Tag Archives: Harrison Farms in Chilton County

Gatherings – Part 1: Tuscaloosa and Highway 82


Driving into Tuscaloosa at rush hour on a Friday, I remember why I avoided rush hour traffic during my years in Tuscaloosa. It was easy then, actually, since I didn’t own a car for most of my college years. Today,  I’m running a little late and catching every traffic light between Cottondale and DCH, grateful that I stayed away from McFarland, where the traffic would be even more annoying.

After the April 2011 tornado devastated a large portion of the city, unexpected vistas opened up because the trees were gone. Even twelve years later, the changes to the city since the tornado are shocking, but the tornado is not the problem with the traffic which will likely never get better, especially as the university continues its unprecedented growth and building. As an alumnus of the University of Alabama, I have mixed feelings about all of it.

But it’s a quick trip and I didn’t come to complain. In fact, I came to celebrate Alabama authors at the latest induction of eight writers into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame. And that makes it all worth the effort. This induction ceremony was postponed due to the pandemic so it was especially nice to be among a crowd gathering for a special purpose.

The purpose of my attendance was to write about the festivities for Alabama Writers’ Forum. I will share that piece on this site after it’s posted to www.writersforum.com.

I was struck, though, with the stirrings I had as I watched attendees of the Hall of Fame dinner and induction ceremony walk toward the gathering at the Bryant Conference Center. It has been three years since I was able to attend such gatherings; previous efforts have been tentative at best, with reduced crowds and caution dominant. A string quartet playing Vivaldi’s “Spring” as I entered the pre-dinner reception reinforced that sense of awakening; a violinist wearing a mask was a reminder that the threat is not quite over yet.

Saturday – Hwy 82

With fresh and inspiring memories of the Hall of Fame induction, I’m heading out of Tuscaloosa early to spend the day in Montgomery. To be honest, I think I’m most excited about traveling Highway 82 to get there. The Highway 82 route between Tuscaloosa and Montgomery was a well-worn path for me when I lived in Montgomery and my parents were still in Tuscaloosa. It takes you off the interstates and out of city traffic, past swamps, fields, and prairies through farmland in the southernmost Appalachian foothills. Best of all, it takes you along what I call the “Peach Highway” – a series of farm and peach stands along the two-lane stretch of 82 that goes through Chilton County.

Sandy Chapel Church; Bibb County

In years past, the highway took you through the Bibb County town of Centreville. A new section now bypasses Centreville after crossing the Cahaba River. That stretch was new to me and when I spotted the back of an old wood-framed church off the highway, I took the next road off the highway to check it out. I soon got to the church and saw that it was the Sandy Chapel Church – the church that inspired my series of country-church themed Christmas cards more than twenty years ago. In fact, it was the image on my first Christmas card of the series. I was used to seeing it from the front on the old road, but it also provides a striking glimpse as you travel down the newer highway.

Past Centreville, the highway looks the same, but there is more clear-cutting going on than I like to see (or think about). Abandoned and decaying buildings that always intrigued me are mostly still there, and some have disappeared altogether. They remind me of some of my favorite subjects by the artist William Christenberry, whose Hale County is not far away. Sedate farm houses and their attendant barns and outbuildings appear along the way, as do churches, mobile homes, country stores, and an occasional place to eat.

Harrison Fruit Farms; Chilton County

Peach orchards begin to pop up as the highway nears Chilton County. Peach season is still a couple of months away and an erratic winter may have spoiled parts of it, but there are trees in early bloom and I look forward to my first trip down to Harrison’s Fruit Farms’ roadside stand around Mothers Day.

On this March Day, the farm stand sits serene and quiet at the place where County Road 15 ends at Highway 82. Mr. Jimmie Harrison, the patriarch of Harrison’s Fruit Farms, passed away last fall. Because of my own family emergencies, I wasn’t able to make a “peach run” in summer 2022 but I still have baskets in the trunk from my visits in 2021. I stop by the abandoned stand and leave the baskets to be re-used in the next season. I remember “Mr. Jimmie” and look forward to seeing his family back there soon.

