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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

PEACHES

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Texas has numerous ancient oaks and other varieties of trees that have been around for a long time, but peach trees are a different story.

More formally known as Prunus persica, peach trees are not indigenous to the Lone Star state. They are believed to have originated in China, migrating from there along the trade routes to Persia (Iran) and from the Middle East to North Africa and Europe. As America began to be colonized, Europeans brought peach seedlings with them.

Though peaches are found around the world, they nevertheless are picky about where they will grow. They do best in sandy soil and climates with the right number of freezing days.

The commercial hot spots in Texas, which ranks ninth in the nation in production of peaches, are the Hill Country, particularly Gillespie and surrounding counties, East Texas around Smith County and Northwest Texas, centered in Montague and adjoining counties.

Stonewall
calls itself the Peach Capital of Texas. The 4,000 or so acres of peach trees in the Hill Country produce about a third of the state’s peach crop each year.
Stonewall, Texas
TE photo
Wherever they grow, if a peach tree reaches 30, it has lived an unusually long life. Indeed, most peach trees seldom make it past their first decade of existence.

That’s what made the peach tree outside the old stone structure in Burnet at the site of Fort Croghan so unusual. No one could remember how long it had stood there, but every summer, it still bore tasty if somewhat tart peaches.

The famed Second Dragoons established the fort in 1849 to protect the area from hostile Indians. After the military abandoned the post overlooking Hamilton Creek in 1853, settlers moved into some of the old government structures, including the small rock building where the peach tree still flourished in the early 1960s.

Some said whoever had lived there must have planted the tree. Others said its proximity to the entrance of the structure indicated someone might simply have discarded a moist peach seed that took root and flourished on its own.

However it came to be at Fort Croghan, the fruit tree had been there for a good while.

I first saw the tree, and tasted its fruit, in the summer of 1963. A precocious teenager as interested in Texas history as girls and cars, I attended (thanks to my late mother, who drove me there) the annual meeting of the Burnet County Historical Society.

They met at the old fort every year for a potluck picnic topped off with a cobbler made by Mrs. L.C. Ross from the peach tree that grew at the fort.

She had been president of the society in 1960, they year the group began working to restore the old fort. While at the site that year, she told me later, she picked the choicest peaches from the tree “before the squirrels and birds got to them.” She baked them in a cobbler and a tradition had begun.

The longevity of that Fort Croghan peach tree is all the more unusual considering the care a peach tree normally requires. It has to be pruned after the first hard freeze in the fall, a process that must continue through early spring when the trees bloom. Since the trees normally produce more fruit than they can ripen, they have to been thinned of fruit to keep peaches spaced six to eight inches apart.

Too, a peach tree takes a lot of water, weeding, and insect and disease control. Another venerable peach tree once grew in Lampasas County. In the early 1930s, a tree belonging to L.W. McCrea measured six feet in circumference. At the time (1934) it was considered one of the oldest peach trees in Texas. McCrea said his family planted the tree in the late 1860s or early 1870s.

A few years after enjoying my first Croghan Cobbler, I was with my granddad when he stopped to buy some peaches at a roadside stand between Fredericksburg and Stonewall.

When we walked in the tent, two women about my granddad’s age sat happily gossiping away in German. As granddad selected a basket of peaches, they continued their conversation, secure in their belief that the older man and teenage boy – obviously tourists -- knew nothing of the language they spoke.

What they did not know was that my granddad’s last name was Wilke. His grandfather, Herman Wilke, had settled in Fredericksburg in 1850. Granddad grew up hearing German spoken and all those years later, still knew a little.

As we walked away, the women resumed their German discussion. Suddenly, acting as if he’d almost forgotten his manners, Granddad stopped and turned toward the gossips.

“Danke schon,” he said with a smile. Realizing he must have understood what they had been talking about, the women froze worse than a peach orchard hit by a late-March norther.

Mrs. Ross’ Croghan Cobbler recipe

Boil a quart of peeled and cut peaches until tender.
Add:
1 ˝ cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
˝ tablespoon nutmeg
˝ stick butter or margarine
Crust:
˝ cup water
7/8 cup lard or oil
Pinch of salt and enough flour to make stiff dough.
Roll out on floured board, cut dough in strips and lay over half the fruit in a shallow baking dish or pan. Add the rest of the peaches and another layer of dough.
Bake at 425 degrees until bubbly with a brown crust.
Invite author of this column to sample it.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
August 21, 2008 column
Related Topics: Food | Texas Historic Trees |
Texas Hill Country
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