The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Leverings of Orchard Gap - Backroads Tour

By Susan M. Thigpen and Bob Heafner © 1983-2012

Issue: November 1983

Our BACKROADS tour this month will take us from the mountain peaks to the valleys of Carroll County, Virginia and provide you with spectacular views along the way. It will take you through some of the oldest commercial orchards in this area.

BACKROADS tours always make a complete loop back to the point where we started. The underlined numbers at the beginning of each paragraph indicate the total number of miles we've traveled from our point of beginning. The numbers in parenthesis ( ) indicate the distance from the last point of interest that we passed.

From beginning to end, we will cover a little over 24 miles and the drive will take about an hour plus the orchards, view points and stores along the way. We hope you enjoy this drive as much as we have.

00.0 (0.0) We will begin our tour between Milepost 193 and 194 on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Orchard Gap, Virginia, which is located about 15 miles south of Meadows of Dan toward Fancy Gap, Virginia. Orchard Gap Road (State Road 691) will turn off the Parkway to the left. If you are going north on the Parkway from Fancy Gap, you will turn to your right. Continue on Orchard Gap Road (State Road 691) which is paved.

Orchard Gap Road was originally surveyed by Ralph Levering around 1918. It was built not by the state but by local residents using horses, drags and drills driven by people with hammers. Ralph Levering surveyed it to a 6 degree grade. It was a toll road for about 5 or 6 years so the people could get back the money they had invested in building it. The people did such a good job that when the state highway department decided to pave it, they just paved the road the way the people had built it.

Ralph Levering was originally from Ohio. His parents were Quakers who worked for the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. They moved to Tennessee from there. Ralph went to Columbia University and studied international law. He obtained a Masters Degree but, being a Quaker, with strong feelings against war, decided not to make it his life’s work. At that time, international law was focused on organizing “Rules of Civilized Warfare.” He decided instead to operate an orchard. He contacted the US Department of Agriculture who told him the best place for an orchard would be in the thermal belt of the Blue Ridge Mountains, not at the top or the bottom, but about half way between. He got on a train in Knoxville, Tennessee and rode to Roanoke, Virginia. There he walked south along the ridge, hunting for just the right place. He tested the soil all along the way and talked to people about how the crops did in the location he was in at the time. He stayed with people in their homes, along his journey. Not finding what he wanted, he took a train to Asheville, North Carolina and began walking north. He found the place he wanted in Ararat, Virginia but the owner wouldn’t sell. From there he worked his way up the mountain and found the present Levering Orchard site. It was bought from a man named McMillien. He then brought his family here to settle.

The first thing Ralph Levering did when his family moved into the small log cabin on the property was look for a doctor. His son, Samuel, was born within a month (on Feb. 28, 1908). This son, Samuel Levering, is now the present proprietor of Levering’s Orchard.

Ralph Levering had 18 acres at that time and had the philosophy “A small orchard well cared for” (would prove more productive than a large orchard poorly tended). He was a well educated man and very interested in math and science. He taught himself how to survey and made most of his own instruments. He surveyed for his neighbors and never charged for it. He remained interested in international affairs and spoke to the League of Nations in the Woodrow Wilson era.

In 1908, there were more orchards in this area than there are today, but they were small by today’s standards. The first commercial orchard was the Coveland Orchard which began in 1898. It was located on the headwaters of Johnson’s Creek. When the Orchard Gap road was built and it was decided to be a toll road, the toll booth was located near the top at Bowman’s Orchard. They kept the gate and let people through. The road was mostly used by wagons of lumber cut on top of the mountain and hauled to the furniture factories in Mount Airy, North Carolina.

Bowman’s Orchard is no longer in operation but some of the old trees are still there. The white house for sale, near the top end of the road was the orchard manager’s home. The trees are between the loops of the present day road. It went out of business when commercial orchards began getting larger and machinery took the place of man power. This orchard  was on ground too steep to be worked by machinery and the cost of man power was becoming too high to justify keeping it open.

When Ralph’s son Sam became old enough to go to high school, there were no proper high schools close enough to home. He was sent to live with relatives in Washington, DC to attend high school and then went on to Cornell University to study fruit growing horticulture. He obtained a Masters Degree and was working on a PhD when he was called to work on a new project, the Production Credit System. It was organized by the Federal Government but funded by the private money market to provide loans for farmers. He worked for it for five and a half years and returned home in 1939 to assume the running of his father’s orchard.

