Gibson L. Wharton, fruit stand owner, pulled his cigar from his mouth, rested it on a 45-pound pumpkin and commenced telling about the genuine antique apple sorter that graces his fruit stand.
"When I was a boy, just nine years old, I'd turn the crank on one of these sorters for 10 hours a day at 10 cents an hour five and half days a week. Those days a dollar, once you earned one, would last you maybe two or three days."
Grabbing the cigar off the pumpkin, Wharton added, "We just got this sorter out here now for advertisin' purposes."
In the frenzied fruit stand world here where Rte. 211 twists through the Blue Ridge Mountains west of Washington, Va., where more than 30 fruit stands crowd a 20-mile stretch of highway, eye-catching advertising is often the difference between apples boughten and apples rotten.
Wharton's fruit stand, which he ceremoniously calls Ginger Hill Enterprises because of its proximity to a hill of the same name is the first stand westward drivers see that goes in for advertising.
There are others, such as Sperryville Emporium, and there are so large and diversified they can hardly be called fruit stands. They are mountain department stores, offering items ranging from apples to "Let's Boogie On Down" T-shirts. In Sperryville Emporium, a little booth is equipped with a one-way window and a sign. "Shoplifters Beware You Are Being Watched Through This Window."
Among the fruit stands there are other shops selling hair-cuts, dyed flowers at The House of Died Flowers and horse rides-"Fight Smog Ride a Horse."
The reason for the panoply of enterpreneurship and assorted fresh fruit is the annual process of deciduous trees, namely, that their leaves turn colors and fall off.
Officer R. A. Baines, who has patrolled Thornton Gap for eight years for the Virginia State Police, said it happens every October. The leaves turn, people pack in their cars, drive up the mountain, get stuck in traffic and the fruit stands make money.
Sometimes the traffic is bumper-to-bumper for 10 miles, Baines said.
Wharton, at Ginger Hill Enterprises, can hardly wait for golden leaves. The trees on the Blue Ridge are only blushing yellow with this weekend and wharton, along with his fruit assistants Irvin and Eunice Sisk, are still arranging merchandise for the expected hordes.
They have apples, apple cider peaches, eggs, pumpkins, honey, assorted preserves-the usual fruit stand fare.
Then there are more exotic items: Raccoon Mountain Home Made Hot Tomato Relish, Eunice Sisk's home-made red, white and blue crocheted pillows, a long brown ceramic dog that used to gather dust in Wharton's house and Tony's pizzas, which can be cooked right there at the fruit stand.
Wharton said the pizzas should help distinguish his fruit stand from the others. But farther up the mountain, other fruits stands, including Elmer's 66. a combination gas station, fruit stand and antique shop, also have the pizzas.
Elmer Atkins, proprietor of Elmer's 66, said he has not been selling many pizzas or anything else lately, for that matter, because he hasn't been at his station. He's been up at a side road pressing 2,000 gallons of apple cider a day with the help of his wife Marty and his two daughters, Beverly and Judy.
If the truth be known, Atkins said, he wants to get out of the retail fruit stand business altogether and make cider. Elmer's 66 is up for sale because Atkins said he's making a good dollar supplying cider to most of the fruit stands up and down Thornton Gap.
His cider mill, with its strong odor of apples, runs from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week during the cider season. In about an hour the mill can turn 18 busheks of apples into 55 gallons of cider. Atkins charges $11 for "custom pressing" of 55 gallons of cider.
He keeps the squeezed, chopped-up apples, called pomace, and feeds it to his cattle.
"Elmer can't feed that pomace to milk cows," said his wife Marty last week, "because it makes the milk taste like cider."
Atkins has a marked advantage as a cider supplier in Thornton Gap because a good many of the fruit stands there are owned by his relatives-the Atkinses. A good many of the other stands are owned by the Jenkinses. Most of the Atkinses know the Jenkinses and Elmer Atkins is no exception.
For other Atkinses, Jenkinses and other fruit stand people who stay in the business, part of the reward of their work, they say, is just sitting out in the sun.
"It's wonderful," said Eunice Sick at Ginger Hill Enterprises. "I just sit around sometimes and watch the traffic go by. You know we were born and raised right over there on Ginger Hill.
"When there is nothing to do, I crochet. But on these weekends coming up I don't think I'll get much crocheting done.
"You know the thing that people seem to want to buy most? Potholders, yes, more than anything."