graded from the pile into baskets, in this crew, a job critical enough to be reserved for the boss, Biesecker. The whole was given a good shake to settle its contents, and topped off if necessary. Then another crew member, (Bill Cullison, in charge of cooperage) put the “head” on using a press-like screw clamp. The last layer might be slightly damaged, but again, everything had to fit snugly as any jostling caused bruises, and the end Roy faced was opened first to be the top anyway. The bands were adjusted to hold the head in place, and one man picked up the whole barrel; three bushels, 150 pounds, and loaded it on a wagon. The farmer hauled his barrels to the rail siding in Orrtanna or McKnightstown. From there they traveled to Baltimore or Philadelphia, either for local consumption, or to be loaded aboard ship bound for England or the Continent.
Biesecker’s crew was on the road for four weeks, often staying overnight with farm families, if too far from home. They got “good beds and good grub” and $1.25 per day. As they had no expenses, Roy considered this good pay for a 17-year-old.
It was about this time that Roy quit attending school. He insists “the only reason anybody went anyway was: once the firewood and corn were brought in for the winter, there wasn’t anything else to do.” For the last three years of his schooling, he was too busy to attend more than four of the seven months scheduled per year, so it is no wonder he spent them all in the same grade. Presumably he found more and more alternative forms of stimulation as he got older and other stories he tells bear this out; for example:
In spring of 1906, Roy took his brother’s place on a wheat-thrashing crew working the harvest forty miles away near Hagerstown, Maryland. He was away from home for four weeks, living as part of the employer’s family. One aspect of his adopted family’s lifestyle the teenager found novel was weekly church attendance, as this was a place he had been to only three times in his eighteen years: “once to be baptized, once cause my aunt was keeping me and had to go play the organ, and once when Grandaddy died.” He remembers this new interest as coming about the same time he started to chase after the girls,” and sees a causal relationship between the two activities. Apparently these were the new sorts of stimulation which took the place of school, for his attendance would end here. He has never missed it.
In the autumn of 1906 Roy again worked on a packing crew, this time for an apple buyer operating out of New York City by the name of Thorn. Roy and three other Adams Countians traveled three hundred miles to the north by train to Williamson, New York, on the shore of Lake Ontario. There, the crew stayed in local hotels and commuted to various farms in the area to pack the apples Thorn had bought. Locals were skilled at growing vegetables and fruit in their sandy soil, but were not trusted by the commission men to put up a quality pack of apples. Or, as Roy explains his boss’ willingness to invest a considerable sum to import a packing crew from Southern Pennsylvania: “Why they’re English up there–and them English don’t like to work…did you know that?”…Makes perfect sense, coming from the son of a son of a Scotch-Irish immigrant.
In his late teens, Roy was normally footloose and unsettled. He traveled to Lancaster and Berks counties to take pipeline jobs. On a whim he walked most of the way to Pittsburgh and spent some time “hoboing,” time he will not discuss today, except to say the adventure ended with his taking a job on the railroads in Western Pennsylvania. But harvest time usually brought him back home, and in fall, 1907, he first went to work picking corn for McClellan Bucher.
The first morning Roy went to work at Buchers’, everyone was already out making corn shocks when he arrived. Feeling outdone, the next morning he got up at 4:00 and was out working before everyone else…”time the sun got up, we had three shocks done. The stars were out when we quit that day, frost over everything.” This would set the pattern for the rest of his working life.
After two years on the season for Bucher, Roy became a year-round hand. He would start the day by walking the mile to work, arriving at The first chore was to feed, water, and curry the horses, then go in for breakfast. Mrs Bucher, finished already with the milking, served him meat, eggs, cornbread, and coffee (coffee being her only sustenance till lunchtime, to Roy’s eternal amazement). Then Mr. Bucher came down :
He never said anything at first, just went out to the outhouse. When he came in,
I mind once he said: “Snowed half an inch last night…what are you going to do
today Bill?; (he always called me Bill back then.)
Well I guess I knew it had snowed, I’d already walked a mile that morning.
So I said: ‘finish that huskin’.’
Well I ain’t a gonna husk corn in the snow.
