By Mary Catherine Gaston
If any of Georgia’s 159 counties is appropriately named, it is the youngest county of them all, Peach County. Though The Peach State is not actually the country’s largest peach producer, Peach County is, in fact, the largest producer of peaches in Georgia. Carved out of Houston and Macon counties in 1924, Peach County came along during the early, booming years of Georgia’s peach industry, and being home to numerous peach orchards, packing sheds and shipping points, was named for the sweet fruit that, quite literally, put it on the map.
One such shipping point became the county seat and remains so today. Fort Valley, located on a north-south rail line in the center of the county, bustled with activity during peach season, as rail cars packed with fresh peaches headed north, loaded with middle Georgia’s most iconic export.
While times have changed and most of the $15.4 million worth of peaches produced, picked and packed in Peach County last year were not transported by rail, peaches and the peach industry remain a vital component of the rural county’s economy and draw. Nowadays, agritourism is big business in Peach County, and two peach farms in particular are popular destinations. Located on Georgia Grown Trail 341, Pearson Farm is famous not only for its peaches, but also for its pecans and pecan products. Located on Georgia Highway 341 just northwest of Fort Valley, the fourth and fifth generations of peach-farming Pearsons now operate a store that is open year-round. On the opposite side of the county, between Fort Valley and Interstate 75 is Lane Southern Orchards. Also boasting a farm market, Lane Southern Orchards’ café offers locals and weary travelers a Southern-style breakfast and lunch menu daily, and farm field trips are a favorite among area schools.
Because Georgia peaches (and peach ice cream!) are only available fresh from the farm for 16 weeks from May to August every year, summer time is the best time to partake in peach-related activities and events. The Georgia Peach Festival takes place each June in Fort Valley and features arts, crafts, foods and live music. Today’s Peach Festival carries on the celebratory traditions of the annual peach blossom festival that took place in Fort Valley throughout the 1920s and featured parades, pageants and delicious barbecue. While the modern-day festival is now timed with peach harvest, many of the traditions remain or have taken on a life of their own. One such tradition, the barbecue, lives on in the form of Georgia Bob’s Barbecue restaurants. “Georgia Bob” Evans was one of the original peach festival pitmasters, and nine Georgia Bob’s locations, including one just off I-75 in Byron, still serve up Evans’ famous recipes, though few are aware of the connection to the area’s peach industry.
While you’re in Byron, you simply must stroll through The Big Peach Antiques Mall, located just off I-75. More than 200 dealers and 33,000 square feet of antiques and collectibles add up to a treasure hunter’s dream. Take in downtown Byron’s historic district driving or walking tour, and make time to grab a bite to eat at the Drugstore Deli. Local’s tip: Check the deli’s Facebook page for daily specials before you go.
Another annual event which has grown in popularity (and size) in recent years is the Peaches to the Beaches yard sale. Nicknamed “Georgia’s longest yard sale,” Peaches to the Beaches brings thousands of bargain hunters through the heart of Peach County along Highway 341 the second weekend of March.
Though peaches may be the most celebrated and recognizable symbol of Peach County, one universally recognized icon also calls Peach County home: the yellow school bus. Only the second oldest school bus manufacturer in the country, the Blue Bird Corporation has been manufacturing big (and little) yellow school buses in Fort Valley since 1932, and the now-international company’s headquarters remains on the site of its original plant to this day. Company founder and school bus pioneer Albert Luce was among transportation and safety experts who, in 1939, selected the paint color now known as “school bus yellow” as the standard color for all school buses in the United States.
Finally, if you happen to be in or near Peach County between September and March, be sure to make time for a visit to Massee Lane Gardens. Home to the American Camellia Society, Massee Lane Gardens boasts one of the largest collections of camellia specimens on earth. The beautiful red, pink, white or purple flowers of more than 1,000 camellia varieties can be enjoyed during peak bloom months mentioned above, but a walk through the garden in February will not disappoint. While the garden is open year-round and features much more than just camellias, during February it is open to guests seven days a week.
As you can see, Peach County in the heart of the Peach State has something to offer just about anyone who’s hungry for an interesting, authentic, rural Georgia experience. For more information on what to do, see or eat in Peach County, visit the Peach Regional Chamber of Commerce online.
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Photo credits: Peach by David Slack, Camellia by MC Gaston