Fall Family Fun:  Orchard Hopping in Central Virginia

Fall Family Fun:  Orchard Hopping in Central Virginia

By Ken Wilson –

Fall colors and fall flavors go together. Fall is when we go leaf-peeping and pumpkin picking, when we make apple sauce and pumpkin butter, when we enjoy stunning colors by day and mouth-watering pies at night. Fall is also festival time at area orchards, of which we have aplenty.

“Apples have been grown in Albemarle County since Jefferson’s time,” says Cynthia Chiles of Carter Mountain Orchard and Chiles Peach Orchards, whose family has been farming the same land for 100 years. “He was a big horticulturalist and grew a lot of heirloom varieties of apples.”

Jefferson’s eight-acre, horseshoe-shaped “Fruitery” at Monticello held 400 trees, two small vineyards, plus beds for figs and strawberries, “berry squares” for currants, gooseberries, and raspberries, and a nursery to propagate plants and trees. With his characteristic curiosity and scientific methodology, Jefferson experimented with and improved upon European fruit and European growing practices in the New World.

Foodie that he was, Jefferson grew eighteen varieties of apples alone, including the Esopus Spitzenburg, his favorite to eat, and the Taliaferro, his favorite for making cider. Latter day Virginians grow a wide variety as well, making the Commonwealth the sixth largest apple producing state in the country, with roughly 11,929 acres under cultivation.

Jefferson grew pumpkins too, both for himself and his family and guests, and to feed his workhorses, cattle, sheep, and pigs in late summer. Although his own pumpkin cultivars have been lost, Monticello today sells seeds for Connecticut Field Pumpkins, a 19th century variety he himself grew, “good for pies, with yellow flesh and soft skin.”

Carter Mountain Orchard and Chiles Peach Orchard
Albemarle County’s Chiles family has been growing fruit for five generations—over 100 years—first planting peach and apple trees in Crozet in 1912, and, since the 1970s, operating Carter Mountain Orchard just down the hill from Monticello.

After a bad freeze in 1974 left the family with so little fruit at either orchard that the usual picking and packing routine wasn’t worth its while, it ran an ad in the newspaper, “cleaned out a tiny section of an old barn, set up a card table and a cigar box, and wondered if anyone would come.” They did. They still do: what was meant to be a one-time, emergency measure became an annual April through November, pick-your-own-fruit tradition at both the Crozet and Carter Mountain orchards.

Located next to Michie Tavern, down the road from Monticello, Carter Mountain Orchard offers a 40-mile view, and grows 17 varieties of apples plus three kinds of peaches. One of the family’s many little-known apple varieties is the September Wonder, an early variety of Fuji, crisp and sweet. Picking season on the mountain starts in mid-August and runs through November; right now they’re picking Golden Delicious and Jonagold. Pumpkins, gourds and zinnias are on sale as well.

“At Carter Mountain we call September and October our Apple Harvest Celebration,” Chiles says. “Every day we have school field trips going on, apple-tasting available, and wine tasting and hard cider tasting rooms available. Prince Michel winery has a tasting room here on Carter Mountain as does Bold Rock Hard Cider. We are suppliers for both of those with grapes and apples, so that’s a nice matchup there. On weekends we have hayrides and music and other events.”

Carter Mountain Orchard’s 3rd Annual Halloween “Spooktacular” is October 28. This family-oriented event begins at 10:30 a.m. sharp (pun perhaps intended) with a Pumpkin Carving Contest, free with the purchase of a pumpkin. Registration starts at 10. Bring your own carving tools. Kids under 15 must have an adult present during the carving. Decorations and props are encouraged. Awards will be given out at 11:30 a.m. in four divisions: Best Youth, Most Artistic, Scariest, and Funniest.

Costumed kids and grownups can march around the barn in the Halloween Parade starting at 1:00 p.m. The costume contest will begin at 1:30. Prizes will be given in the Youth, Teen, and Adult categories. Kids 12 and under may wear masks. Kids in costume will get free treats from cashiers. Hayrides will be available all day, weather permitting, for $3 per person (no charge for kids two and under). The Caramel Apple Dipping Station will be open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

There will be more apple picking, apple cider donuts, hayrides, lunches, and wine and hard cider tastings on Veterans Day, Saturday, November 11, when Carter Mountain holds its 5th Annual Salute to Hometown Heroes, honoring local fire, rescue, police, and military personnel. 

The American Legion will lead a flag ceremony at 11:30 a.m. Booths will honor and offer services to all who serve and have served. Hometown heroes with ID will receive discounts on all purchases.

Vintage Virginia Apples and Albemarle CiderWorks
Another Albemarle County family, the Sheltons, has been farming in southern Albemarle since 1986. That’s the year Bud and Mary Shelton, now nearing retirement, bought a small farm in North Garden, named it Rural Ridge after Rural Plains (the Shelton family seat in eastern Virginia) and built their dream home. Along with their four children, Bud planted about 20 fruit trees—apple, pear, peach, and cherry.

Inspired by the heirloom apple tastings conducted at Monticello by author and apple historian Tom Burford, in 1992 the Sheltons purchased trees from Burford’s own orchard. Today their orchard has more than 200 cultivars, including the GoldRush, a late 20th century variety developed by Purdue University, and the MonArk, an early ripening cultivar from the University of Arkansas. Burford, known as “Professor Apple,” serves as orchard consultant.