The road finally takes me toward Prattville in Autauga County. But first, I make the quick detour to see if W.C. Rice’s Cross Garden installation is still intact. Mr. Rice was inspired to create a garden of crosses and warnings of damnation (HELL IS HOT HOT HOT) on his property spanning what is otherwise a quiet suburban street. Rice died in 2004 but the rambling, weathered remains of his “garden” are mostly still there. I think about taking pictures, but not this time; I find Mr. Rice’s grim Pentecostal fatalism focusing only on the most frightening parts of scripture to be a little depressing, but I admire his commitment to his message and vision.

On to Montgomery.

Jimmie Harrison’s Fruit Stand; Chilton County

Backroads and Byways

Forest at Shady Grove Church

My first memory of the photographs of William Christenberry (1936-2016) is in 1973 in an exhibit at the art gallery in Garland Hall on the University of Alabama campus. I was on campus for freshman orientation and had a couple of free hours one afternoon. It is my first awareness of putting Christenberry’s name with images that seemed immediately familiar somehow.

I have written about Christenberry in the past. He photographed the forgotten byways and captured a disappearing South; his disappearing South has nothing to do with nostalgia or the myths of any “lost cause.” He was drawn to the kudzu-covered landscapes and decaying buildings of primarily rural areas, mostly in Hale County, Alabama, where his “people” came from.

Christenberry’s photographs of places rarely have people in them, so his best-known work has escaped the racial politics which sometimes taints contemporary perceptions of  20th Century Southern photography. (He did have a somewhat obsessive installation called “The Klan Room” on his property, behind locked doors; rarely seen – except in photographs in books – it included objects that the artist collected and created to express his fascination and revulsion with that racist terrorist group.)

As I have begun to wander out a bit more recently, I find myself taking back roads and being attracted to the kinds of places that Christenberry exalted and taught me to better appreciate. These are not sad places. Instead, there is a pride that comes through the decay and a sense-memory inspired by them.

Thorsby, Alabama

A couple of weeks ago, traveling to Harrison Fruit Farms in Chilton County for my first “peach run” of the season, I became acutely aware of places on the side of the road that I have probably passed hundreds of times over the years. A group of abandoned buildings in Thorsby, Alabama, called out to be photographed. Especially appealing are the ruins of the once stately Bank of Thorsby building, dated 1909. It is in the remaining details – the cornices, the lettering in the windows, the date – that the history is revealed and the legacy is sealed.

The town of Thorsby was settled by Scandinavian immigrants in the 19th Century. They were among the first farmers to cultivate the famous Chilton County peaches. The current remains of the town’s business district still face the railroad tracks running alongside U.S. Highway 31. Concordia Cemetery, a peaceful resting place for some of those early Scandinavian settlers, sits on the town’s edge. 

A few days after the peach run, I took my mother on a quick trip to Ryan’s Creek Cemetery in Cullman County to check on her parents’ graves and make sure the flowers placed for Decoration Day on the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend had survived recent storms. We always drive around and visit sites from Mother’s childhood during these trips. On this day, she wanted to see the Shady Grove Church that I had photographed back in December. She had never been there but had admired the photographs I took several months ago.

The little church is in the Logan community, on the other side of the county from Ryan’s Creek, but we took off down backroads and eventually found our way to the churchyard of Shady Grove Methodist, part of north Alabama’s “Hallelujah Trail” of historic places of worship. Dating from the 1890s, the church is a peaceful and quiet place. During the half hour we were there, not a single car passed on the narrow road that runs between the church and its adjoining cemetery. The church has not held regular services in a hundred years, but it is well-maintained and freshly painted with bud vases and cut flowers in the windows. Paths lead down into the woods in several directions. Visiting there is a tranquil interlude in a frantic world.