..And he didn’t. So I just moved the shock away and threw the corn in the bare spot and we had the best day we had huskin’ all fall. Later that afternoon, I heard him huntin’ down by the creek, and I knew that’s what he wanted to do all along.
In fairness to Mr. Bucher, it should be made clear that the workday began normally at six a.m.
Bucher had planted a sizable orchard on his place which was just coming into bearing at the time Roy began to work there. During the harvest, Roy hauled the apples piled loose on a four-horse wagon to the new factory in Biglerville about seven miles away. If he got underway by five, by dark he would have time to drive to the plant and back, reload, hitch, feed, and bed down the horses. Also, it was his job to face the barrels going for export. By 1914 the orchard was in full production and Bucher Sold 3000 barrels, at $3.00 per barrel, “That was making money boy, that tickled him.”
In 1916, still at Buchers’, Roy got married and set up house-keeping with his bride. A year later, against the advice of his father, brother and father-in-law, he “went to farming for himself.” The arrangement, common at the time, was “farming on the halves” where the tenant supplies the labor, equipment, fertilizer and livestock; and the landowner (here, Jake Deardorff, a big farmer down on the flats) the land and trees. Any profit was split in half. Roy bought four horses, some cows, two plows, two harrows, two wagons, a grain drill, and a mower–all for $1750, payable at harvest. This first debt was the sort of risk that had his family upset, given the perennial vagaries of farming, but Roy “traveled on his reputation as a hard worker” and was always able to borrow what he needed on his signature alone. Apparently his creditors were impressed by the young man’s commitment to the benefits of hard work. As he says:
Farmers today don’t start work till halfway to dinnertime. Halfway through the afternoon, they jump off the tractor, change clothes and go to town for a ten-fifteen-dollar supper. Then they complain that they ain’t making money…hell, they can’t make money.
Though he had confidence that their labor would provide for his young family’s needs, he is sympathetic with the difficulties of getting by in a changed world:
Still, my one son-in-law is a union man (but he doesn’t like to picket), and he says the working-man is paid less today than ever, and you know, he’s right. When I was starting out, we had no electricity, no car, and no insurance to spend money on…
and taxes; from the time I was 21, till after I bought my own place, I paid $1.16 a
Year in taxes. One dollar was the head tax, the sixteen cents I don’t know what. Today, I pay $400 on this house alone.
At the end of World War I American industry was swollen with war-time capacity, and flooded the country with its output, along with hordes of salesmen, and easy credit terms to boost consumption. Roy succumbed to the enticements of a salesman from a factory in Hagerstown, who offered him a deal on his first tractor in 1919. He needed no money down and was assured that if the income from that fall’s harvest fell short, the note could be extended to the next year, or beyond, if necessary…just pay the interest. Roy paid off his note on time, but many others never would.
After four years at Deardorff’s the Mickleys moved to what would be the family farm for good. Roy had bought his tractor for plowing corn and wheat ground, but the new place was only one-third the acreage of the old, and it came with an orchard. Growing apples in the 1920s re- quired little in the way of mechanization, so he sold the tractor for $300 and bought a Model T, the first family car. He went back to horses for the plowing and hauling (corn and wheat were still important crops as farms were much more diversified than today) and did not buy another tractor until 1950 (a crawler to pull a heavy new sprayer). Even then, the horses were kept on till 1956, when he sold them to buy what would be his third tractor at the time–four in all. Roy is self-effacing as usual about this decision that his “two-horse farm needed three tractors, “but he sees it as indicative of another fundamental problem of modern agriculture: That farmers have made themselves “equipment poor” by giving in to consumptive urges and buying all sorts of equipment they don’t really need.
The arrangement on the new farm was, again, farming on the halves. The owner, Howard Sharrah, was in his mid-twenties, lived with his parents, and worked in the family timber business. His father had bought the farm in his son’s name to keep him from being drafted for WW I. Roy never saw the owner except the occasional Sunday, and Sharrah’s only responsibility in the relationship was marketing. When the crop that first year amounted to six peaches, (not bushels–six peaches) and seven bushels of apples, Roy may have reconsidered his parents’ and in-laws’ advice about his career choice, but he decided to stick it out. As the orchard matured, he planted more trees, and the Mickley Family grew right along with the size of the crops, so there was never much need to hire outside help. All seven Mickley children were born at home, the last four on the Sharrah place. The doctor bill for all seven totaled $75:
ten dollars each except Peg–she came before Doc could get here, so he only charged me five for her. Then Sarah, she’s the baby, he charged me twenty for her. I was there every time, in other words I held her hand for every one…She was finest woman you’ll ever see buddy.
