Henry the Eighth is the reigning king of Crown Orchard Co. in central Virginia. He’s known by all as an honest, forthright, and charming “king” with an infallible love for working in the produce industry. While he does not exhibit the boastful, philandering ways of England’s infamous Henry VIII, Virginia’s Henry the Eighth is most certainly famous among his peers in the produce industry. And, this royal grower of apples, peaches, and other produce possesses quite a tale all his own that actually does connect straight to the British Crown.
</br>The first Crown Orchard orchards were planted in 1912 in Batesville and Crozet, Virginia, by Henry’s maternal grandfather, John Montague. Montague raised Albemarle Pippin apples that were sent to the Queen of England. She liked them so much that she let them enter England duty-free. This is how Crown Orchard got its name.
Henry’s paternal grandfather, Henry Linden Chiles (6th) retired to Crozet and joined John Montague in the orchard business. Together, they farmed more than 400 hundred acres, raising apples (Albemarle Pippin, Winesap, York, and Rome), peaches (Elberta, J.H. Hale, Jones Peach and Georgia Belle), sweet and sour cherries, and concord grapes.
Henry Chiles (6th) and his wife, Anne Clare, had two children, Henry (7th) and Ellen (Nell). Nell was an artist and designed the Crown Orchard logo still used today.
Henry (7th) attended University of Wisconsin and was a wheat farmer in Saskatchewan. In 1922, he married John Montague’s daughter, aptly named Virginia, and they moved to Crozet, where he took over the orchards and packing houses that his father and father-in-law had established.
Henry (7th) and Virginia had two children, Virginia (Gigi) and Henry (8th), the current Henry. Growing up, Henry (8th) worked for his father during the summers, learning the orchard and packing operations from the ground up. He attended Hampden-Sydney College but was unable to finish after his father’s death. Despite his young age, he returned home to take over the orchard. Except for a short time when he was drafted by the U.S. Army and driving tanks in Germany, Henry has devoted every day since to Crown Orchard.
In 1961 after a brief, two-week engagement, Henry (8th) married Ruth Dollens. They have three children, Cynthia, Henry (9th) “Huff,” and Sarah. In 1987, Huff married Judy and they, too, have three children, Elizabeth, Allyson and, of course, Henry (10th).
When asked what he loves most about being in produce, Henry is quick to answer: “It’s the people in the industry. And, I am real lucky to have all my family—wife, daughters, son, his wife, grandkids—working together in our operation. They all work hard, which is the key to success.”
Henry’s family has brought joy to other families for years, not only through their delicious produce, but also through the orchard experience at their famed Carter Mountain Orchard, part of the Chiles’ “kingdom” that sits high atop a hill adjacent to Thomas Jefferson’s beloved home. Carter Mountain is comprised of 200 acres with, like Jefferson’s Monticello, a beautiful scenic view of the valley in which Charlottesville is nestled. Thousands visit Carter Mountain annually to pick their own fruit, attend seasonal events and festivals, purchase homemade goodies at Aunt Sarah’s Bakery and the Country Store, or simply to sit a while and take in the panoramic view.
Those who know Henry will tell you they’ve never seen a man who requires less sleep—the first one up talking to buyers in the morning and the last one to bed at night after all loads have been shipped. But, it is also the content of his days that sets Henry apart. “I was taught that your word is your bond, and 95 percent of produce folks honor that, which I enjoy. I am not a paperwork person. I like to tell someone something and that is it. Right or wrong, you honor your word, and we have built our business on that principle.”
That integrity mixed with diversification and “plain old hard work” are the recipe by which Crown Orchard Company has been successful for 102 years and counting. Throughout the years, all of the Henrys have been innovators and risk takers—gamblers, if you will. There have been many ideas and ventures that haven’t worked out, but none have deterred the Henrys from trying again.
One of the more recent gambles was planting donut peaches. Henry ate his first on the West coast and fell in love. Before he could get back to Virginia, he had Huff pushing out a block of older trees making way for donut peaches. The specialty peach isn’t easy to grow or harvest, but he says they’re worth the work, and he now grows more than 100 acres. “I enjoy raising and selling high-quality fruit and always trying to be better through technology and new ideas.”
Henry’s spirit has earned him high accolades and appreciation in the produce industry. Last month, August 2014, he was honored by respected industry trade publication The Packer as “Apple Man of the Year.” Asked how he felt, Henry said, “Surprised, surprised. I never had given it a thought, but about halfway through the talk I realized it might be me.” Few people knew in advance Henry was the honoree, but for those who did, that moment of recognition was priceless. He reiterates, “Total surprise. But, I have always done what I thought was best for the industry and our operations.”
Henry (8th), his three children and daughter-in-law Judy are all actively involved in day-to-day operations, from running the office, orchards, and packing lines to directing food safety and traceability programs. Granddaughter Elizabeth—yes, another name of British monarchy legend!—recently began overseeing concessions and the bakery at Carter Mountain. Allyson and Henry (10th) are both in college but pitch in at the markets and orchards during summers and fall weekends. Ruth, the family matriarch, can be found mingling with customers at the fruit markets or filling in wherever she’s needed.
Crown Orchard Company is comprised today of more than 1,000 acres of orchards, twenty-something varieties of apples, numerous yellow- and white-fleshed peaches and nectarines, Henry’s donut peaches, sweet cherries, and wine grapes. It has regular and Controlled Atmosphere (CA) storages, computerized state-of-the-art packing lines, and a fleet of refrigerated trucks. And, of course, there are two pick-your-own farm markets and bakeries: Chiles Peach Orchard located in Crozet, and Carter Mountain Orchard located in Charlottesville. Quite the empire for a man of such humble roots.