Ray and Dare Eldreth are Ashe County natives and heirloom growers who live in the Lansing area. They grow a wide variety of conventional and heirloom produce and have a wealth of recollections about things that have been grown in the past and are still grown now.
For instance, they fondly recall the wild chinquapin trees of their youth. The American chinquapin, or dwarf chestnut, is native to Ashe County, although it is not as common as it was in Ray and Dare’s youth. Ray says he has picked them his entire life. “They grew wild. They were named after the Cherokee, which are native to this county. [...] A relative of mine said they grow in the woods all the time. You can pick them up and find them out in the field and they’ll continue to grow, but if somebody don’t take them out of the woods, they’ll die. That’s where the ones I have come from. I picked them up out of the woods and set them out. [...] The bushes only grow about 10-12 feet tall. Over a period of time, they start dying out, but new ones come on, and the birds love them.” When asked if the chinquapin is an understory tree, both Ray and Dare said that they won’t grow in the woods, but rather at the edge of the woods.
Ray recalls, “When I grew up, kids used to go pick pockets full of them. They’ve got a really thin hull. They’d put them in their mouths and crack them and peel the hull off, and throw them on the floor, and the teacher would get really aggravated. [...] When you learn how to do it, you can hull out the goody part and spit out the hull. The teacher hated that.”
Dare adds, “It tastes like a raw chestnut. A girl would always get their mothers to thread them up and make necklaces out of them and you could eat them in class. That’s what you would do.”
Ray continues, “They’ve gotten so scarce that nobody’s been raising them. Even the squirrels around our house when mine started bearing, the squirrels would just pass them by. But now they’ve learned that they are good to eat, and they raid them every time they get ripe.” Ray got his plants from Wesley Eldreth who lives in the Jefferson area.
The Eldreths also remember a number of kinds of apple trees that used to be popular years ago in Ashe County. Among their favorites are the Johnson Fine Winter and the Cotton Sweet. According to Dare, “Cotton Sweet is a really good apple. It’s just an eating apple because when you eat them, they turn brown real fast. Kids loved them. When we were growing up, that’s the tree you would go to eat an apple.” Ray chimes in, “I’ve not seen those since I was a kid. They turn your mouth real brown when you eat them.”
Ray especially likes to grow a yellow tomato called the Golden Jubilee. “It’s getting hard to find,“ Ray says, but it’s one of his favorites because “it’s a mild-acid yellow tomato that doesn’t have any lumps.” Dare also notes her dislike of lumpy tomatoes, saying “When you’re trying to slice it to put on a sandwich, you waste about half of it.”
Ray says that the only seed he has saved currently is the Kellogg Breakfast Tomato, which is an orange-yellow heirloom that originated in West Virginia. “The old lady above me,” says Ray, “she grew such big tomatoes. That’s what fascinated me. It wasn’t a baseball size, they were more like a grapefruit size. They were red and yellow. But we lost those seeds. There’s only one person that might have those seeds is her granddaughter.”
“We do have plum trees on our property that have been there all my life, says Ray, "and I’ve never seen another one like them. And it is so sour, you can’t do anything with it. We’ve never found a use for it. It grows to about the size of a quarter, but they’re so sour.”
“Somebody must have liked them because they’ve been there all my life. They just sit along the fence line and they keep multiplying. [...] But I’ve never seen another one like it. Never knew there were any more around like that. My grandpa’s brother lived there, and he died in the 30s, and he set them out, I think. […] They set them out right above their place where they used to raise crops, just to be there. The deer like them. You can pick one up and look at it and it looks so good. That’s got to be good. And you pop it in your mouth and you just spit it out. […] We tried making jelly out of them one time. The jelly was still sour.”
Dare says with a laugh, “A little bit [sour]. I guess we just didn’t know what we were doing. Years ago, they planted what they could use, I believe.”
