During the unusual circumstances of the Coronavirus Pandemic this year, many events have been cancelled in order to protect the citizens of our nation, with one such occurrence being Rhea County’s Strawberry Festival. This is a celebration which most people look forward to and enjoy because strawberries have been such an important part of our history. However, do we really know what a strawberry is as we savor that delicious flavor?

Everyone knows that a rose is a rose, but what about a strawberry? Believe it or not, the strawberry is a member of the rose family, and goes with Rhea County like a hand in a glove! Since strawberries are a fast growing crop, and produce runners which make the next generation of plants, it is no wonder this fruit “grew” into a large industry during the early history of Rhea County.

From the time the first plants were set out around 1898, the strawberry industry rapidly advanced to become one of the principal cash crops of Rhea County. The reasons for this quick growth were said to be the wonderful climate of the county, the limestone soil and the size and flavor of the berries being better than most in other parts of the country.

Strawberries were picked and shipped from the end of April until the first of June. They were shipped by train in freight cars, holding 400 crates of berries, with the walls of these cars made of double wall construction. The space between the walls was packed with ice from Schild’s Ice Plant in Dayton in order to provide refrigeration for the trip to Northern markets.

The acreage of strawberries increased in the early 1900’s from less than one hundred acres to more than two thousand; also, increasing the annual shipments from a few hundred crates to more than two hundred thousand. Every grower belonged to a growers association, and at every shipping point there were from one to three of these associations present. This method assured that almost all carloads were paid for, and at good prices, so that the grower received money for his berries before he left the station that day.

Two of the leading growers in 1910 and 1911 were Chapman Wasson and William Perry Darwin. Mr. Wasson was a successful merchant of Rhea Springs, and was known as one of the county’s leading citizens. He stated that the average berry crop should make two hundred crates per acre, with the picking, hauling to the car and other incidentals running close to seventy-five cents per crate. His profit in 1910 was $164.00 on the first crop, with the second and third crops probably being more profitable, according to Mr. Wasson. For the year 1911, Mr. Wasson reported that he sold his crop for $14,000.00, even with a three week drought period. W.P. Darwin, who was another of the county’s leading citizens, was a large berry grower of Evensville, which was a station six miles north of Dayton. He reported that he produced 1600 crates of berries on ten acres of land, and sold them F.O.B. (free on board) the cars at Evensville, for $2.10 per crate. (At that time, Evensville was the largest strawberry shipping point on the Queen and Crescent Railway System. The population was approximately two hundred, with a bank and four general merchandise stores. It was also a large shipping point for sheep, hogs, cattle, tanbark and cross-ties.) (According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, tanbark was any bark containing tannin, used to tan hides and, after the tannin has been extracted, to cover circus rings.)

Even though these two growers had produced above average amounts of berries, they put more than an average amount of work into their crops; however, they were not the only ones who did this. There were many others who maintained production of strawberries the same, or close to, these particular growers.

In 1911 the Division Freight Agent for the Q. & C. Railway reported shipments of 16 cars of berries from Graysville, 121 from Dayton, 152 cars from Evensville, 62 from Sheffield (now known as Pennine), 91 from Spring City and 12 cars from Roddy; the total number of cars being 454. The total shipments amounted to 24,281 crates from Rhea County, with the estimated gross amount being $374,477.00. However, since that time, shipping changed to the trucking industry in order to get the crop to market faster. Soon the crates dropped to 16 quarts (instead of 24) then 12, and now 8 quarts make up a flat.

The strawberry began to lose its “magic” during the late 1940’s, due to diseases and labor shortages. It wasn’t until the early 1980’s that the strawberry began a comeback. Therefore, the strawberry still has a special place in the history of Rhea County. Even though times and the economy have changed, a strawberry is still a strawberry, and with this virus being a part of our life at the present time, we can even enjoy eating strawberries this year! Remember to study the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.

Pat Guffey can be reached at pat459@charter.net