WILLARD, Box Elder County — When Gay W. Pettingill of Willard came out of the Navy after World War II, he had $1,800 and a decision to make: He could purchase land or a car.
“He said ‘I can buy this little piece of ground up there or a convertible,’” his wife Helen Pettingill, 87, recalled of that decision more than 70 years ago. “I said ‘Oh, buy the convertible.’ You know what we got? Eight acres of rocks.”
“I said ‘No, I think we’re going to invest in farming,’” Gay Pettingill, 91, added as he sat reminiscing about the early years of Pettingill’s Fruit Farm in Willard with his wife and two of their children, Steven Pettingill and Jean Davis. “It’s an investment that won’t run away from you. The ground is a permanent deal.”
“But I really wanted that shiny red convertible,” Helen Pettingill said, and the family laughed.
That was 1947 when Gay Pettingill purchased his first "eight acres of rocks." In the years since, the Pettingills have raised both crops and family, yielding many a crop of cherries, peaches, melons, tomatoes, raspberries and much more as their children worked beside them, through both the good times and the bad.
Today, the farm has blossomed to 165 acres — still family owned and operated — along what has become affectionately known as Utah’s Famous Fruit Way.
Located an hour north of Salt Lake City, multiple farms comprising hundreds of acres of orchards and row crops line U.S. Highway 89 in Willard and Perry, making Utah's Famous Fruit Way.
“It is some of the choicest ground,” Gay Pettingill said of the land along the Wasatch Range.
People travel from near and far to enjoy vine-ripened tomatoes, sweet melons and juicy peaches grown along the Famous Fruit Way. Georgia may be known as the Peach State, but Bryan Jorgensen knows better. He grew up in Brigham City but has lived in Kingston, Georgia, for 22 years.
“There is no comparison,” Jorgensen said. “The peaches that you do see in the store that claim to be Georgia peaches, they are nowhere near the size of what you see from Steve (Pettingill's) place.”
Jorgensen often flies his plane from the Peach State to the Beehive State to visit family and also the Pettingills.
As he travels across the county, Jorgensen will take a box of peaches and share them with the people who service his plane.
“They were just going crazy over these peaches,” he said. “They never tasted a peach like this.”
Shirley Derrick from Bethesda, Maryland, also travels with peaches. She said she tries to visit Utah’s Famous Fruit Way every year.
“I’ve carried peaches home every single year, and my family holds their breath until I get home,” Derrick said. “The fruit is the best I’ve ever had in my whole life. From the tomatoes to peaches and watermelon and cantaloupe, all the way down to the milk shakes.”
Jorgensen and Derrick aren’t the only people to travel from far away to Willard and Perry.
Randy Lemon of Grammy’s Fruit and Produce said he is amazed by the number of people who come from out of state to purchase fruit and vegetables.
“It’s one of Utah’s wonders,” Lemon said of the widespread popularity of the fruit way.
His mom, Helen Jane Lemon, 92, goes by the name of Grammy to her grandchildren. When the time came to name the fruit stand, a daughter-in-law suggested they name it after Helen Jane, and the name Grammy has stuck.
“I love it,” Helen Jane Lemon said. “I really thought that was neat, so I appreciated it.”
Helen Jane Lemon and her husband, Roy, who passed away in 2001, began the fruit stand in the 1950s. Circumstances led the family to the dairy business, and then after about 35 years, the Lemon family established Grammy’s Fruit and Produce in 1988. What began as 12 acres has expanded to 57 acres of fruit and vegetables around Helen Jane Lemon’s home.
“It started as a very small adventure,” Randy Lemon said with emotion in his voice.
Randy Lemon's day is similar to the Pettingills. A work day consists of 10-12 hours, with product picked in the early morning and on the shelf ready to sell by the time the stand opens. Then it's back to the field for another picking and restocking of the shelves in the afternoon.
Those long days are tiring with a lot of hard work, but Randy Lemon said it is a rewarding lifestyle.
“There’s a lot of satisfaction when you see your fruit stand full of quality produce and a parking lot full of people who have big smiles on their faces,” Helen Jane Lemon said.
For those who are planning to visit Utah's Famous Fruit Way, Randy Lemon suggested that people check the Facebook pages or call the fruit stands to see what is in season. The fruit stands in Willard and Perry are expected to open next week. Also, bring cash, stop to eat at Maddox Ranch House in Perry and make a day of it, he suggests.
“In my opinion the fruit way itself is a scenic byway,” Randy Lemon said. “The Highway 89 along the foothills of Willard and Perry looking out over Willard Bay is a beautiful drive with the best, highest quality produce that I believe you'll find anywhere in the state.”