Porter Peach Festival
THE PORTER PEACH STORY
To many people in Oklahoma, the term “Porter Peaches” is synonymous with hot summer days and juicy, ripe peaches. It is often misunderstood that a Porter Peach is a specific type or variety of peach. However, the term simply refers to a peach grown in Porter, Oklahoma, a small rural community in Northeast Oklahoma.
Peaches have been grown in Porter since well before statehood. The fertile farm ground between the Verdigris and the Arkansas River was the perfect backdrop for growing peaches and other crops. Originally part of the Creek Nation Allotment, the community of Porter and the surrounding areas boasted some of the most prosperous farms in Indian Territory, including the farm of Ben Marshall. A 5/8 Creek Indian, Marshall attended the Tullahassee Mission School until the age of 12, when his parents sent him to Carlisle Indian
Industrial School in Pennsylvania (the same school Jim Thorpe attended).
It was during his years at Carlisle that Marshall first learned about fruit
production, working for a Pennsylvania farmer who owned peach and
apple orchards during summer breaks. When Marshall returned to the
Creek allotments in Indian Territory, he planted the first commercial peach
orchard in the area in 1890, five miles southeast of the town of Porter.
The orchard gained national attention in 1904, when Marshall took his
peaches and apples to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.
The historical records aren’t completely clear; some sources say that Marshall
won Gold Medals, some say Bronze Medals, while some sources claim the
medals for Marshall’s apples and others, his peaches. Regardless, it is clear
that Marshall’s peaches received high praise at the World Fair, and the first
Porter Peaches made their mark on the national stage.
A grocery store in Muskogee, Oklahoma with peaches brought from Porter to sell in 1939.
Peaches, apples and other fruits and vegetables remained a mainstay in the Porter economy into the next century. In the early 1900s, Porter peaches were shipped railroad cars at a time back east to supply grocery stores all over the United States. At one time, Porter boasted eight concurrently operated commercial peach orchards, earning the distinction as Oklahoma’s official Peach Capital by proclamation of Governor George Nigh in 1983.
56 years ago, the community of Porter was faced with the issue of how they could raise matching funds for a federal grant to build a civic center in the small town. Civic leaders determined that their best asset was in the town’s cash crop – peaches. So, a handful of men, including the town banker, the county agricultural agent and local peach growers, worked with the Porter Lion’s Club to host the inaugural Porter Peach Festival in 1967. The festival was an overwhelming success: the first peach queen was crowned, the first prize peach basket auctioned off, and Lady Bird Johnson even posed for a picture with the bushel of peaches the community shipped to the White House.
While most of these early orchards have faded into the pages of history, Porter continues to produce the majority of the state’s peaches, though these days high local demand means few peaches are shipped outside of the state. The town celebrates the continuing legacy and vision of the early farmers and community leaders every July at the annual Peach Festival. Support for the Festival over the last 56 years has allowed the Porter Lion’s Club to not only build the originally planned civic center, but also help fund the construction of a town park and improvements to the local cemetery, as well as supporting activities such as the annual Christmas parade, youth livestock shows, and various academic and sport programs at the local school.
Currently, the Livesay family continues Porter's strong legacy of growing quality peaches. Livesay Orchards is the largest peach orchard in Oklahoma with more than a 150 acres of Peach Trees. To learn more about Livesay Orchards please go to their website at https://livesayorchards.com.
Porter Peach Festival Through the Years
For 56 years now, the Porter Peach Festival has been a cornerstone of the Porter community. While much has changed through the past 6 decades, the focus of celebrating the town's rich agricultural legacy has remained true. Keep scrolling for a look back at the Festival through the years!
Prize Peach Auction
The Porter Peach Festival began out of a dream to be able to provide community enrichment projects to the town. From the very first Festival in 1967, local peach growers have been donating the biggest and best of their peach crop to be auctioned off. The donated peaches were judged by local agricultural experts, with the Grand Champion trophy being highly sought after by orchard owners. The proceeds from the first few festivals raised the funds to build the town's Civic Center, with many more projects being funded in the coming years. In the Festival's semicentennial celebration in 2016, a record was set for the Grand Champion Peach basket, which brought $5,000 at auction, purchased by the Arkansas Valley Verdigris Health Center. In recent years, the prize peaches have been donated exclusively by Livesay Orchards. However, what hasn't changed has been the Porter Lions Club commitment to funnel the proceeds from the Prize Peach Auction back into bettering the community we live in.
Marcy Martin and Clair Castleberry inspect the prize peaches up for auction at the 45th Annual Porter Peach Festival. That year's auction raised over $18,000 for the town's community and service projects.
