Wooden’s Apple House
By Lisa Savage
Sandy Burnett remembers lying in bed when she was just a little girl, listening to the sounds of her father working late into the night at their family orchard and farm.
Her father, Oren Wooden, passed away in 2013, but his legacy remains at the heart of the family business — Wooden’s Apple House. His wife, Nonivee, with the help of their children and grandchildren, carries on the family tradition that traces back to Florida’s orange groves almost a century ago.
Burnett heard the stories of her hardworking grandparents all her life. Oren Wooden’s father, Henry, left Tennessee in 1925 and headed to Florida looking for work. That’s where he met Orene Booth and picked oranges in her groves. Henry Wooden married Orene, and during the Great Depression, she traded her land in Florida for land in Pikeville, where her husband’s family had an apple orchard and a sawmill.
In 1942, when he was 10 years old, Oren Wooden moved with his parents to Pikeville. By the 1950s, the budding young farmer had set out peach trees, hoping to grow an orchard, but a hard freeze killed the trees. “The freeze-hardy varieties that we now grow were not available back then, so he planted apple trees instead,” Burnett says. “We still grow apples on that same land today.”
Oren and Nonivee Wooden married in 1964. As the Wooden family grew, so did the orchard and farming operation. Working on the farm and in the orchard were a way of life when Burnett and her sister were growing up. “When we were big enough, we carried buckets of tomatoes, cabbage and peppers,” she says.
Long days and late nights still keep operations flowing smoothly at Wooden’s Apple House. Even though the business is open to the public from August to November, work goes on throughout the year with pruning and orchard preparation for the next season.
Under the direction of Oren and Nonivee Wooden, the orchard grew to 35,000 trees. They had help, too — from Burnett and her husband, Mark; Burnett’s sister, Carole Smith, and her husband, Labron, more commonly known as Chubby; and then their children. Now, the orchard produces about 22 varieties that become available at different times during harvest season.
Until 1995 they sold fruits and vegetables from the packing shed on the farm. That year they expanded the business, building a new Wooden’s Apple House that included The Pie Shop.
It’s been overwhelmingly successful, Burnett says. “On a good year, we pick between 4 and 5 million apples and about 300,000 peaches, as well as tons of vegetables and pumpkins,” she says. The weather can impact production with unseasonably cold nights in late spring, a summer drought or other factors. “We can’t prevent it,” Burnett says. “We depend on the Lord for all that.”
All in the Family
Oren’s Orchard Cafe opened after Oren Wooden’s death in 2013, fulfilling one of his dreams to provide options for customers to eat a meal or dessert while purchasing the fresh fruits and vegetables. “When people would come buy fruits or vegetables, they were always looking for a place to eat a meal,” Burnett says. “There wasn’t much on the mountain, so adding the cafe and pie shop was a natural fit.”
Wooden’s Apple House, Oren’s Orchard Cafe and The Pie Shop open on Aug. 1 each year and remain open through the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. The cafe serves Southern, country-style, farm-to-table food, and the pie shop serves all kinds of fresh-made apple, peach and pumpkin desserts. “On any given weekend, we sell 3,000 fried pies and about 2,000 apple dumplings,” Burnett says. Wooden’s Apple House also sells crafts, cookbooks and value-added products like jellies, jams, preserves, relishes and pickles.
Several employees are hired to work during the busy season, but Wooden’s Apple House is primarily a family operation, from working in the orchard to operating the cafe and pie shop. “All our kids are a big part of it,” Burnett says.
The cafe is managed by her niece, Candace Harris, while Burnett’s sister, who is Harris’ mother, runs the pie store. Harris’ sister, Cara Roberson, helps manage the orchard’s bookkeeping operations. Burnett’s children work at the orchard, as well. Her oldest, Marcus, has Down syndrome, and he loves helping. For her middle child, Cain, the orchard recently provided a beautiful backdrop for his wedding. He is pursuing a business management degree and will continue to work at the orchard. The Burnetts’ youngest, Kate, is pursuing a degree in agribusiness management and plans to return to the family’s operations.
“We have the fifth generation of Woodens working here now. You might see the sixth generation running around, too,” Burnett says. “We love hearing stories from our customers of how their grandparents brought them here and seeing their families grow as ours has. Without the support of our wonderful customers over the years, we wouldn’t have been able to build this business we are so proud of.”