December 2018
Homeplace & Community

Alabama's Peach Basket

 

Dordie Hayes is happy to display her family’s last batch of peaches. It’s been a profitable season and a big reason for her big smile.

Peach growing is a year-round concern in Chilton County.

Chilton County’s peach season is over, and the calendar year is into its final days of 2018, but Glenn McGriff can’t wait to get started on 2019.

He may not pick or sell the peaches himself, but his dedication to what that beautiful red fruit means to his county has kept him going for as long as he can remember.

"Peaches mean everything to us," said McGriff, 60, who serves as Chilton County’s circuit clerk and has become a guiding light each year when the first peach buds begin to bloom.

Other agricultural products have their ups and downs, but Chilton County peaches are as important as football is to autumn in a state where touchdowns are the reasons for the season.

Peach growing in Alabama has been around since the mid-19th century, but it didn’t grow into what it is today until just after the end of World War II.

For more than seven decades, peaches have been the municipal engine that keeps the Peach Festival event going strong across Alabama.

Other organizations have helped keep peaches in the public’s eye and the Clanton Lions Club has extended the biggest helping hand in recent years.

The annual event had been sponsored by the Jaycees for several years, but that group folded, and the Clanton Lions Club picked up the project when it appeared in dire trouble.

McGriff and other local leaders took charge at that point and the event hasn’t missed a beat since that time.

"Without the Lions Club around to step in and take over if we need help, I’m afraid that we’d be facing our version of the Titanic," said McGriff. "Our economic ship of state has appeared to be in serious trouble at times confronting us with major dilemmas."

Local leadership wouldn’t let that happen and quickly came up with a solution – sponsorships.

Hal and Dordie Hayes, left, and their son Todd, hold a basket of peaches at their busy retail outlet in Clanton.

 

"We were determined to save the festival and continue honoring the hard work that our peach farmers do all year long," said McGriff.

A peach basket auction had been part of the concluding program in 1947 but only $250 was raised that year. When the Lions Club took over years later, it became a fundraiser to remember.

It wasn’t long before the event netted thousands of dollars to help with the club’s major fundraising project – eyeglass donations as well as eye examinations for the needy.

The high-water mark occurred in 1996 when $8,000 was raised at that auction. The peach basket that year was arranged by Jerry Harrison, one of the county’s leading growers.

McGriff has been active in the Clanton Lions Club since it took over from the Jaycees and he credits his late father with helping to guide him through the years.

"I was right out of high school and my daddy said I needed to become involved in a civic club," McGriff recalled. "I was scared to death at first, but it wasn’t long before I became familiar with what I needed to do."

He also became one of Chilton County’s most important public servants, first as tax assessor and, later, as circuit clerk.  All in all, he’s been a courthouse fixture for nearly three decades.

McGriff has been involved in many projects to help his county, but the one that means the most to him is the Lions Club peach auction.

"We’re already preparing for next year’s Peach Festival," he said. "One of our biggest moves was to move our outdoor events into an air-conditioned building because of the heat."

The Peach Festival is at the mercy of the weather and last year’s popular parade through town had to be canceled due to storm predictions.

The worst year, by far, was 1992 when snow and ice pretty much wiped out most of the crop. Farmers found themselves helping motorists stranded along the interstate.

 

Chilton County Circuit Clerk Glenn McGriff and peaches just seem to go together.

For the most part, however, the annual Peach Festival goes off without a hitch and sponsors couldn’t be happier with crowds that continue to support one of Chilton County’s most important events.

"I pray for our farmers," said McGriff. "I know how hard they work to get their product to the public. Well, we’re in great shape now and I’m happy to do what I can to make next year’s another success."

Although McGriff gets much of the credit for the continuing success of the event, he passes along the plaudits to others in Chilton County who also work hard each year to do the same things.

"We couldn’t make it without support from our business community who buy space for our annual program," he said. "All in all, it takes our whole county to make this event a success."

He’s never forgotten advice from his late father who encouraged him to become an active member of his community.

"My daddy told me to leave something behind," he said. "He’d often say, ‘Son, you gotta leave this world a better place than how you found it.’"

He and other Lions Club members are doing just that, too. This year’s event raised $22,000 and the money was donated to the Alabama Eye Foundation to help the needy.

The Lions Club voted to award $2,500 in prize money to peach producers to thank them for their continuing support on behalf of the annual event.

If local residents ever need a reminder about the importance of the Peach Festival all they’ve got to do is go outside for a quick look up at the huge peach water tower each time they drive by.

It’s a daily sign of an aggressive county where residents do their best to keep peaches on the front burner throughout the season.

 

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.