The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Musser's Orchard

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1992

Issue: July-August-September, 1992

(Unique gifts from Mother Nature & Perdita Musser Williams)

Fall is a big time of the year for orchards, and Musser's Orchard on Route 90 going into Rural Retreat, Virginia is no exception. The Blue Ridge Mountains are famous for great apple crops and people flock from hundreds of miles away for every crop.

Musser's Orchard was begun in the early spring of 1960 when the owners, Ernest C. Musser III and his mother, Perdita Musser Williams, set out 200 trees along with a few raspberry and strawberry plants. The land had been purchased in the fall of 1959 when the Memphis Clendenan place was auctioned off.

Each year a few trees were added until there was a total of eleven acres in fruit trees. Perdita's husband R.G. Williams, offered his advice as to the planting and care of the trees. As time passed a cold storage was added to the orchard, then a sales room attached to it.

Sometime during the early years of the orchard, Perdita began to make butters, jams, preserves and jellies for sale. Surplus food was used in this way, continuing a long-standing mountain tradition of not wasting anything. Throughout the years she has kept it up and today, at age 79, continues to make and sell her homemade goodies.

The following is a list of products made during the past 30 years: Jellies - Apple, peach, gooseberry, raspberry. strawberry, mint, grape and cherry. Jams - Peach, damson, strawberry (wild), and raspberry. Preserves - Peach, pear, damson, plum, gooseberry, strawberry, sour cherry, and watermelon rind. Butters - Apple, peach, pear and a combination of all three. Pickles - Watermelon rind, peach, pear, cucumber, chow-chow and relish. (You might notice that a few of these aren't to be found on a supermarket shelf.) They also carry apples to Murray's near Roanoke and bring back bottled apple cider to sell.

Perdita has enjoyed canning. Along with preserves and pickles, she has also dried many pounds of apples by her wood stove in the cold months, as long as the apples lasted. They too sold well in the Orchard Store. She used to crack and pick out black walnut and hickory nut meats to sell, but says, "It was a tedious job and I just don't do it anymore. You have to give up something."

Many of the recipes for the preserves, jams, jellies and pickles were ones Perdita saw her mother, Lottie Smith Farson use. They were never written down, but Perdita recalls seeing her mother making them and learned how to do it by helping. It was a process passed down from one generation to the next. Mrs. Farson lived most of her 95 years of life in the Riceville Community in Pittsylvania County, Virginia and died in 1982.

How well Perdita remembers her youth - picking wild strawberries, blackberries and helping her mother can and preserve them. How delicious were the cookies and cakes made from those berries. (Berries were once used in cookies and cakes as raisins are today. How delicious!) Watermelon rinds were not thrown out, but used for preserves and pickles. Sweet cherries growing in fence rows were picked and preserved along with the fruit from the family orchard. Canning and preserving food was a way of life.

After Perdita came to Wythe County to teach and married Ernest C. Musser, Jr., she learned new things to add to her canning and preserving skills from the people in the Crockett and Rural Retreat communities where she has now lived for 60 years.

One good friend and neighbor, Mrs. "Pearlie" Joe Rosenbaum, gave Perdita the recipe for making preserves and letting them set in the sun until they thickened before putting them in hot jars, pouring hot wax on top and sealing them. Gone was the slightly strong taste of preserves that had been overcooked. Mrs. Rosenbaum (who was a Wampler before her marriage) has been gone for years now, but her preserve recipe lives on.

To Perdita, each passing year feels as though it will be the last one she will be making these products and drying apples, but to date, she still continues. Different batches of products vary slightly due to the natural acidity, but not too much. Remember, we're talking about homemade goodies made in her own kitchen. She is her own "quality control" person and if a product doesn't taste good enough to measure up to her standards, it doesn't go on sale.

So, if you find yourself driving around in search of apples and other produce, stop by Musser's Orchard in Rural Retreat. Look over her selection of homemade goodies for sale and perhaps meet Perdita herself. She has written a couple of books about the Rural Retreat area that you might also like to purchase.

Musser's Orchard is still a family run operation and you'll enjoy meeting this friendly bunch which includes Ernest's wife Lois, and their five children: Ernest IV, Temple, Cheyenne, Desiree and Hunter, ranging from age six to eighteen. All help faithfully in all the work on the farm as well as extra activities such as raising cattle, meat processing and walnut hulling at present. The Sales Room is open year round, seven days a week, 9-6 Monday through Saturday and 1-6 on Sundays. If you would like to call or write to ask about the current selection available: Musser's Orchard, Route 2, Box 8, Rural Retreat, Virginia 24368 or phone 703-686-4182. Perdita's goodies are made with fruit fresh from the orchard, and are loaded with good old fashioned taste, not chemicals.

(Editor's note: I make a few trips to Musser's Orchard each year to buy Perdita's goodies for gifts for family members - Raspberry preserves for my youngest daughter, watermelon rind pickles and damson preserves for my sister, not to mention the strawberry preserves and applebutter for my own enjoyment. Homemade edibles make great Christmas gifts, especially for city folks who don't get to taste homemade goodies very often!)