Roy’s wife is the constant in his memories, providing the stability and support which made any success in life possible. His father was always there too, to lend a hand at harvest, or whenever extra help was needed even after he was very old.
In the four decades from the arrival of the railroads to 1925, Adams County rose from twenty-sixth to first place in the state in apple production. Another prominent figure in the early expansion of the industry was Dr. James G. Stover, the town doctor in Bendersville, twelve miles to the northeast of the Mickley farm (population in 1920: 356, today about 540). The town is located in the widest part of the fruit belt, the slopes there less. steep, and the terrain more gentle than to the west. Stover, the only child of a lawyer in Gettysburg, had settled in Bendersville and built a prosperous business selling medicines to the residents from his pharmacy for the treatment of ills he diagnosed in his adjoining office. Some of the town’s medical expense was plowed back into the local economy as their doctor bought up farms, and planted them in fruit trees, and by 1915 his holdings had grown to more than 900 acres.
Another big operation in the northern part of the county was Tyson Brothers, Inc. The Tyson family had been dabbling in commercial horticulture ever since the patriarch, Charles, bought into a nursery in Upper Adams in 1864. The county’s first professional photographer, he sold his Gettysburg studio in 1865 to concentrate full-time on being a nurseryman. (Family legend has it that Charles took the pictures of the Battle for which Matthew Brady became famous. Brady had arrived in town too late, after the clean-up was well under way, and so found it necessary to buy the local photographer’s prints of more immediate scenes.) By the turn of the century, Tyson’s business had expanded into production and distribution of fertilizer, and a large farm acreage, with new plantings of fruit going into the ground every year. Charles’ sons, Chester, Edwin, and William, were now old enough to take over.
With the brothers in charge, expansion continued. They became distributors for various farm equipment companies, and sold a complete line of tractors, sprayers, harrows, etc.. Other supplies such as picking bags, ladders, chemicals, and pruning tools were available through their Tyson Orchard Service. In the boom years following World War I, the brothers got into the sorts of exotic ventures for which that era is famous, among other things tinkering in purebred cattle, fancy pigeons, and Florida land schemes. This wheeling and dealing was financed with credit backed by the value of their farmland, and the expanding potential of their orchards. Production from these orchards was sold on the international market through agents in London and Brussels, and the firm was big enough to act as fruit brokers to the Mickleys and Buchers of the county.
By the 1920s Tyson Brothers, Inc. was big-time agribusiness: an international corporation that was diversified, horizontally integrated, heavily leveraged, exposed in several high-risk ventures; and by mid-decade, stretched to the limit. Will was in Florida trying to salvage a land scheme gone bad. The farms were mortgaged to the hilt, some to a land co-op founded by Chester and friends that had turned hostile, apparently bent on takeover. The equipment and grower supply businesses (Edwin’s domain) could not pay the bills because customers could not pay theirs. In short, the brothers were facing the sort of problems challenging much of agriculture at the time.
Today, some believe that the beginning of the end for Tyson Bros. came in 1924, when they bought Doc Stover’s farms from his widow. It is said (again, in family legend) they were only interested in one farm–a prime 270-acre tract, mostly in fruit, but Mrs. Stover insisted: All or nothing. When they made the fateful decision to take the entire 900 acres, it probably made theirs the largest farming operation in the county at the time, certainly the biggest fruit farm.
