It was not too long ago that Northern Virginia was a rural farming community and many farmers sold fresh produce at stands in front of their homes. The highway from Northern Virginia to Ocean City was once dotted with such roadside establishments offering fresh fruits, vegetables, and a few seasonal items. Families would often take Sunday afternoon excursions into the countryside and return home loaded with “just picked” fruits and vegetables or baked goods purchased from a local front-yard vendor they encountered along their route.
Beginning in the mid-1950s the William Stalcup family managed a produce stand in front of their house at Park and Kirby Roads in the McLean/Chesterbrook area. Its operation affected the entire family. When they were old enough, all of the children worked the stand. It was excellent experience. Not only did they learn to relate to people and acquire self-confidence, but each one had to become good at math at an early age. The stand was situated in one of two places. It often was placed under an evergreen tree next to the Stalcup driveway on Park Road, or it might be under the maple tree next to their fence that separated the Stalcup property from the Chesterbrook School. This maple was a grand old tree with large knobby roots protruding above the ground and the scales would hang from one of its limbs. These scales were the older kind that are often used today in traditional hardware stores for weighing nails. It had a galvanized steel scoop-shaped container that was suspended by three chains to the scale itself. The ground under the tree was grassless because of the foot traffic of stand activities. There was also a worn path from the stand area to the front steps of their house. After early morning field work and breakfast came the long day of watching the stand. One of the Stalcup stand-watchers felt that it looked its best in the morning feeling that “there was a certain beauty and pride that escapes words. The corn was cool and crisp from the morning dew. The tomatoes had the orange-red hue that only home-grown tomatoes can display. And the bright clean colors of the freshly washed squash, peppers and beans made the picture complete.”
Each morning there was a certain routine in preparing the stand for the day’s sales. First, the dirt ground around the stand was raked. In the beginning, a rigid garden rake was used, but later it was discovered that a leaf rake was quicker and more effective. The raking was done to pick up any debris, such as corn shucks, corn silks, and twigs that might be lying on the ground and give the area a tidy look. The next step was to use a garden hose and wash off the top of the stand which was leaning against two saw horses. Then the area would then be sprayed with water to settle the dust. Once the stand was clean and reassembled atop the saw horses, the vegetables were organized for sale. One or two bushels of corn were placed on the left side of the table and a layer of tomatoes would be arranged on the right side. Between the tomatoes and corn would be a smaller display of squash, beans or peppers. or any other vegetables that might have been picked earlier that day. Baskets were then set upside-down all around the front and sides of the stand. These baskets were used to support other baskets of vegetables, corn, and tomatoes.
After the stand was set up, it was time to fill orders. William’s wife, Lina, had custody of the requests and order book. Most of these orders were done by phone. She would take brown paper bags and write on each one the name of the person placing an order, what was to go into the bag, the amount, and any special instructions like “medium ripe” or “full kernels.” She used #8 and #10 bags for everything except corn, which required #12 and #16 bags. At this point one of her children would fill the orders. The completed orders would be neatly stacked against the trunk of the maple tree. Bushels of corn (sometimes referred to as bags of corn) would also be kept there because it was cooler under the shade. Besides making purchases, people would place orders at the stand for future pickup. It was the job of the stand tender to enter the order into the order book which was kept inside the house. Occasionally this step was forgotten, which resulted in awkward moments when the customer arrived to claim the order that never was filled because it was never recorded. A necessary and prominent item for such an outdoor business was the money box. In this case it was an old cigar box filled with bills and coins — just enough to make change. This box was also used as a weight to keep the stack of paper bags from blowing away. When the money accumulated to a sufficient amount, part of it was taken into the house, leaving only enough to make change.
When a customer asked for “six corns” the Stalcups knew they had a city slicker. When a customer asked for “cobs of corn” they would silently laugh. The proper terminology according to William was: “Could you give me a dozen ears?” Nothing incensed William more than customers striping the corn husk to look at what had just been picked. He claimed that he could tell the condition of the corn just by feeling the outside of the husks and had trained his children to do the same. “What is wrong with those city slickers?” he would grouse, “Can’t they judge the corn by just feeling it?”
Fresh corn would draw customers, but tomatoes were the money makers. A farmer gets more production per acre from growing tomatoes than from corn. A field planted in tomatoes yields five times more crop and brings in five times more money. The Stalcups claimed, “There are two things money can’t buy; true love and home-grown tomatoes.” They suggested that they couldn’t do anything about true love, but they did pick a lot of red, ripe home-grown tomatoes. Gloves were worn to wipe dirt off of the tomatoes before putting them into a bushel basket. Gloved hands also rubbed off the stems. If the stems were left on, they could puncture other tomatoes. The Stalcup children were taught to place picked tomatoes into the bushel baskets stem side down, because they stored better and looked better that way. The gloves also made excellent handle pads for the wire handles of the flat bushel baskets that were used for holding the tomatoes. Each basket weighed between 50 and 55 pounds when full, and wire handles tended to cut into a person’s hands.
During strawberry season, the berries were stored in a wooden crate that held 16 quarts. This was two layers of eight separated by a wooden slat. The Stalcups let customers sort through the crate and pick out their “reserved quarts,” but they were never allowed to lift up the slat to look at the bottom layer before the top one was sold: the purchaser had to take them as they were. Stand watching came in one-hour increments with each of the children having a couple of shifts during the day. It started punctually at 9:00 a.m. and ended at 6:00 p.m. when William came home from his workday job at his store, Stalcups’ Furniture, in Falls Church.
Because of farming, the Stalcup family worked harder than their friends and the days were often hot and long. Everyone looked forward to Sunday; the day of semi-rest. Sunday was special because it was payday and the family only did the minimal necessary work. It was the one day where everyone “put off until tomorrow.” William Stalcup was very generous with his children. He would give each a percentage of the gross sales. That percentage would vary from child to child, depending on their age and the amount of work each had performed. The older children did more and were rewarded accordingly. This was also an effective way to keep everyone motivated to do a good job. He would put each person’s pay in an envelope with his/her name on it and place the envelopes behind a mirror that leaned on the mantle. During the months of July and August, those envelopes were fairly thick. The older children might earn about $120 in a good week.
Besides stocking his own stand William sold extra produce to his brother, Sam, who, after retiring from the federal government, opened a seven-day-a-week larger establishment in 1963 on Old Dominion Drive adjacent to the Chesterbrook Shopping Center. But maintaining a stand in the yard required a vast amount of labor and hours. As the children grew older the task of keeping it operating was challenging and, so, in the early 1980s the Stalcup stand on Park Road ceased. However, the farming continued.