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Middletown Life

‘People and Peaches’ delves into the history of the peach industry

Aug 09, 2019 10:39AM ● By J. Chambless

‘Click-a-Pick’ is an area to try on old-time clothes and pick plastic peaches off a tree.

By Ken Mammarella

 Personal stories, rather than historical artifacts, are the focus of a new permanent exhibit on peaches at the Middletown Historical Society.

“People and peaches planted the seeds that shape Middletown today,” said Abby Harting, the Middletown native and museum expert who designed the exhibit.

Hence the name of the exhibit, “People and Peaches,” which is part of the society’s free museum in the Academy Building (216 N. Broad St., Middletown). The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. first and third Saturdays, and noon to 4 p.m. third Wednesdays. It will also be open[ken mamma1]  Aug. 17 for the Middletown Old-Tyme Peach Festival.

“Delaware was the country’s leading producer of peaches for part of the 19th century,” the state says in explaining why the peach blossom became the state’s floral emblem in 1895 and state flower in 1955. The peach pie became the state dessert in 2009. All those peaches generated lots of money, but the good times shriveled starting in the 1880s from infections that killed millions of trees.

Harting began work on exhibit earlier this year, and it’s built on her strong academic[ken mamma2]  background (a bachelor of arts in history, art history and art conservation from the University of Delaware and a master of arts in museum studies and nonprofit business management from Johns Hopkins University), as well as years of experience at historical sites.

A key story involves Samuel F. Jones, a local African-American farm laborer, who used the peach industry to build a better life. She learned about Jones from a very old issue of the Middletown Transcript. “A fabulous, front-page article,” she said, including telling details, such as his three winters of formal education, his Civil War draft and his 16 children.

“He went from nothing to a considerable fortune” by the time he died in 1912, she said, and the exhibit shows part of his wealth with a stock book from Citizens National Bank of Middletown, listing 10 stocks that he owned and had registered with the bank.

Jones listed a parlor organ in his will, and such an impressive item “is a real evidence that he’s solidly middle class,” she said. The exhibit therefore includes a similar organ from the society’s collection.

To enhance the exhibit, the society is looking for photos of him and information from descendants. But “we haven’t been able to locate any family members yet,” she said.

The family-friendly exhibit also includes a play space and interactive elements.

In a feature called “Is It Still There?” museum-goers guess whether the historic houses that are photographed are still part of Middletown’s renowned cityscape or have been lost. Museum-goers can appreciate just how many peaches fit in a jar by packing felt replicas.

And in “Click-a-Pick,” a mural of pickers is the backdrop for an area to try on old-time clothes and pick plastic peaches off a tree. It’s also a selfie station. “What is a museum exhibit without a place to take pictures?” she asked.

Of course, “People and Peaches” still has artifacts, such an early 20th-century peach peeler and peaches canned in the mid-20th century. “It’ll be a fabulous exhibit,” Harting predicted.

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