The ‘Delaware peach’ ruled eastern markets from about 1840 till the turn of the 20th century. What about the ‘Georgia peach,’ you ask? Georgia horticulturists did indeed start a determined effort in the 1850s to selectively breed the peach and get the industry under way there.
But Delaware had the lead already, thanks to one Isaac Reeves. The New Jersey transplant bought a farm in Red Lion Hundred, near today’s Fort DuPont, in 1832, and brought with him the ‘budded tree’ method of raising peaches. Reeves grew trees from peach stones, and then grafted onto them limbs in bud from his finest mature trees, which produced superior fruit.
Reeves wasn’t the first Delaware peach grower. There were small peach orchards by the early 18th century, and larger farms appeared by the 19th, particularly in Sussex County. But these early orchards produced a small fruit, usually turned into peach brandy or dried for home use.
Isaac Reeves was neighbors with Philip (later “Major”) Reybold. Reybold was the classic example of the wide ranging entrepreneur open to trying new things. He began farming in 1810 with a partner who ended up defaulting on him and taking all Reybold’s savings. He rented the same farm he’d just lost and soon bought it again with profits from castor oil pressed from beans he grew ‘as an experiment.’
In the 1820s Reybold was the excavation contractor for the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal east of St. Georges. He took the marl—earth containing rotted sea shells—he’d dug, and spread it on his farm, restoring the fertility that his neighbor farms lacked. He bought up one run-down farm after another, applying marl from his considerable stache as he went.
Reybold was intrigued with Isaac Reeves’ grafting innovation. In 1842 he began growing peaches, initially on his original farm just north of Delaware City. Between the grafting technique, the new properties he’d bought, and the use of marl, it took Reybold and his five sons only three years to create a peach empire of 117,000 trees spread across two states.
Reybold shipped his fruit to Philadelphia and New York on his own steamers, and when prices did not suit him he ordered entire shiploads dumped overboard.
Wilmington shipbuilders Harlan & Hollingsworth constructed the 461-ton “Major Reybold” in 1853 for his sons, for peach transport. It became one of the best known steamboats of that era on the lower part of the Delaware River, operating till 1907. Delaware City’s landing, officially named Newbold Landing, was instead referred to by locals as ‘The Major’s Wharf.’
Year after year the Reybold family peach crops, along with those of other area growers, were hauled down Clinton Street in six-ox and six-mule wagons to the river, where baskets were stacked three tiers high and a hundred yards long, to be loaded on three steamboats at one time.
Major Reybolds’ younger contemporary Jehu Reed (1805-80) was one of Kent County’s most noted scientific farmers—the Peach Kings— to grow wealthy on the sale of peaches and young grafted peach trees.
Like Reybold, he understood the need to enrich exhausted local soils. Rather than use marl, Reed dried and ground horseshoe crab shells, which for the same reason yielded huge peach crops.
He opened a crab processing plant at nearby Warren’s Landing (part of today’s Bowers Beach) on St. Jones Creek. The plant was right on the Delaware Bay, at a key spot where horseshoe crabs gather by the thousands to mate in May and June. The supply to Jehu Reed must have seemed limitless.
After the Civil war a peach blight known as ‘peach yellows’ spread uncontrollably from Red Lion Hundred across the state, devastating the industry. Farm laborers–the ‘peach plucks’—responded by migrating north. Growers turned instead to the more disease resistant apple as a staple crop. Georgia overtook Delaware in peach production.