When Paw Paw smelled like apples in the fall

by Kate Shunney

Editor’s note: Folks gathered to make apple butter at the Paw Paw senior center last week had many memories of the time when orchards in and around town were a major part of life. Their recollections here are just a small part of the story of Paw Paw’s fruit industry.

Paw Paw used to be filled with the smell of apples this time of year. Helene Moser and others remember it clearly, even though the packing houses haven’t been filled with local fruit for close to 30 years now.

It’s not just the smell she can remember.

“I haven’t eaten any apples that were that good since,” she said.

Moser couldn’t put her finger on exactly what made them taste so good.

“They were here and they were ours,” she said.

Paw Paw was once home to thousands of acres of orchard land. Apples grown on the hillsides around town were picked, packed and shipped out by rail in quantities that are hard to fathom.

A 1919 census of orchards from the West Virginia Department of Agriculture counted eight orchards in Paw Paw that year, with an inventory of 68,700 apple trees and crop of 32,200 barrels of fruit. Those were the early years.

By 1976 – 80 years after the Miller brothers started planting fruit trees in Paw Paw – orchards were producing 550,000 bushels of apples. Close to 90 people were on regular orchard and packing house payroll year-round, with another hundred added during the harvest season.

Joanne Cowgill worked in the offices of Consolidated Orchard doing payroll from 1968 to 1972. Patrick McTavish was the Sales Manager then, and Jim Rife worked in the office, too. Cowgill said she hand-wrote payroll for Consolidated and Longview orchards, plus two more in Cumberland in the orchard office in Paw Paw. It was in the building now used as Town Hall. On top of writing payroll checks, she helped with labels for Christmas orders, which were packed in flat boxes for shipment.

Consolidated Orchard Company was started in 1912 to combine orchards run by three Miller brothers – Henry W. “Harry”, Gilbert “Gib” and L. Porter “Port” Miller.

Henry and Port came to Morgan County in 1894 from Gerrardstown, W.Va. to start raising fruit. Gilbert set up in Hampshire County.

Their operations – Imperial Orchard, Allegany Orchard Co. and Martin’s Mountain Orchard Co. – merged in 1912 to become Consolidated Orchard Co. As the trees matured, so did Paw Paw’s fruit industry.

The “Mountaineer” brand of apples, grown and packed by Consolidated workers, was patented in 1924.

Mountaineer Apples were labeled and distributed to the world.
label courtesy of Barbara Norton

Uncle Port’s Apples were another Miller orchard brand from Paw Paw.
label courtesy of Jeannie Martin

Skip’s Best brand apples were named after Skip Gordon, packing house supervisor.

The Consolidated Orchard packing and warehouse today.

The Millers and other stockholders created Consolidated Distributors in 1928 to market Paw Paw’s fruit around the globe. Local apples were sold under several labels – “Skip’s Best Apples,” named after packinghouse supervisor Clifford “Skip” Gordon and “Uncle Port’s Apples.”

Judy Corbett said Porter Miller, known to everyone as “Uncle Port,” was often seen walking in his overcoat and hat through town. She and her sister Mary Jo Fox used to hide behind a tree and wait for Mr. Miller to leave his office and go for lunch. They’d jump out and surprise him, and he’d pull his change purse from his coat to give each a nickel, which they spent on candy at Pickle Kline’s store.

Moser said Port Miller took good care of his orchard workers. When someone hit a rough time, they might find an unmarked envelope with money slipped into their mailbox, she said.

Jeannie Martin was born on orchard land. Her father, Rodney Miller, managed the Mountain Dale packing house for Uncle Port.

Martin remembers when workers would spray the apple trees in the spring.

“Mother would put sheets over the windows to keep it out of the house,” she said.

Orchards would bring boxes of bees in to help pollinate the fruit each year, Martin said. One year, her brothers, Bill and Ronnie Miller, got curious when they were little and opened the boxes to see what was making the hum.

“They got stung pretty well,” she said.

In winter, workers would trim the trees. Martin remembers a big steel wagon brought in to burn the branches.

“Most of the year there was a job to do,” she said.

In the summertime, Martin put labels on boxes of apples for shipping. She also went to get workers around town when an order came in.

“Back then, people didn’t have phones. They only worked when there was an order, so I had to get on my bike and collect the workers,” she said. Sometimes the local dogs got after her during her 10 or 12 stops.

Martin couldn’t recall all the different orchards that operated in the Paw Paw area. There was Carl Miller’s at the top of the hill, and Mr. Cunningham owned several.

In the mid-1960’s, the Mountain Dale packing house, situated between today’s fairground and wastewater plant, caught fire from an ammonia leak and burned. She’s not sure about the year, but remembers that it was early spring. That year, the orchard packed apples in another company’s packing house.

Roland Hamilton worked in Henry Miller’s orchards in the summer in the early 1960s. He did all of the jobs – taking the suckers off the trees, pulling weeds around the smaller trees by hand. The worst job was picking peaches, he said, because the fuzz got all over you. Hamilton said the orchards would call Paw Paw school when they needed workers. Students were allowed to leave school at lunch to go to work among the trees.

Marvin DuVall didn’t work at the orchards during the school year. After working 10-hour days, six days a week during the summers, the school year was a relief, he said. Duvall started working in Porter Miller’s Appalachian Orchard in 1944 at the age of 12. He worked there every summer until he graduated from Paw Paw High School in 1950. Work started when school ended in May and stopped when school came back in session in September.

DuVall remembers doing just about every job there was – spraying DDT and nicotine pesticides on the trees, thinning apples by hand, mowing grass around the trees with a scythe, spreading fertilizer by hand over 200 acres.

Thinning the apples meant climbing into the trees to pick the small apples off the branch. He had a half-bushel sack on his back to collect the apples, and had to carry a 22-ft. ladder.

“That was a pretty big ladder for a 12 year old,” DuVall said.

The hard work wasn’t for everyone. In the spring, there would be 10 or 11 boys working in the orchard. By the 4th of July, there would only be two or three, DuVall said. He got paid 35 cents per hour. His brother John and friend Bill Ziler worked there together.

When the early apples started coming ripe in early August, DuVall said the boys would get off their regular jobs at 6 p.m., go home to get a bite to eat, and then show up at the packing house on the old line of the railroad at 7 p.m.

“It took four hours to pack a refrigerated car,” he said.

They’d go home at the end of the night, then show up again at the orchard in the morning for another day of work.

DuVall said there weren’t so many local people working the orchards at peak harvest time. Migrant pickers would move into camps and provided the bulk of the labor during the fall, many recalled.

Consolidate Orchard Co. was sold out of the Miller family control in 1976 to a group of investors from New York and California. The flood of November 1985 heavily damaged packing houses in town and other orchard property, and the fruit industry never fully recovered.

Signs of the fruit industry are still visible around town. Memories of life around the apple trees are, for many, still crisp.