On any given day in September and early October, Hubert Hill can be found sitting in his garage at a small table surrounded by folding chairs and buckets. There’s a calculator and a set of scales on the table, and a refrigerator with drinks, but what’s most obvious is Hubert’s welcoming smile.
“I planted the first apple tree in 1972, before we ever moved into the house I’d built,” Hubert remembered. “After that, I couldn’t stop planting.”
It’s a good thing he didn’t. Today he has five acres that produce fruit, four in apples and one in grapes. The orchard includes a dozen varieties of apples and muscadine grapes, and he also grows a few peaches, plums and blueberries.
“Peaches are harder to grow than apples because they bloom early,” Hubert said. “Granny Smith apples are the local favorite, but I don’t have enough trees (to keep up with demand).”
Despite their popularity, however, he’s not looking to plant anymore. Raising the trees can be quite a bit of work.
Planting apples is not all that difficult to do, he explained. He hired a backhoe to dig the hole for his apple trees, and then he and his sons planted the trees. Digging the holes by hand, he admitted, would be harder.
“It’s a long term project, though, because it takes five years before you see a crop,” he continued. “It takes time to see a return on the investment.”
It’s a myth that apple trees won’t grow in the Piedmont — it all depends on the species of tree, he said — but the weather and the pests are always key players.
Storms have knocked over grape trellises and uprooted trees, but Hubert said the pests are the critical element. This year he’s had a terrible infestation of squirrels.
“The pests are the biggest problem,” he explained. “With apple trees, you keep up with what you’ve planted and add more of the ones that do well.”
After a few years of growing apples he decided to try muscadine grapes as well. He sells some of them to people in the wine making industry, but quite a few are picked by visitors who simply like the grapes.
“I started planting the grapes in 1980, and I planted what I intended to plant,” he said. “Some people don’t like them because of the seeds, but a lot people do.”
And keeping up with what the customers like is important because they create the atmosphere. It’s why people from all over the state call and come to visit, like a senior in Asheville who was doing a school project comparing southern orchards to northern orchards. She discovered Hubert through the orchard’s website.
“She had several questions, but the one I remember most is that she wanted me to explain what made my orchard special,” he said.
Hubert didn’t have to ponder the question very long. Customer service, he believes, is what makes his orchard unique, and it certainly keeps people coming back. He’s had visitors from as far away as Florida come to the orchard.
“A lady in Florida called and said she saw the website, and wanted to know if I’d be open that Saturday,” Hubert recalled. “She said she wanted her children to experience picking apples, and she liked what she saw (on the Web site). Sure enough, she and the kids came to visit that Saturday.”
There had to have been orchards between Florida and Trinity, but this lady came all the way to Hubert’s orchard on the strength of a website and a single phone conversation. That says a lot about the orchard and the man, especially since Hubert admits he didn’t start out thinking he would raise apples.
In fact, after graduating from high school he attended High Point College (University). However, a summer job at Thomasville Furniture Industries turned into a part time job, and after finishing his degree he went to work there full time.
“I spent 39 years there,” he said. “I ended up as the supervisor in the accounting office, and I retired 15 years ago.”
These days he operates the pick-your-own orchard from July to October, chatting with the people who come to pick and teaching the children all about apples.
Yes, the children. The orchard has become an important destination for kindergarten and first-grade classes across the Piedmont and for homeschool groups from as far away as Raleigh and Charlotte. Local schools visit too, especially Archdale Elementary, he added.
In fact, Hubert had a school group in the orchard almost every single weekday in September, and said he believes he saw around 800 children. On the day the NEWS came to call, he’d had a group of 127 kindergarten and first grade students learning all about apples, grapes and the orchard.
In fact, Hubert once had a three year relationship with kindergarten classes at Jefferson Elementary in Greensboro.
“They sent a thank you note after their visit, and then I sent a thank you note for the thank you note,” Hubert told the NEWS.
After they received his thank you note, the children wrote back and they corresponded all during the school year. Later the children invited him to their end of school picnic.
“When I got there they had all my letters up on the bulletin board,” he remembered.
He and the kids had a good time at the picnic, where Hubert’s grandson Ryan played violin for them.
For the next two years, Hubert and the school’s kindergartners visited in September, wrote during the year, then met up at the school picnic. His relationship with the school declined when the class teacher retired, but the memories he has of them are as sweet as the apples they picked.
Of course, sometimes they come back. Hubert recalled a little girl who ran right up to him one day and said excitedly “I’m back!”
“It turned out she had been here with her school class the first time, then had her parents bring her back, and then her grandparents brought her back again,” he smiled.
After so many years the children can start to blur together, but occasionally one or two stand out. Hubert recalled another young girl, this one from a homeschool association that came to learn about apples and trees, who was extremely interested in what he was telling the group.
“Afterwards, she came up to me and said ‘Mr. Hill, I like trees too,’” he told the NEWS. “Her name was Peyton, and she just made an impression on me.”
All the kids are eager to be a part of the orchard, he continued, and he enjoys having them visit because they are “a lot of fun.”
Hubert’s a lot of fun, too, and he’s also the reason that the orchard is something special. It may not be big, but Hill’s Orchard and Vineyard is overflowing with the best things in life — fun, fruit and friendship.
This story was originally published in an October 2008 edition of the Archdale-Trinity News.