Shirley Brown Butler, whose family invited generations of families to “pick your own” at Butler’s Orchard, in Germantown, Maryland, has died at age 91.
Wade Butler, one of four children of Shirley and George H. Butler, said she died on Sept. 10.
“She had complications from heart valve replacement, so she was healthy right up until the very end. She died at home, in her own room, in her own bed, so we’re very thankful that we had family around her,” Butler told WTOP.
Butler said his parents got married in December 1950, and together purchased 37 acres and an 1850s-era log house, in Germantown. George Butler had been pre-med, and Shirley Butler, who grew up in Silver Spring, had worked at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab for two years after college.
“A professor of my dad’s knew of an apple orchard with 17 acres of peaches on it, and it kind of piqued his interest a little bit. He came out and bought this property — basically a two-room log house, with a little bit of plumbing and a little bit of electricity. They started to rebuild the home, and build the business,” Butler said.
George Butler died in 2000. Wade, and his sister, Susan, now own and operate Butler’s Orchard, which has expanded to over 300 acres. Co-owner and brother Todd died in 2010. Another sister, Carol, pursued other interests.
“It’s kind of the end of an era,” Butler said about his mother’s death.
When his parents first bought the farm, Montgomery County was very different.
“Once you got past Shady Grove Road, you were really out in the boonies back in the ’50s,” Butler said. “Gaithersburg, Damascus, Poolesville — those high schools were all farm communities, and there were dairy farms all around us.”
Butler said the “pick-your-own” business model developed organically.
“My parents were growing a few crops, and from time to time people would stop in and say, ‘Would you mind if we picked a few peaches? We know we can get them at the grocery store, but we’d rather get them off the tree here, nice and fresh.'”
“My dad thought, ‘Well, y’know, that’s not a bad idea,” recounted Butler. “People wanted to come out, enjoy the fresh air, pick fresh crops, pay them for the crops they were picking — which was kind of a novel idea — and then go home happy.”
In his parents’ minds, the financial risk of inviting strangers to traipse on valuable farmland was trumped by the enjoyable experience of choosing the perfect apple, peach or strawberry.
“Is there damage to the crops? Certainly. Everything doesn’t get picked. Some things get stepped on. Kids smash berries into their faces and clothing. That’s what a lot of them remember the most.”
In the decades since the pick-your-own phenomenon has flourished, Butler said the secret of success is simple.
“I think there’s a lot of great memories that people have with their children and their grandchilden,” Butler said.
“Even when my mom was in the hospital just recently, her surgeon, when he found out who she was, was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I brought my grandkids and my kids there.'”
Butler said the family is having a private ceremony for his mother, and hopes to have a public remembrance at the farm, next summer.
“In these days of COVID, to get outside with fresh air, in the sunshine, and pick something healthy, and take it home — just to be outside is a big deal right now.”
In lieu of flowers, the family said donations can be made to the following organizations or to your favorite charity, in her honor:
- Guide Dog Foundation/ 371 East Jericho Turnpike/Smithtown, NY 11787-2976
- WETA Public TV and Public Radio.