1925 was a mediocre year industry-wide, an average size crop with low prices, so improvement was essential in 1926. Tyson Brothers had begged their creditors for one more year’s patience, and all were assured that the anticipated good crop, by then long-overdue, would pay the bills. Winter was fairly mild, and the season began with a “snowball” bloom delayed long enough to avoid the danger of late spring frosts. Summer was dry, which did not help individual fruit size on the heavily laden trees, still, going into harvest, it looked like their prayers could be answered–the crop was enormous. Unfortunately this turned out to be the beginning instead of the disaster which was to follow. The crop was of record-breaking size in many other apple regions, too, large enough to depress prices at the outset, and push them even lower through. the autumn as demand was unable to keep up with bloated supply.
The nature of the market posed other problems as well. By this time Adams County fruit-growers and their Yorks were largely dependent on the export trade to move their top grades (Tyson’s almost exclusively); and there had been developments in England over which they could have little control. To begin with, there had been public outcry the year before, when two Britons got sick from eating Yankee apples on which there remained a high level of lead arsenate spray residue. Industry leaders were kept informed of the situation by their Washington lobbyist. The matter was seen as a threat to commerce rather than any sort of ethical lapse, and as such two courses of action were recommended: First, reassure British consumers by publicizing plans for a new, more thorough cleaning of the fruit before it is packed for export. Meanwhile, (and here their lobbyist was emphatic) seal all possible leaks to the stateside press to make sure the American public never got wind of this potential threat to its health. The cover-up was successful. While papers in England competed to provide the most sensational details, the story was not reported here, and even smaller American growers of the time like Roy Mickley were not aware that the incident took place. Whatever the effect of the cover-up, consumer demand in Britain could not have been improved by the reports, and costs to Tyson Brothers and other packinghouses were increased in the amount spent on the additional cleaning of the fruit.
Demand was dealt another blow when England was crippled by a nationwide strike of coal miners. With coal such a fundamental part of the economy, this meant there would be less money around to buy fancy, imported York Imperials. But also, the strike meant that shipping was tied up in the effort to keep the island warm and functioning. As harvest season began, their worst fears were realized when Tysons’ agent sent word that one of the freighters on which they had managed to book precious space had run aground approaching port in Philadelphia. The ship had been towed to drydock for repairs, the resulting delay adding to the harvest time pressure.
At home, there were not enough skilled pickers and packers to handle the huge crop. Labor began to feel the power that comes to it in a seller’s market, and growers had to respond to demands for a bigger cut of the action. Tysons faced their first strike ever, but they handled it like experts with a blacklist and threats of a lockout. Still, they could never be certain they had sufficient help, right to the end of harvest.
Problems with labor and markets are typical of the obstacles dealt with every harvest season, so, they are to be taken in stride; but growers can do little to protect against extremes of weather, and there was no anticipating the horrendous conditions in the fall of 1926. Where this is usually the driest season in Southern Pennsylvania, that year, fully three weeks were lost entirely to rain, along with untold loss of time and productivity from slogging through mud and wet trees. The lack of sunlight meant their Yorks, in the best years dull and pale, had even less color. Rain improved size, but the effect was to bloat the fruit like water balloons, making them softer and much more likely to be bruised or rotten after the long haul to Liverpool.
The rain delay was followed by an early frost on November 13, and the apples, though still saleable if left undisturbed to thaw, were made to ripen faster and so drop sooner.
Growers in Adams County try to be finished with harvest by the first week in November when the apples have reached optimum size and ripeness, without too many falling on the ground. In 1926, Tyson’s last apples were picked up on December 13, fully six weeks behind schedule. At the end they anxiously sought a buyer for several boxcar loads of drops, suitable only for cider, and worth only 7 cents a bushel, or less than the cost to have them picked. Their crop that year came to 120,000 bushels, huge even by modern standards. Still, it was too little, and too late. As Christmas approached, a new batch of letters went out, pleading for yet another year’s grace from creditors, but to no avail… in January, 1927, Tyson Brothers, Inc., declared bankruptcy, and within months everything was gone.
Ten miles to the southwest, Roy Mickley, too, faced a bumper crop in 1926. He and his family had picked all the apples into piles on the ground as Sharrah dickered with buyers, and the price dropped. Finally, late enough that Roy remembers frost on the heaps of fruit, the owner settled for 19 cents a bushel for their Yorks; 1300 bushels to be packed and shipped to Europe. Roy immediately began hauling them the five miles to the packinghouse in McKnightstown, two loads a day, seventy-five bushels to the load. He was always the first one there in the morning, and again at dinnertime (noon).”