These were the kinds of places Christenberry was drawn to several counties away. I think of him whenever I find one. On this Memorial Day, get off the interstate and find a place of contemplation along the backroads, wherever you might be.

Summer Solstice 2020

Near the start of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway says, “I had the familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.” This year, one hopes for more truth than usual in that statement as we count down a dismal year. As the sun begins its slow six-month drift south, perhaps some of the disease, divisiveness, and turmoil will ebb.

I would feel remiss if I did not acknowledge the Summer Solstice – the longest day of light of the year – and my annual re-reading of The Great Gatsby. I found time to attend to the plants in my yard as the frequent rains of Spring seem to once again be yielding to a Summer threat of drought. There was frequent enough rain through the last several months. I don’t think we’re in danger yet, but it hasn’t rained in several days and I was dripping sweat after only a half hour of yard work earlier.

I managed to make my second trip to Harrison Farms in Chilton County a few days ago and got peaches for myself, and for friends and family who have standing orders. Lynn, one of the Harrison sons, indicated that this might be an abbreviated peach season, but Mrs. Harrison said this week that their cantaloupes and watermelons aren’t ready yet and that gives me hope for a little longer season of opportunities to make the relaxing drive to Chilton County. The okra was coming in and I got a basket of perfect baby okra to bread and fry.

The peaches at the Harrisons’ acres of orchards near Maplesville are my summer touchstone, and were a sideways inspiration for “Professional Southerner.” In 2012, I spent every other Saturday of peach season traveling to Chilton County with a videographer to collect footage and interviews for a documentary about Chilton County peaches with a focus on Harrison Fruit Farm.

We collected several hours’ worth of video over a really pleasant summer. I remember an August afternoon when we set up in the parking lot of Fat Girls’ Barbecue in Billingsley and spent an hour shooting the setting sun over rolling hills of central Alabama. We spent one entire Saturday shooting the Peach Festival parade and related events in downtown Clanton. When we finally got into the editing process, the videographer’s husband decided she was spending too much time on the project for too little compensation and she abandoned me.

A filmmaker colleague at the university looked over the footage, decided that we needed to re-shoot a lot of things, and offered to help to finish the project. Before we could make that happen, my colleague got sick and died and I was never able to track down the missing footage. When I gathered my belongings from my office for retirement last month, I came across a mysterious external hard drive in the far reaches of my book shelf. Maybe … I will have to find time to check.

The film is still vivid in my head – I even got permission to use a Pat Metheny track I really like for underscoring. Whenever I make a peach run to Harrison Farms, I feel guilty that the family was so generous with their time – they all sat for interviews – and the documentary never happened.

But the experience inspired an essay that subsequently inspired me to start the “Professional Southerner” journal. That essay, “The Peach Highway and Jimmie’s Peach Stand,” continues to be one of the most popular posts of the journal over the years. The peach stand and I are about the same age and trips down there always lift my spirits, even during the uncertainty of Summer 2020.

The Peach Highway and Jimmie’s Peach Stand

One of my earliest essays on “Professional Southerner” was about the peaches of Chilton County, Alabama, and the family-run peach stand of the Harrison family. I made my first “peach run” of the season last week and, in honor of the 2015 peach season, I am going to revisit that 2014 essay.

Professional Southerner

100_1927  I get a little reflective as the Alabama peach season draws to a close. The state of Georgia, of course, has appropriated all of the peach titles and has done an admirable job of marketing its peaches as if they are something special. But a growing number of Southerners have discovered the rich and considerable delights of peaches grown in Chilton County, Alabama. On a May morning in the French Market in New Orleans a few years ago, I was pleased to hear a local shopper ask a vendor if any Chilton County peaches had arrived yet. He replied that he didn’t have any but that the lady a couple of stalls down had just gotten her first delivery of the season that very morning – “and they sure are good this year.” The shopper grinned like a child on Christmas and rushed to buy a basket.

I have…

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