According to Dare, folks often grew heirlooms because their families were partial to certain varieties and kept passing them down. “My neighbor, one time, she was telling us about Blue Lake beans, how good they are. And I thought, ‘They’re not much work, you don’t have to string them, you can put them in a jar and can them, and you’re finished.’ But it’s because we’re used to half runners in this area, not Blue Lakes. You don’t want Blue Lakes, they’re horrible. [...] We’ve always been used to our family planting half runners.”
Ray has noticed a difference in half runners lately. “Half runners have gotten to the point where they have a lot of flat, woody beans mixed in with them. For some reason, I don’t know whether they’re changing over a period of time, or what. You can grow a row of them and half of them will be those flat woody beans.” Dare explains that “if they’re flat beans, you have to throw them away because you can’t eat them.”
Ray has noticed this problem with several varieties of half runners. “We’ve bought seed from different counties and planted them out, and they still have that same problem. They grow real long beans and they‘re flat and watery when they’re ripe.” “You don’t want to even put them in when you’re canning,” says Dare, “because it will ruin them. You don’t like that mouth feel because they’ve just got a bad texture.”
Although they acknowledge that many people in Ashe County tell you not to plant anything until after Mother’s Day, the Eldreths plant lettuce and onions in March and potatoes on Good Friday. “You don’t have to cover it,” says Ray of the Black Seeded Simpson lettuce they prefer. “The lettuce will come up and grow even with frost on it.”
Planting potatoes on Good Friday is a tradition for the Eldreths. Ray says, “If the Lord can bring Jesus up out of the ground, He can bring up a potato.”
Dare adds, “The best ones we always grow are the Kennebecs. [...] They last all winter. We store them and they make great mashed potatoes.” Ray shares how they store their potatoes. “If you put them in the basement, they’ll sprout in a month. You can dig a hole about 18 inches in the ground and line the bottom of it with straw, you can put a couple bushels of potatoes in there, put straw on top of it, and put about six inches of dirt. When you dig them up in April, they’re just like the day you planted them.” Dare continues, “They’re crispy [and] it’s a good way to store them if you don’t have a building.” According to Ray, this method works because “potatoes absorb water from the ground, and if you put them in your basement where they can’t get enough water, they’ll shrivel.”
The Eldreths also have a preferred way of storing cabbage. “You pull the whole stalk up, turn it upside down and bury it in the ground. Just leave enough of the stalk that you can pull it out in the spring,” says Ray. “It tastes better when you pull it out in the spring. […] That was a way of preserving cabbage in these mountains, so you could have it all winter.” Ray says you can leave parsnips in the ground, too. He says they taste so much better in the spring if you leave them in the ground.
Ray has fond memories of being picked up by the bean trucks and going to the fields to pick beans. This was a common thing for children in Ashe County to do. “They had a variety called Tendergreen. It was really good. [... Farmers] would allow you to come when they picked all they could pick for the market. There would be some scattered ones on the ground, and they would allow people to come and pick them and eat them. They were really good.”
The Eldreths agree that it is a good idea to try planting different seeds to see what will grow on your land. When you find out that some things don’t grow well, you should not waste your time trying again and again to grow those things. Find out what your soil is good for and stick with that. They like to amend their soil with mulch and manure. However, Ray warns, “Horse manure makes your potatoes scaly.” And Dare says, “The worst part about putting manure on your property, you’re going to get a lot of weeds. [... So if you use manure,] you’re going to be pulling weeds for the rest of your life.” Ray says he plows his garden up in January to make sure the freezing weather kills the weed seeds.
When Ray was young, his father planted black raspberries around the perimeter of their garden on the fence. “Every summer for about two weeks, you would get probably five gallons of berries every other day. So me and my brother learned how to make jelly, and how to make jam, we learned how to can berries. We had that down to a science—when to quit cooking it and put it in a jar; it would just be perfectly gelled. That was our job.”
Both Ray and Dare respect the timeworn gardening traditions that have served them and their families well. Although they have seen some of these methods supplanted by more modern ones, they also note that many people are turning back to traditional ways of doing things. By sharing their ways of planting and preserving, they help pass on the knowledge they’ve accumulated through a lifetime of work.
Interview with Ray and Dare Eldreth by Brenda Smith 2/7/2023