His other variety, Black Twig, were even harder to sell. These were stored in the barn until a buyer was found for one hundred barrels. Before the buyer could change his mind, Roy made five trips to get all the barrels down to the Orrtanna siding, on the same day. The rest went to the hogs, save one load he took to the factory for juice price, because he was going to town anyway to bring back a load of feed, and had an empty wagon.
Typically, Roy has no hard feelings about the 1926 disaster; the way he sees it, things worked out better for him than most growers, at least (with some help from the hogs) he had found a home for all of his fruit:
I mind my Daddy-in-law was selling to a guy in Chambersburg for one dollar a barrel. He sold two carloads and started on a third…saw how much money he was losing and just quit. I helped him prune that winter and it was an awful mess. There was rotten apples half a foot deep under some trees.
He recalls no connection with the bad year, but Roy moved his family out in 1927, then turned around, bought the farm from Sharrah, and moved back in 1928, this time for good.
The passing of Tyson Brothers, Inc., was mourned from coast-to-coast as they were eulogized by peers for being decent, far-sighted, and fair industry leaders. Few had any inkling that their operation was so close to the edge, but few could have predicted the extent of the trauma to come, either, as the events of 1926 in the fruit industry were part of a spreading crisis in agriculture, itself the harbinger of general collapse in the 1930s. As the world they created was sundered, its leaders found rapid and fundamental change forced upon them. Many would not survive, but not so the Mickleys.
Roy had never presumed to any leadership role. He got through 1926 and the Great Depression to follow, by doing what he always had: adapting to events as they occurred, adjusting his actions and expectations to the world as it was presented to him; more a part of nature, than its controller. This resiliency is by no means unique but is essential in small farmers whose continued existence has always depended on the avoidance of being victimized by a system beyond their control. It is essential, too, to be innovative, but on this scale, innovation is expended day-by-day as families work within their environment, applying such tools as they can afford, in the constant effort necessary to remain above the subsistence level.
Roy was well-prepared by his upbringing to face the new conditions. The biggest change for his family was the loss of markets, but with their small output, it was relatively easy to establish new ones. Such cash as they needed was had by peddling fruit door-to-door in the towns on the flats. They already grew their own food for the most part and so noticed little change in diet. The family (the labor force) grew with the crop size, and began to get married or join the army and go off to war. Life went on.
They lived in the house by the barn until the last son from World War II and helped Roy build his current home down the lane. The children started their own families, some remaining in the county, including a pair of daughters who, with their husbands, built two of the most successful and respected fruit-growing operations in the area today. Watching these women work dawn to dark, six-day weeks, even though approaching retirement age themselves and both sufficiently prosperous to hire their own replacements, it is evident that they subscribe to their father’s formula for a long and successful “We never had any money, but we didn’t know we were poor. We made a home, and raised a family, and were satisfied”–all the components necessary from the Mickleys’ point-of-view.
A strong case could be made that universal adherence to that point-of-view would leave humanity stuck at the hunter-gatherer level, perpetually deprived of the benefits of a modernity that was never invented. There can be no progress without pioneers, and the Tysons were genuine pioneers in modern agriculture, but they ended up victims of the system they helped to create.
Devastation for Tysons, and in the fruit industry generally in 1926, came when that which could be controlled via man’s machinations–labor strife, the lead-arsenate scandal, the fragile financial structure, even shipwrecks–was finally overwhelmed by that which could not: The weather.
The Mickleys, though, survived, because they were not involved. in this process of control and so were not dependent on it, ultimately. They operated far from the cutting edge, where pretensions to cosmic change are unlikely to occur, and if they do, there is little energy to spare for its pursuit. Or, even if hubris is a part of Roy Mickley’s make-up, he has never had time to display it.
There is much to indicate that we feel even more secure in our ability to control events today, more assured in our assumption of universal dominance. But, if another collapse should come, the base from which we build anew will once again be provided by the Roy Mickleys of the world…if, that is, there are any to be found.
Originally written in Virginia in 1987