It's time for a pit stop. Countless travelers flying south for the summer via I-65 instinctively brake when they see the giant peach just off Exit 212. The water tower hovers above the tree line like a setting sun. Birmingham is 40 miles behind and Montgomery is 30 miles ahead, but neither city offers what Chilton County can. This towering testament to the fruit that makes the region famous means two things: First, you're slap in the middle of Alabama's peach country; and second, you better take a nearby exit if you want the freshest and the sweetest.
The Buzz on the Fuzz
Looking for the freshest? Around 8 a.m. every day in the summer, the staff at Durbin Farms Market begins unloading crates of peaches picked in their orchards earlier that morning. Stop here, just off Exit 205, at our choice for the best market in the county. You'll probably find owner Andy Millard milling among the baskets and boxes of produce. A 10-year veteran of the peach biz, Andy can help you find every type of peach to meet your need.
Depending on the harvest, Durbin Farms usually carries about 15 varieties of peaches in June. The best for chomping on the spot is the white-flesh Scarlett Pearl or the Southern Pearl, because these are the sweetest. If you're looking to stuff a cobbler or two, try the more colorful yellow-flesh varieties such as Flavorcrest, Harvester, or Topaz. One important note is that freestone season for all the markets' varieties starts around June 20. "Freestone" means the flesh breaks cleanly away from the pit, a definite advantage if you're canning.
The market is busiest between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on the weekends, especially Sunday. "Everyone's returning from their vacations, and they want peaches to take home," says Andy. Don't worry if it's a little crowded when you stop by, because that gives you a great excuse to enjoy the other thing we love about Durbin Farms: the homemade peach ice cream. Order a double-scooped cone ($2.35) and relax. The recipe's high-quality cream and sugar-sweet peaches make this cool treat stand out.
Around the time they're stacking the first peaches of the morning at Durbin Farms, a gaggle of ladies is peeling them right across the interstate at Peach Park. Amid much gossip, the women peel and dice fruit (especially peaches) for the inside fruit bar, the freshest around. The perfect time to pull up to Peach Park is when your tummy's growling for lunch. Be sure to try the fruit bar ($2) with a barbecue sandwich plate ($4.95), and don't forget to order our favorite thing here--the fried peach pie ($1.95). Enjoy this half-moon-shaped delicacy while surveying the walls adorned with portraits of past Chilton County peach princesses, happily posing with the beautiful fruit.
Picking and Grinning
Charles Culp first tended a few peach trees as a ninth grader in 1951. More than a half-century later, he not only farms his 100 acres of orchards, but he also opens them to the public for the best pick-your-own farm in the county. A Tennessee reader first told us about Culp Fruits because her family stops here every year during their vacation. "We do have a lot of regulars," says Charles. "A guy from Florida came by the other day and said he got some sure-enough good peaches last summer and was back for more." Take Exit 219 and go east 1/2 mile, and Charles will set you up with an empty basket for $6. With the June heat, it's best to pick early in the morning (the farm opens at 7) or late in the afternoon.
All Hail Miss Peach
The sound of woodwinds from one of the local high school bands almost drowns out a mother's instructions to her pom-pom-shaking princess. "Please don't throw all your candy at once. You want to save it for the whole ride." At 9 this Saturday morning, the best spot to see the parade, the highlight of the Chilton County Peach Festival, is the corner of Sixth Street and Fourth Avenue North, in downtown Clanton. It's early in the route, so you're assured the best spoils, and the participants--tiny dancers, gospel singers, a fleet of miniature motorcycles--have yet to tire of their routines.
Enjoy the floats along with souped-up hot rods and restored classics, but keep your eye out for her majesty riding high. "Being Miss Peach is a major thing in Chilton County," says Miss Peach 2002, Lindsey Samples. "You're like an icon. Every girl wants to be Miss Peach." During her yearlong reign, the honoree appears at ribbon cuttings and other major events throughout the county. Her time to really shine, though, is during the parade that weaves through town and the peach auction immediately following at Jack Hayes Field.
Peach farmers from all over the county bring voluptuous half-bushel baskets early the morning of the auction, and judges grade on size and continuity of color by sight only. "Once the farmers set their baskets down, we'll kill the person who lays a finger on them," says festival coordinator Richard Davis. "This is serious business, and bruising means losing." The blue-ribbon basket earns $700, but most of the farmers donate their winnings back to the Clanton Lions Club, sponsor of the festival. "It's really more about the recognition than anything," says Richard. All the baskets are then auctioned off to the highest bidder. By Richard's memory, the most given for a winning basket was $8,000, but usually it averages between $2,000 and $2,500. Last year, People's Southern Bank of Clanton bid highest for the prize-winning basket and donated it to Miss Peach, 18-year-old Lindsey. "In all my years, those were the best peaches I've ever had," she says.
Chilton County's Best
- Best market for fresh peaches: Durbin Farms Market, (205) 755-1672.
- Best fried peach pie: Peach Park, (205) 755-2065.
- Best peach ice cream: Durbin Farms Market.
- Best pick-your-own peach farm: Culp Fruits U-Pick, (205) 688-4553.
- Best paint job by some guys from New Jersey: Clanton's water tower, Exit 212.
A Peachy Beacon
So you've seen Clanton's peach water tower from the interstate, but you may not realize that it was designed and built by the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company, and the shading and finishing touches were done by a couple of guys from up north. "I don't call myself a painter," says Peter Freudenberg of Harvey Cedars, New Jersey. "I call myself a contract artist. I paint things for money." Peter's retired now, but the tower is one of several large-scale projects he painted in his career. Using commercial spraying and airbrushing equipment and a hydraulic crane, Peter and his partner, Hugh Luck, painted the reds, oranges, and greens on the city's familiar beacon. "What's interesting," says Peter, "is that we painted it like you would a fine painting, with lots of attention on the details."
For More Information
- Durbin Farms Market: 2130 Seventh Street South, (205) 755-1672 or www.durbinfarms.com.
- Peach Park: U.S. 31 South off I-65 at Exit 205, (205) 755-2065.
- Culp Fruits U-Pick: 11602 County 51, Exit 219 off I-65 in Jemison, (205) 688-4553.
- Chilton County Peach Festival Parade and Auction: June 28, downtown Clanton.
- Chilton County Chamber of Commerce: 500 Fifth Avenue North, (205) 755-2400 or www.chiltoncountychamber.com.
- Lodging: Because lodging is limited in Chilton County, we suggest staying overnight in either Birmingham or Montgomery. Both are less than an hour away.