Story & Photos By Susannah Hutchenson
When Ham Orchards opens for the season, East Texas rejoices. Ever since the days when Dale Ham and his daughter would sell peaches on the side of the railroad tracks, the people have come in droves – all eager for the sweet taste of summer. Boasting more than 10,000 peach trees and the infamous peach ice cream, the little white store off Old Highway 80 is an East Texas institution.
On a typical summer day, people emerge from the pick-your-own blackberry patch covered in sugar and sticky fingers, carrying gallon-sized buckets filled with sweet, hot berries. Lines wrap around the barbecue pavilion, people waiting eagerly for homemade potato salad and melt-in-your-mouth peach pulled pork sandwiches. The store itself is full with jars of peach preserves, freshly baked moonshine pecan pies, and a rainbow array of locally grown fruits and vegetables. Homemade peach and strawberry ice cream beckons from the back wall, as kids beg their parents for just one more sample of creamy fudge. The peaches are what keep the people coming back. It’s the kind of peach that only comes from a Ham tree – juicy, full of summer, and picked off the branches just that morning.
Dale Ham, the orchard patriarch, didn’t quite grow up thinking he wanted to be a peach farmer. He was a Richardson firefighter for 32 years and also owned a landscaping business, while raising two daughters with his wife Judy. “One day, God put a desire in my heart to grow peaches,” says Dale, taking a sip of his iced tea. “It wasn’t ever anything I’d thought about. I hadn’t even been to a peach orchard, but it was a calling.”
Dale leaned back in his recliner, eager to tell the story behind the orchard. He and Judy bought 22 acres just east of Terrell in 1979 and planted 100 trees, not knowing what was going to happen. Every single one of the trees lived, and the Hams had so many peaches they weren’t sure what do with them. Dale and his youngest daughter, Sharien, would set up a card table on the side of the railroad tracks and watch in wonder as car after car would screech to a stop, all eager for a bucket of Ham’s peaches.
When the railroad knocked on their door and told the Hams they couldn’t sell down by the road anymore, Judy was convinced they would have to sell. “But sure enough, we moved above the tracks the next day and the people that stopped doubled,” laughs Judy. “People said they were too scared to stop on the side of the highway when we sold down by the road.”
The trains came by three or four times a day, rattling the card tables and knocking peaches to the ground. Sharien would toss up peaches to the train engineers as they sped by, the men above grinning as they caught them. People lined up, day after day, rain or shine.
“We had caught ourselves a gold mine,” says Dale. “We sold ‘em cheap – two or three bucks a basket – and let ‘em get as ripe as they could before picking them off of the trees. They were so good.”
In 1986, the Hams built a store, or as Sharien puts it, “a glorified garage,” to sell their peaches. Every single day, they sold out by noon. It was becoming impossible to keep up with the demand. By then, they had some more help from a certain Richardson Fire rookie named Richard Strange, who had taken a liking to the business of peaches … and to Sharien. People knocked on the doors at all hours of the day and night asking for “just one peach.” It seemed like the peaches couldn’t get picked fast enough, so they bought some more land and expanded again, and Richard officially joined the family business when he married Sharien.
More than 30 years and 10,000 peach trees later, Ham Orchards is thriving. The little piece of land 30 miles east of Dallas is visited by more than 100,000 customers in the peach season window between May 14 and August 15. Everyone from Dallas Cowboys to country singers to newborn babies come from all over Texas to buy bushels of peaches and pints of ice cream, eating their ice cream cones in rocking chairs and enjoying the sweet community that comes with being in East Texas.
“It has been an absolute dream,” Dale smiles. “I haven’t woken up yet.”
If You Go
Ham Orchard is approximately three hours from Bryan by connecting to I-45 N in Madisonville or to TX-14N in Hearne.
11939 County Road 309
Terrell, TX 75161