"Everything is peaches down in Georgia"
Okie, William Thomas
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This dissertation chronicles the rise of the Georgia peach as a major crop and a central symbol of the South since the 1870s. It tells of a vision of environmental reform articulated by horticulturists in the nineteenth century, the role of northerners in the commercial success of the fruit in the 1890s, the problem of markets in the 1900s, the place-making attempts of middle Georgia elites in the 1920s, and the centrality of African American or Latino labor throughout. In telling this story, the dissertation makes two central claims. First, historians cannot account for the redevelopment of the South after the Civil War without addressing the role played by the region’s environment and by human ideas of that environment. Although scholars have frequently portrayed the New South campaigns from the 1880s through the 1950s as industrial and urban projects aimed at integrating the southern hinterland into the national economy, the story of the Georgia peach suggests that this modernization agenda also encompassed environmental and aesthetic concerns. On one hand, boosters portrayed the southern environment as a land of semitropical abundance where the average farmer could make a good living on a small parcel. On the other hand, the region’s environment did not always play along: climatic variability, warmth and humidity, and poor soils made for unpredictable harvests and elusive rural prosperity. As a result, although horticulturists proposed an array of crops for the region’s farmers in the nineteenth century, only peaches grew very widely. Second, scholars must consider agriculture as culture – not just plants and soil and weather but visions and narratives. As a symbol, the peach seemed tailor-made for postbellum southern culture, for it had none of the negative associations with gullied fields and black poverty that burdened cotton cultivation. But peach culture depended upon cotton, especially for its seasonal labor supply, which always comprised the region's most marginalized groups. And even where peaches took hold, fruit culture did not produce a landscape of tasteful gardens, as its boosters promised, but of expansive plantations. As such, it fell far short of a comprehensive vision of reform.