Bite into a South Carolina peach, and you'll know exactly what summer tastes like.
Kissed by the sun and blessed by nature, this Southern favorite bursts with flavor. Peaches are sweet and juicy, nutritious and delicious. When you sink your teeth into a tree-ripened peach and let the juice trickle down your chin, it's an act of pure pleasure. It feeds the body and soothes the soul.
Contrary to what most people believe, South Carolina produces more peaches than any other Southern state. No matter which corner of the Palmetto State you visit, you'll find farmers selling peaches. We'll introduce you to three families with long traditions in the peach business, but there are plenty more. Just explore the back roads, and you're sure to discover a delightful farm market or roadside stand.
And when you do, you'll know you've found summer.
James and the Killer Bs
Follow State 11 across northwestern South Carolina, and you'll find a small community called Cooley Springs, about 6 miles west of Chesnee. "It's as pretty a spot as you'll find anywhere in the state of South Carolina," says family patriarch Gene Cooley.
Indeed, the hills seem to roll a tad more gently here. Peach trees blanket the land in both directions as far as you can see. There's a red-roof ice-cream parlor and restaurant on the hill, and just past that, an American flag planted with more than 5,000 flowers. In the south curve of the road sits an old-fashioned barn, gussied up with colorful signs, barrels of flowers, and miles of red, white, and blue banners fluttering in the warm summer breeze.
With its cheerful countenance and constant traffic, the barn has the look of a political rally or a country fair instead of a farm market, which suits James Cooley just fine. "When they hit the brakes, I know I've got a chance," says the third-generation farmer. "If they see something that makes them slow down and take a look, there's a chance they'll turn in. If they ever stop, I'm going to sell them a peach."
It's clear that this place is also blessed by a woman's touch. In the shade of the barn, white tables sit covered with red-checkered tablecloths and heavy with produce. As soon as customers exit their cars, they're plied with free samples and showered with plain old Southern hospitality.
This is where a father of four girls counts his blessings. James's wife, Kathi, and daughters--Brandi, 22, Brooke, 21, Brittani, 15, and Bethani, 13--all help out with the family business. The outside of the building might say Cooley Brother's, but everybody around these parts knows about the Killer Bs. No doubt, many a customer has been charmed into buying more produce than intended.
"I love what I do. The people who come here make it all worthwhile," says eldest daughter Brandi, a recent Clemson University graduate. "So many of the customers are like family because they've watched us grow up. We love our customers, and in return they love us back."
As the enthusiastic sales crew welcomes customers, James loads pallets onto tractor trailers bound for supermarkets all over the Southeast. Within hours, folks in Chattanooga, Jacksonville, Atlanta, and Charlotte will be sinking their teeth into a tree-ripened Carolina peach.
"I'm like everybody else," James admits. "I think our peaches taste a lot better and look a lot better. They're big, sweet, and juicy. They just say summer. We're proud of them."
The McLeods of McBee
Folks in tiny McBee, South Carolina, somehow seem to know when the McLeods are packing peaches. They begin gathering at the shed long before the assembly line starts up, and they sit in white lawn chairs visiting with friends and neighbors.
When the din of the machinery makes conversation difficult, they watch as the peaches are graded and the boxes of seconds begin to pile up. Gradually, the customers make their selections and head home to slice, sample, can, and pickle the peaches they've bought.
"I've been coming here a million years," declares Mrs. Ada Dawson, a nonagenarian who regularly drives from Florence. "These peaches are the best I've ever tasted. I have 16 grandchildren, so the peaches go fast."
The McLeods have been growing peaches in the sandhills of South Carolina almost as long as there has been a town here. "My granddad planted the first peaches around 1916 and sold most of them to the people on the train," says Campbell McLeod.
Now orders pour in from across the United States and Canada by e-mail, fax, and snail mail. "We only ship our best," says 24-year-old Jennifer Winburn, who manages gift box distribution. "If your mama's getting peaches from us, I handle her peaches as carefully as I'd handle my own mama's."
What's more, State 151 has become a well-traveled back road to the beach, which brings a brisk business to the family's two roadside markets. Locals still visit the original, a tiny building at the gate of the packing shed on U.S. 1, but most people stop at the modern market on a knoll a few miles away.
Customers linger on the long porch, cooled by ceiling fans and full of rocking chairs. In addition to peaches, the market boasts a wealth of baked goods, pickles, jams, and preserves. At the cafe, they serve tomato sandwiches, peach cobbler, and peach ice cream.
All this appeals to people such as Judy and Sammy Funderburk of Pageland, who brought their granddaughters Hannah, 9, and Megan, 5, to the market. "We came for more peaches," Judy explains. "We made peach ice cream yesterday, and we ran out. We've been coming here more than 40 years. You know you're getting local stuff when you come down here."
An Old-fashioned Roadside Stand
Cook's Roadside Market sits just feet from the blacktop on U.S. 25 in Edgefield County, about 50 miles southeast of Columbia. It's modest compared to some in the state, but the white shed, built on what was once a country store, has an old-fashioned, homey feel. Fans supplement the natural breeze, and a large beach umbrella shades the baskets of peaches out front.
A list of available shelled beans is handwritten on an aluminum-rimmed board. Today, there are butterbeans and pinkeye peas, as well as bins of homegrown tomatoes, potatoes, and canned goods. Of course, the baskets brimming with peaches disappear as fast as they can put them out.
"Some of the best peaches are grown right here in Edgefield County, South Carolina," Raymond Cook claims. "They call this area The Ridge, and it's known for growing peaches. I don't fly, but they say you can see the sandy ridge from the air."
At Christmas, the Cooks send about a thousand greeting cards, encouraging customers to come back for strawberries, peaches, and produce. The personal touch seems to work. Loyal patrons come from all over the Eastern seaboard to get the Cooks' peaches.
The quality keeps customers clamoring for more, Raymond says. Ask him what makes a peach so juicy and sweet, and he'll just shrug. "That's a peach farmer's secret," he says.