From the original 18 acres his father started with, Samuel Levering and his family now runs a 120 acre orchard with 8,000 fruit trees. He said about 2,500 are apple, 2,500 are peach, 1,500 are nectarines and the rest are plums, cherries and others. Samuel Levering must have inherited his father’s curiosity for experimenting. He continually tries new strains of fruit trees. Two new varieties of apples are Tagman’s red from England and Mutsu from Japan. The latter one is a large, late maturing apple.

I suspect that both Leverings thoroughly enjoyed their work and the combination of intelligence and imagination between them was what has made the Levering Orchard and Parkway Apple Growers Co-op what it is today.

Mr. Levering says that they let the grass and weeds grow up high in their orchard and then mow it and leave it to produce a natural mulch fertilizer around the trees and only use commercial fertilizer as needed. As for the use of sprays, so controversial today, Mr. Levering says they use no chlorinated hydrocarbons, nothing that will leave any residue in the soil or people. They use only natural, organic phosphates. He is a person very conscious of the environment, so much so, that he and his wife Miriam, worked for ten years on the International Relations, Public Advisory Committee, lobbying for the U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty. Mr. Levering has been to Carcas, Venezuela; Washington, DC; and Geneva, Switzerland working with this under the Nixon, Carter, Ford and Regan administrations.

Mrs. Levering is now writing a book on the experiences of their ten years of this work. Mr. Levering is also writing a book. His topic is nuclear war.

The Leverings have two sons - Ralph, who is a US History Professor at Earlham College in Indiana and Frank, who is a script writer in Hollywood. He did the screen play for the film Parasite which was released last year and has just finished The Entropy Kid, which is to start filming this fall in San Francisco.

When I talked to Mrs. Levering, she was busy getting ready to go to Frank’s wedding in Maine. He is marrying a fellow writer he met in a creative writing course at Harvard.

The Leverings are interesting, enthusiastic people. I asked Mr. Levering what changes had taken place in commercial orchards from his father’s day until now. He said, “Once, there were more small farms. They raised their own food for self sufficiency. Now, of the 2,200 farms in Carroll County, less than 200 of them depend on it for a living. It has become a manufacturing economy over the years, with a gradual change after each of the World Wars. People have gone to work in factories and away from their farms.”

Back in 1908, Ralph Levering must have chosen a good site for his orchard. It is in the thermal belt and they have had only two killing frosts; one in 1921 and one in 1975. Even though the orchard has grown considerably in size since 1908, it is still a family business, operated with obvious pride and joy.

01.9 (1.9) On our right is the driveway to the Levering residence. Further down the road on our right will be the Levering Orchard and Warehouse.

02.0 (0.1) The Orchards to our right are part of the Levering Orchard. The views are breathtaking from here.

02.7  (0.7) Hiatt’s Grocery is on our right.

03.1 (0.4) State road 691 turns right but we’ll go straight on state road 679.

03.4 (0.3) The Cana Fruit Growers Cooperative is on our left.

06.8 (3.4) Here we turn right onto state road 686.

07.4 (0.6) Flat Rock Baptist Church is on our right.

09.7 (2.3) Turn right onto US Highway 52. The Epworth United Methodist Church is on our right.

11.9 (2.2) On our left is Mountain Man Produce. They have live music, flatfoot dancing, a flea market and country ham biscuits every weekend.

17.4 (5.5) Here we turn right onto the ramp to the Blue Ridge Parkway. This community is Fancy Gap, Virginia.

17.8  (0.4) Turn right onto the Blue Ridge Parkway.

18.2 (0.4) Turn right onto state road 608.

18.7 (0.5) Here we get a view of the slopes of Cascade Mountain Ski Resort on our right.

19.7 (1.0) On our right is the entrance to the Cascade Mountain Ski Resort.

21.6 (1.9) Here the pavement ends and the views begin.

22.0 (0.4) The Blue Ridge Parkway is on our left.

23.1 (1.1) At this stop sign we turn right onto State Road 608.

23.2 (0.1) At this stop sign, turn left onto the Blue Ridge Parkway.

24.3 (1.1) We are now back to the point of beginning at the intersection of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Orchard Gap Road (State Road 691).

We enjoy the ride down Orchard Gap quite often, since it is a short cut to Mount Airy and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It is one of our favorites and we hope you’ve enjoyed it too.