To the right, Brian Livesay, age 2, helping his family pick out peaches to enter into the Prize Peach Contest and Auction for the 27th Porter Peach Festival. In addition to the Prize Peach Contest, the 1993 festival featured tricyle and big wheel drag races, a bald head "chrome dome" contest, and the usual music, parade and festivities. Picking out peaches for the Prize Peach Auction is a family affair at Livesay Orchards. Brian's sister, Melanie Warren Merritt, is shown picking peaches for the auction in 1992, upper right. A couple of years before, Brian's uncle Kent Livesay, pictured above is trying to pick out peaches that will catch the judges' eye, for the 24th Porter Peach Festival in 1990.
Beth Acree watches while culinary contest judge Brad Criner considers between various peach spreads in the 45th Annual Porter Peach Festival.
Another cornerstone of the Porter Peach Festival has been the town's culinary contests, showcasing, of course, peaches! Residents and non-residents alike have battled for the title of "Best Peach Cobbler" and "Best Peach Jam" for 55 years now. In 2019, the culinary contests were revitalized and renamed to the "Mrs. Parnell's Peachy Things", honoring the late Porter citizen, Andrea Parnell. A well beloved teacher, mentor, OSU fan, and Peach Festival supporter, Andrea lost her battle with cancer in 2019. Every year, the competition continues to honor her memory and support the Andrea Parnell Memorial Scholarship Fund.
The very first Porter Peach Festival featured a parade and that tradition has continued through today! Late Festival Chairman Roy Essary, who was at the helm of many festivals in the 1990s and 2000s, always called the Porter Peach Festival the biggest small town festival in Oklahoma. And that small-town character is highlighted every year in the parade - local civic groups, school groups, round up clubs, tractor clubs and more gather on north Main Street to trek through the streets of Porter, waving to home town folks and visitors alike! Join us every year at 11 AM on Peach Festival Saturday as the tradition continues!
KOTV news personality LeAnne Taylor waves to the crowd during the 45th Annual Porter Peach Festival.
A young Cash Criner checks out the festivities at the 45th Peach Festival.
Two men enjoying the parade on their horses.
Shriners wave to a group of children gathered along the parade route during the 1994 Porter Peach Festival Parade.
Peaches & Ice Cream
There's no denying that Peach Festival in Porter is a hot place to be! But, that only makes the free peaches and ice cream given away on Saturday to festival goers even sweeter and more refreshing! Peeling and slicing the 1,000 pounds of peaches that are given away every year as one of the highlights of the Porter Peach Festival is an effort that takes the whole town. Dozens of volunteers gather at the local civic center, paring knives, aprons and dish towels in tow, to tackle the many boxes of peaches. While a pretty exhausting effort, Porter Lions Club President Melanie Merritt fondly remembers the peach peeling evenings with friends and neighbors, many of which have now passed on, and with the high schoolers which are the future for the Peach Festival.
Porter residents Larry and Sue Essary join other community volunteers in peeling peaches in July 2011 for the 45th Annual Porter Peach Festival.
Hundreds of peach fans lined up to sample some of Porter's famous peaches and vanilla ice cream at the 40th Annual Porter Peach Festival in 2006.
Porter's Peach Orchards
Since well before statehood, the Porter community has boasted successful peach orchards, famous throughout the area for their high quality produce. At one time in the mid 20th century, Porter claimed 10 different commercial peach orchards. While the majority of these orchards are no longer around, their legacy continues through the peach production that continues at Livesay Orchards and through one of the state's largest agricultural festivals. Keep reading to learn more about the orchards that shaped Porter's landscape.
One of the largest and most influential early orchards, Blackledge Orchard was founded in 1916 by brothers B.F. Blackledge and Harold Blackledge. B.F.'s daughter, Dorothy, started working at the orchard when she was just 12 years old. Love took Dorothy away from the orchard when she married Ernie Fischer, an aeronautical engineering graduate from Oklahoma A&M and they moved to New Jersey. Okies at heart though, the Fischers moved back to Oklahoma and the farm in 1946. In an article in the Tulsa World in 1995, Dorothy was quoted as saying that Ernie "fit right in" at the farm. For over 50 years, Ernie and Dorothy, with the help of their son Joel and wife Anne, cultivated the orchard founded by Dorothy's father and uncle, growing the orchard to over 150 acres. Ernie and Dorothy were well respected growers not just locally, but nationally, being very active members and even serving as president of the National Peach Council at times. In the 1995 article, Dorothy shared fond memories of the early days of peach production at Blackledge Orchard. "In the good old days, we used to pack the peaches in bushel baskets, and the refrigerated train cars were ran from Muskogee to Tullahassee several times a day.
Dorothy Fisher at 79 years old, showing off peaches at Blackledge-Fisher Orchard in 1995.