Martha McMillin is the founder of Preserving Place. She grew up in northern Spartanburg county, South Carolina, on land that has been in her family for generations. The McMillins came to America from Scotland before the Revolutionary War. They settled in what was then a wilderness, on rich bottom land along the North Pacolet river at a place where the water power of rapids was harnessed for a grist mill. Early maps of Spartanburg County show this as Cherokee hunting grounds, which is confirmed by an Indian burial mound and arrows found on the McMillin land. Martha's ancestors fought in the American militia, for there were quite a few battles in western South Carolina, and as a result, after the war, received a large tract as a land grant from the State of South Carolina. Her mother's people are from Clinton, South Carolina, similarly settling there in the same period and also fighting on the American side in the Revolutionary War.
The McMillins prospered on this good land, growing crops and raising livestock and eventually adding a cotton gin, blacksmith shop, feed mill, country store and peach packing shed to their agrarian holdings. The photograph in the store, reflected here on the website homepage, is taken in 1911 and reflects this era. After World War II, this way of living began to change. By the time Martha grew up, she was fortunate enough to experience the tail end of that lifestyle, but she did not fully understand it at the time. Still, she did appreciate that her father, John Horace, impressed upon her the importance of the duty and pleasure of being a good steward of the family land. Nonetheless, she wanted to become a lawyer and live in a big city with the cultural offerings not found in the country. She got her wish and enjoyed practicing law in the wonderful city of Atlanta.
But what kept also tugging at her heart (and stomach) was her mother Martharene’s exceptionally good Southern cooking. Martharene and her sisters are fantastic home cooks and bakers. Growing up in their hometown of Clinton, South Carolina, they had a large garden and put up many canned foods, using old family recipes. Their inspiration led Martha to join the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2006 to learn a broader view of her Southern food heritage. Attending their rolling party/educational field trips, Martha found her people, her tribe. At the 2007 SFA field trip to Charleston, the group visited the Charleston Farmers Market on Saturday morning, where a jam maker had large crowds but sold loaded with sugar preserves. Martha thought, “I could do better than this” and with that one thought, the idea of Preserving Place began. She started thinking about how could one make the finest quality preserves, incorporating the best of old techniques but modernizing to use less sugar so that the fruit flavor stands out. Southerners do have a sweet tooth but Martha was convinced that customers would like to have jams where the natural sweetness of the fruits stand out, not loaded up with cane sugar.
Another thing happened in 2007 to spur Martha’s musings about starting a business around preserving Southern foodways. At Thanksgiving, her cousin Ginny, who is normally a polite Southern lady, very insistently confronted Martha about whether she knew how to make Martharene’s family famous creamed corn, the centerpiece of the McMillin family holiday table. Ginny knew the answer was no, so she dressed Martha down that if she did not learn how to make her mother’s prized dish, and Martharene took that knowledge to her grave, she, Ginny, would personally hold Martha accountable for depriving the family of the heritage dish at holidays and that would not be a good thing. Let’s just say this made quite an impression, because Ginny was right. Martha made sure that in July 2008, she went home and sat in the kitchen and watched Martharene put up the corn for creamed corn, writing down every single step, and then learned how to cook it up in the iron skillet at Thanksgiving, again writing down every single step.
These events prompted wonderful conversations with Martharene about family food traditions and recipes. Martha set out to learn how to can and took formal classes such as the week long food preservation boot camp at the John C. Campbell Folk School in September 2007 and passed the Better Process Control School class as prescribed by the US Food and Drug Administration and the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service at the University of Georgia, College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, Department of Food Science and Technology, on November 8-9, 2011.
By 2012, these events and other signs led Martha to the conclusion that she was called to open a store that would spread the gospel to home cooks that home canning is good and achievable and for those who do not have the time for or interest in cooking, would supply righteous preserved foods that are as close to homemade as can be and made the right way, heavy with local ingredients in season and always handmade without preservatives, commercial pectin or high fructose corn syrup.
IN MARTHA'S WORDS
For two years while I was on summer break in junior high school, I was employed as a peach grader for Thompson's Peaches in Spartanburg County, South Carolina. My responsibilities included working at the peach packing shed on the grounds of the Thompson Peach Orchard as part of the line of 8 to 10 peach graders who physically touched and visually inspected the washed peaches that rolled by, pulling the peaches that were not market pretty and placing them in the overhead line that carried them to the pile as seconds and allowing the satisfactory peaches to pass and move on to end up in peach baskets and boxes for retail sale.
At the time, with my adolescent lack of appreciation, I was insulted that my parents made me (and my sister) do this menial labor instead of allowing me to work on my tan in the backyard those two summers. But even working with an air of resentment, I noticed one thing that stuck with me: I showed up thinking that peaches were the same round orb all summer long but what I learned was that the varieties of peaches are endless. The experienced people at the packing shed always referred to the name of the variety of peach that was coming in that day from the orchard.
No one ever said "here come the peaches"; it was "we're bringing in Georgia Belles today" or whatever the case may be. Everyone referred to that day's peaches by their varietal name. I found it vaguely interesting that the names seemed to have some meaning behind them. The names might change as often as daily but certainly every week there were some varieties petering out and new ones starting to come in and sometimes gobs of certain types of peaches. Throughout the summer we probably had two dozen or more different varietals. I knew all the names then; I wish I could remember them now. They represented such a story of their time and place.
July and August were the busiest months and we worked long hours into the night then. We tasted the peaches for free and learned how the early peaches were not as flavorful as the juicy, yummy later-in-the-summer peaches. I went from thinking a peach orchard was a bunch of trees holding the same fruit to understanding the artistry of how the orchard is planted, so that it is full of different kinds of trees that will produce a variety of peaches at various parts of the summer and provide their bounty from June through mid-September.
What I just described is not how I would have appreciated it at the time but I did notice it and am so grateful for having had that experience and now understanding it. My parents were right to make me do it; they knew it would make an impression on me. It is a very important part of why I am determined to make Preserving Place a success. I understand how hard the owners of farms and orchards work and how smart they have to be to make a family farm/orchard a success. I have experienced that the people who work on the farms/orchards do not make the income they deserve for their hard labor in providing a quality product. I know that the people who get to taste the freshest orchard fruit or farm vegetables experience the best flavors. My experience at Thompson's Peach Orchard packing shed is an important reason of why I want to offer my customers the best taste experience at a price which reflects that quality and food safety and supports local family farms and orchards and their workers.