Shirley Blackburn knows a thing or two about apples. If you visit Partridge Point Orchard in Metamora and you’re fortunate enough to talk to her, chances are you’ll leave with a wealth of knowledge. She can tell you which apples make the best crisps, or how to read freckles on apples to know when they are ripe enough to pick. Shirley knows what she’s talking about. After all, she’s been at it for 40 years. But her story begins long before that.
Bennie and Shirley Blackburn were high school sweethearts and Missouri farm kids. After the Korean War, they got married and made their way to the Peoria area where Bennie took a job at Caterpillar. Shirley went to college and became a math teacher at Beverly Manor in Washington.
But farming was in their blood, and it wasn’t long before they purchased land in rural Metamora with plans of planting an orchard. In the beginning, they had wanted to grow peaches and apples, but a quick look at Central Illinois weather stats told them that peaches probably wouldn’t fare as well, so they decided to go with all apple trees.
For convenience of picking and pruning, the Blackburns chose dwarf trees, which mature at 8’-10’. The first trees went into the ground in 1974. By 1979, Partridge Point opened to the public. The Blackburns hadn’t built a house on the property yet, so in those early days they’d take their camper and set up shop on weekends. Back then there were 280 trees and only two kinds of apples to pick, Golden Delicious and Red Delicious. Four decades later, there are 805 trees and nine different apple varieties.
Partridge Point is open to the public approximately six weeks a year, from early September to mid-October, or until they sell out...and Partridge Point always sells out. The secret to its success?
“Hard work, and being willing to do it...and being willing to learn,” said Shirley. “We could not do IPM if we weren’t willing to do new things. And that is important, it helps protect the environment.”
IPM is the acronym for Integrated Pest Management, an environmentally friendly way of controlling pests. IPM programs use current information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment. At Partridge Point Orchard, this is put into play by trapping for damaging insects, electronically monitoring for crop ruining diseases, and not spraying anything unless it is absolutely necessary. This combination is safer for the environment and consumers.
“I’m not organic, but I’m as close as I can get,” said Shirley.
Keeping up with the orchard is hard work, but that doesn’t bother Shirley. The apple trees are her life, and she’s out tending to her crop every day, even when the temperature dips below freezing in the harsh winters. “I find pleasure in manual work,” she said.
Hard work was something that was instilled in Shirley when she was a child growing up on her grandmother’s farm. She recalled having to help her grandmother haul ice for the icebox all those years ago.
“I would start grumbling, and she’d say, ‘Now Shirley, be quiet. This builds character.’ I did not understand what she meant by this--what I was doing, grumbling and suffering--was building character, but it did,” chuckled Shirley.
Shirley’s grandmother would also take Shirley and her younger brother to the local library where she’d tell them, “As long as you learn to read well and do numbers, there’s books in the library you can learn to do anything you want to do.” It was advice Shirley took to heart, and she shares her grandmother’s inspirational message still today.
The Blackburns have many great memories of the orchard throughout the years, from Homecoming proposals to wedding proposals. Shirley and Bennie’s own grandson was married there in 2014.
Perhaps it’s not as big and commercialized as other apple orchards, but it is as picturesque and peaceful as they come. After picking apples, families can sit for a spell by the lake and feed Bluegill, catfish, or catch a glimpse of a largemouth bass that trolls the waters.
Many families have come to the orchard since they opened in 1979, and the Blackburns have been able to watch them grow. Customers who once visited as children now come with their children and grandchildren. Shirley loves meeting people and serving the community, and she has no plans on hanging up her apple bag quite yet.
“I’ll continue as long as I can, and that’s the only answer I can give,” she said with conviction. “The good Lord will tell me when it’s time. I’ll know.”
To learn more about this hidden gem in Woodford County, follow Partridge Point Orchard on Facebook, at www.partridgepointorchard.com, or visit in person at 807 Partridge Point Road, Metamora. They are open Monday-Saturday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.