Levering Orchard was founded in 1908 by Ralph and Clara Levering. Ralph Levering, Frank’s grandfather, was originally a strawberry and sweet potato farmer in eastern Tennessee. Legend has it that he grew tired of having to stoop for a living. He wanted to reach for the sky as he picked his fruit. So in 1907, the Columbia University-educated Ralph Levering wrote the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington D.C., inquiring about the best place to set out an apple orchard in the Southeast. Where would apples grow best to escape spring freezes?
The answer: on the southeastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There, the soil is fertile and deep and the sunlight abundant. There the so-called “thermal belt” along the side of the mountain offers protection from freezes which often kill fruit in its embryonic stages at lower and higher elevations. In 1907, Ralph Levering took two legs of a famous walk. He walked all the way from from Asheville, N.C., to Roanoke, Va. and both times stopped at this particular piece of land in Carroll County, Va., that would eventually become Levering Orchard. One stipulation made by his wife, Clara Osborne Levering, was that the place have beautiful view. And a beautiful view it has. The other stipulation was that it be near a Quaker community, and that was answered too with the Quaker meeting in nearby Mount Airy, NC, just 12 miles to the south.
In February, 1908, Ralph and Clara Levering moved into a log cabin on the lawn of what is now Frank Levering’s residence. There Clara, 9 months pregnant, gave birth to Sam Levering, the third of her three children. A well-known Quaker, Sam was Frank’s father; he ran the orchard from 1939 until 1986, when he and his wife, Miriam, entered into a partnership with Frank.
Levering Orchard was primarily an apple orchard until the 1970s when Sam Levering had a major insight — the several cherry trees planted near his and Miriam’s home drew flocks of pick-your-own customers just as surely as the multitudes of hungry birds. There were never enough cherries to meet demand. So, despite the conventional wisdom that cherries couldn’t be grown commercially in this region, in 1972, Sam boldly pushed out a large block of apple trees and went into the cherry business in a big way. Sam’s risky experiment turned out to be the then-floundering orchard’s salvation. Today Levering Orchard’s primary crop is cherries.
On a good season, the cherries start as early as late May and can extend to the Fourth of July and sometimes beyond. Nearly 50 years after Sam’s planting, Levering Orchard claims the title as the largest cherry orchard in the South and draws customers from as far as Washington DC and Atlanta to pick its 54 varieties of sweet and sour cherries. As Deane Kern wrote for a recent issue of Blue Ridge Country magazine, “Every June, Levering Orchard welcomes thousands of visitors from the Blue Ridge and beyond…. Frank always encourages visitors to bring picnic lunches and take time to savor the clear mountain breezes and breathtaking scenic views. He declares that his delicious fruit cannot be found in grocery stores at even twice the price.”
The orchard maintains its ties with the past and continues to have a smaller operation with peaches, nectarines and pears in July and August and apples in the fall. Tour buses, church and school groups are also welcome!
In 2001, Frank’s Orchard Gap Press published the Fruit Orchard Cookbook, which drew together over 90 years of favorite family recipes. For more information, check out Orchard Gap Press.