The Sheltons have also collected about three dozen peach varieties, plus plums, pears, cherries, nectarines and apricots, and they sell over 100 varieties of vintage fruit trees, many of them virtually unobtainable anywhere else. In 2000 the family founded Vintage Virginia Apples, and in 2009 it opened Albemarle CiderWorks.

The Tasting Room is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tastings are $5 per person for patrons 21 years of age or older.

Albemarle CiderWorks will hold its annual Star Party hosted by Dark Skies Bright Kids on Saturday, September 23, rain or shine, from 6:00 to 10:00 p.m. This evening of astronomical education for the whole family will feature telescopes, laser pointers, infrared cameras, a walk-through solar system, and an inflatable planetarium.

Graves Mountain Lodge
Graves Mountain Lodge in Madison County is a rustic retreat that prides itself on down home hospitality, home cooked food, and “unrivaled” natural beauty. The Lodge has been in business for 135 years. It’s free autumn Apple Harvest Festival has been happening for a mere 48.

On Saturdays October 7, 8, 14, 15, 21 and 22 the Lodge will celebrate with bluegrass music, clogging, hayrides, a hay mountain and hay maze, horseback and pony rides, and over 70 arts and arts and crafts vendors. Festival goers can visit the Lodge’s farm and its animals, watch apple butter being cooked in kettles over an open fire, pick apples in the orchards, or select their own from apple bins at the picnic pavilion. Parking is free and the Festival will take place rain or shine.

Apple varieties will include Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Stayman, York, Winesap, Mutsu, Fuji, Granny Smith, Rome, and Empire. Pumpkins, gourds, cider, Indian corn, preserves and condiments will be for sale at the Lodge’s Packing Shed in Syria, across the street from Syria Mercantile.

The music starts at 11:00 a.m. daily and runs till 3:00 p.m. Cloggers will dance from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. The day by day schedule is as follows. 

October 7: Band – Mark Templeton & Pocket Change; Bull Run Cloggers.
October 8: Band – Dark Hollow; Hi-Horse Cloggers.
October 14: Band – The Honakers; Calico Cloggers.
October t 15: Band – Just Wingin’ It Bluegrass Band; Skyline Country Cloggers.
October 21: Band – Josh Grigsby & County Line; Cardinal Cloggers.
October 22: Band – Randy Cook & Commonwealth Bluegrass Band; Skyline Country Cloggers.

Home cooked meals will be served in the covered picnic pavilion each Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., or until the food runs out. Reservations are not required. The menu will include Brunswick Stew, cornbread, apple butter, applesauce and apple cider, hamburgers, hotdogs, pork barbecue, French fries, and apple pie. Sweet treats for sale elsewhere will include funnel cakes, apple butter donuts, fried apple slices, apple cinnamon ice cream, soft serve ice cream, apple pies, and apple slices with caramel sauce.

Lunch at the main lodge lunch will be served from 12 noon to 1:30 p.m.; dinner will run from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Reservations are required and seating is limited.

Silver Creek & Seamans’ Orchards
Nelson County’s Silver Creek & Seamans’ Orchards (SCSO) is a family (or rather, families—Seamans and Flippins) affair as well, dating back to the 30s. Today the orchards grow about 25 varieties of apples, plus pumpkins, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, and wine grapes that they sell to wineries in Virginia and North Carolina.

Apples for sale at Silver Creek & Seamans’ include Empire, Gala, Gold Delicious, Fuji, Jonagold, Red Delicious, Honey Crisp, and Pink Lady. Seamans’ Orchard began growing pumpkins in 1990 using a no-till system, which uses rye as a mulch to prevent pumpkins from having contact with the ground. Their system conserves water, helps prevent weeds, and keeps pumpkins cleaner. Seamans’ pumpkins range in size from 4 ounces to 30 pounds, and are available pre-picked and pick-your-own.

The orchards have held Apple Butter Makin’ Festivals on the first and third Saturdays in October for over 30 years. This year’s festival will take place on October 7 and 21 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the packing facility at 5529 Crabtree Falls Hwy in Tyro. The Flippin and Seaman families will work throughout the festival making apple butter the old-fashioned way in large copper kettles, stirring constantly while it cooks. Anne Kidd knows the families’ secret spice recipe; Carter Parr and Brian Kidd oversee the cooking.

Along with the butter, festival goers will find crafters and Mingo the Clown, hear live music and enjoy family activities including pumpkin picking, children’s games, a corn maze, and a cider pressing demonstration at 11:00 a.m. Apples, apple butter, jams, jellies, cider and more will be for sale.

The Seamans’ and Silvercreek Pink Lady Fun Day on October 28 from 10:00 am to 4:30 p.m. will feature food vendors, live music, kids games, a scavenger hunt, apple tasting and apple butter making, cider samples and a cider pressing demonstration at 11:00 a.m. A large selection of Pink Ladys plus several other varieties will be available.

Fresh Virginia apples, low in calories, high in fiber, and rich in anti-oxidants, make doctors smile, and mothers too. They’re ripe for the picking!