Berkeley apple roots detailed

February 28, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

BUNKER HILL, W.Va. - If it weren't for Peach Billy's wife and her rigid sensibilities, southern Berkeley County might be known for its grapes, not its apples.

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Her story and others are chronicled in a series of history projects by the Bunker Hill Historical Committee.

In December, committee members finished a videotaped documentary of the area's fruit industry, featuring oral histories collected over five years.

Committee members will talk about their one-hour videotape, which was directed by Will Bain, at the capitol in Charleston, W.Va., on Thursday. The committee is one of more than 60 groups invited to take part in a statewide history competition.

About 20 committee members joined to write a book, "As Far As We Know ... A Look at Historic Bunker Hill," which was published in 1993. All 500 copies were sold.


The committee is working on two more videos. One looks at southern Berkeley County schools from 1900 to the present. The other covers the history of Bunker Hill, from its quarries and mills to the impact of World War II.

Susan Greenwalt, the chairwoman of the committee, has worked on the projects for about nine years.

For the book, she taped and transcribed the memories of 53 people. Each interview was about two hours long.

Greenwalt said she spent the winter of 1992 working on it.

"This kind of research is addictive," she said. "The more I found out, the more I wanted to learn."

She expects to have taped as many as 100 interviews by the time all three videos are done.

"Unless we have these histories, their stories are lost forever," Greenwalt told the Berkeley County Commission earlier this month as she asked for $5,000 toward the estimated $40,000 cost of finishing the projects.

A look at southern Berkeley County's fruit industry starts with William S. "Peach Billy" Miller, who planted a vineyard and found that it "produced abundantly."

But Miller's wife, whose first name has been lost to time, changed her husband's course and changed history.

"This venture was short-lived," the book says of Miller's grapes. "His wife, a strict Presbyterian, returning from church one Sunday, saw along the road some of the neighbor's sons intoxicated. Arriving home, an ultimatum was issued. 'William,' she said, 'We cannot be responsible for making drunkards out of our neighbor's sons. The vineyard must go.'"

"The morals of the area came into play," said Dolores Shirley, a committee member.

Miller decided to grow peaches instead - earning his nickname - but that didn't last long either, because the peaches spoiled quickly.

In 1854, Miller went into the apple business by accident. He made a batch of cider and discarded the residue, or "pumice," only to find that the apple seeds grew well.

His first orchard, in Gerrardstown, W.Va., had 16 acres and 1,000 apple trees.

Peach Billy had eight sons, five of whom went into the apple business, in Berkeley, Morgan and Mineral counties. One was John M. Miller, who became known as "the Apple King."

Greenwalt said William S. Miller gave each of his sons $700 to go to the exposition in St. Louis in 1904. Seven sons went; John M. Miller used his share to buy land for more orchards.

Madge Miller, whose husband was John M. Miller's grandson, wrote the chapter on apples for the committee's book.

Other stories of the apple industry are retold, too.

Lynn Shirley, Dolores' husband, who is also on the committee, said C.H. Musselman opened the first modern apple processing plant in Inwood, W.Va., in 1922.

The industry's rise led to jobs for pickers, packers, and barrel manufacturers.

In the late 1800s, Shirley said, women were used as "facers." They packed apple crates, making sure the faces, or bottom and top layers, looked good. "Women had a better eye," he said.

Greenwalt said she developed a love of history while working in her father's country store. Every customer seemed to have a story.

Greenwalt said along the way, she and the committee have been motivated by her brother, Bill, John Hiller of the Smithsonian Institution and John Stealey III, a Shepherd College history professor.

Dolores Shirley said southern Berkeley County is often summarized by the phrase "apples, rocks, socks and frocks."

"Rocks" refers to limestone. "Socks" and "frocks" symbolize the mills.

Limestone, plentiful in the region, is used in many ways, including the production of glass, paper, chemicals, mortar and plaster, according to "As Far As We Know."

The book says the area's first limestone quarry was opened by Sam Cline about 100 years ago in Bunker Hill.

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