The new interstate diverted traffic. The summer drought hurt the crop. And the cost of gasoline has left the few customers who do stop in a stingy mood.
That combination has left Virginia's roadside apple vendors in a terrible jam.
"You don't make money if people got scared dollars," says J. C. Holland, a fast-talking, loud-laughing apple salesman. "And people right now have got scared dollars."
Holland and his wife Jackie run one of the two dozen fruit-and-vegetable stands that line U.S. Rte. 211 as it passes through Rapahannock County on the way to the Shenandoah's Skyline Drive. Most of the stands are deliberately simple and appropriately rustic. All of them are suffering.
"The money has gone in the gas tanks," says Gibson Wharton, who has been in business beside the highway for 35 years. "It seems like there are almost as many cars on the road, but they're just not stopping."
While many motorists are electing to take a newly opened segment of Interstate Rte. 66 and bypass the vendors altogether, Virginia's apple growers grouse that they are past hope for this year's crop. Many orchardists in Shenandoah, Frederick and Rappahannock counties are reporting yields of less than half of last year's total. In Rappahannock, which depends heavily on the apple crop because it has no industry, the economy is particularly vulnerable to bad weather.
"When the weather gets bad in this county, the working people get scared," says one long-time resident of Rappahannock, a lush and lovely chunk of woods, pastures and apple orchards tucked in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains 70 miles west of Washington.
The working people of Rappahannock are easily out-numbered by the retirees. In the last 20 years the county has become a refuge for retired colonels, federal employes and celebrities such as syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick and NBC television news commentator David Brinkley. The land is relatively cheap and the living is easy.
"We're still prety much the same as we were 10 years ago," says Ernest P. Luke, a retired Air Force colonel and chairman of the county board of supervisors. "I think everything is pretty fine here myself."
There are some critics of that philosophy among the old-timers and the working class in Rappahannock, where more than half of the landowners live elsewhere.
"We've got nothing here to hold the people, no manufacturing," says apple dealer Wharton, a ruddy-faced man in overalls. "Unless you're born with a silver spoon in your mouth, it's hard to make it in this county."
Because Rappahannock's soil is both rocky and shallow, it is impractical to raise anything but apples, peaches and cattle. For that reason the seasonal crops are particularly crucial to the county where roadside vendors make up a significant portion of the merchant class.
"There's a lot of competition now," says 71-year-old Emma Swindler, who runs a fruit-and-vegetable stand with her 76-year-old sister, Anna Belle. The Swindlers ("We're not like the name sounds") have operated their stand for the last 15 years. This year, says Emma, times are as bad as she can remember. The apples have been small and the customers have been cranky.
"When people complain because they're so small I tell them, 'What can you expect? Big apples don't grow on small trees in the hot sunshine,'" says Swindler.
She loses her smile when talking about customers who try to trim her prices. "You'd be surprised at the nice-looking people in good cars who try that," says Swindler, letting her blue eyes flash in the direction of a customer squeezing a Golden Delicious apple. "I think they figure people in the country are dumb."
The Swindlers have a loyal clientele, but like the other vendors, they depend on passing drivers for most of their sales.
To attract, and keep, those new customers, the roadside vendors compete with one another by deploying eye-catching signs and cheery displays. It also helps to bribe tourist bus drivers with "complimentary" goodies. "A lot of these bus drivers aren't satisfied unless they take half your stand," said one vendor.
J. C. Holland and his wife Jackie run the only stand in the county that advertises 24-hour service. Holland keeps that promise by spending each night in a truck beside the road, waiting to glad-hand and talk with the night riders.
"They always buy something; we seldom lose a sale," says Holland, a large, jovial man who drove a truck for the Teamsters union for 40 years before helping his wife open the fruit stand five years ago. Since then Holland has become something of a local legend as a bona fide colorful character and master of the countrified sales pitch.
"He is the best salesman I've ever seen," says Jackie Holland of her husband. "People will stop here just to buy a bushel of apples and leave carrying cider, jellies and preserves, saying 'Let's get the hell away from here or we won't have money to buy gas.'"
Ask Holland about the time he sold a customer a rock, and he pushes back the brim of this blue tractor cap and professes that he may have been short-changed on that one. After all, he went to the trouble of painting a stripe down the middle of the rock.
"For just one dollar, that man bought himself a lucky rock. He got a good deal," said Holland, watching a midday trickle of traffic like a fisherman hovering over a baited hook.