It might seem odd, but a new book tracing the history of the Georgia peach serves as an entertaining and enlightening review of the state’s cultural evolution over the last 200 years and an instruction book for today’s policymakers. Since peaches were a major crop in Coweta County, it is also our local tale.
Although “The Georgia Peach: Culture, Agriculture and Environment in the American South” by Kennesaw State University history professor William Thomas Okie purports to be about the popular fruit, it’s much more. It recounts how the marketing of a commodity shaped the state’s image in the rest of the world even though South Carolina and California grow more peaches, a lesson in merchandising worth noting for all business people.
The peach is an icon for the state, appearing on driver’s licenses, car tags and promotional materials. It has been hailed in popular songs and movies. Its rise in fame helped revise the state’s image following the Civil War and laid the foundation for Georgia to stand apart from other former Confederate states in the eyes of the rest of the country, thanks to a concerted marketing campaign by peach producers. Georgians today benefit from that image that drew Northern capitalists to invest here when they were shunning neighboring states.
Because pruning, picking and packing peaches is so labor intensive, the history of the crop is also a story of labor struggles and culture in rural Georgia, including race relations and immigration.
The eminent retired University of Georgia history professor James C. Cobb praised the work.
“Here is that rare book that delivers a lot more than it promises,” Cobb wrote. “In addition to ‘culture, agriculture and environment,’ Okie deftly incorporates race, science, technology, marketing and other national and global forces into a seamless interpretive synthesis, which in turn, provides the backdrop for a beautifully rendered, tart-sweet, human narrative richly evocative of the eponymous fruit of the title.”
For native Georgians old enough to remember the lights of packing houses burning late into the night during peach season or who had firsthand experience with the itch of sweat-infused peach fuzz and for those too young or too new to the state for such memories, it is a refreshing look at who we are and how we became this way.
Okie’s book might not seem at first glance to be as interesting as it is, but for readers who breeze through its 200 pages, broadened insight flows like the juice of a fresh peach eaten in the shade of the tree it was picked from.