On a Thursday afternoon in early September, the Renn family had more muscadine grapes than they knew what to do with. That explains the sign outside of their home at 1059 Old Macon Highway inviting their neighbors to come and take their pick off the vine out back. A large bowl prepared by matriarch Jessica Renn overflowed with muscadines, marked by their majestic shade of deep purple, outdone only by the burst of sweetness awaiting beneath the sturdy skins. And there were still plenty yet to be picked from the leafy rows of muscadines, which call a pair of expansive, parallel Scuppernong vines their neighbors.
“We hate to see them go to waste and they’re so good,” said Ray Renn, Jessica’s husband. “It’s a shame for them to sit out there and rot on the vines when somebody can get some use out of them.”
Why not sell them?
Well, there’s more to this story than the Renns, from Vance County, having a surplus of grapes. There exists for them both a spiritual and sentimental connection to the orchard despite it being planted long ago by previous landowners.
The Renns were called to the Lake Gaston area by their faith - Ray has pastored Vaughan Baptist Church since 2012 – and they obtained in 2017 the property along Old Macon Highway (becomes Eaton Ferry Road) that was filled with five grapevines (Scuppernong, Concord, muscadine), several apple and plum trees, a pecan tree, and blueberry and fig bushes. The Renns planted only the blackberry bushes themselves.
The couple had previously come upon the 40-acre-plus, fruit-filled property by chance before Jessica remembered it when the time came to move to the area. She had grown up, outside of Henderson, with grapevines and various fruit trees.
“That was my memory of: in the evenings, walking out with Daddy, picking grapes and checking apples and plums,” Jessica said. “To be able to do that on my own property is special.”
Ray and Jessica’s three sons all seem to enjoy sampling the fruit, much as their mother did when she was younger. Aiden is 14 and brothers Tyler and Eli are 13 and 9, respectively. And believe it or not, their boxer Bella has a habit of nosing around the vines - Yes, the Renns are aware that grapes aren’t good snacks for dogs, but you try telling Bella that.
Leave it to the 9 year old to offer an observation that might be as profound as it is simple. “It’s free food,” Eli said. “You get it all year round.”
Or as Mom puts it: a blessing.
Jessica learned how to make jams, jellies and the like from her mother many years ago, and now she is preserving that tradition in Warren County by making grape jelly to give away on occasions like Christmas or birthdays. Part of the tradition is keeping a watchful eye on the harvest, an experience Jessica has passed on to her children.
“‘Let’s go check and see if the blueberries have ripened,’” Jessica tells the boys, “‘or let’s go see how many blackberries we have.’ It’s real life and real memories, not just electronics. You’re looking at something that looks dead in the winter and now it’s producing things that we can eat, and we didn’t have to do anything. God just provided that.”
Ray has taught automotive technology at Halifax Community College since 2015 and Jessica was an elementary school teacher in Vance County before shifting her focus to homeschooling the boys. She does “whatever needs to be done” at Vaughan Baptist, including leading the music and teaching Sunday school at the modest church.
The spiritual connection between the family’s grapevines and the church is unmistakable for Ray.
“He makes tons and tons of references to the fruit of the vine,” Ray said, referring to Biblical scriptures about Jesus. “There’s definitely a connection when I think about the grapes and the juice that we use during communion being grape juice, being fruit of the vine, fruit of the cup, that we use to think about this blood being shed for forgiveness of
“Anytime I look at grapevines and the fruit of the vine, I just think about how sweet that grape is. I go out on those cool evenings and bite into that grape and think about how pure and sweet it is - his salvation and his love is the same way - it’s sweet. It’s whole and it’s pure.”
They didn’t exactly inherit a fully-functioning orchard when they moved here. Yes, the groundwork had been laid, but the grapevines were thick and overgrown. The vines, bushes and fruit trees hadn’t been maintained; nor had the vines’ support mechanisms. So the Renns gently trimmed away and propped the vines back up with new poles, posts and wire. They didn’t know if the fruit would grow back.
But it did, without the aid of any foreign substances. Some years have been better than others, and this one has been a bountiful season for the Renns’ apples and blueberries. The Scuppernongs, brown when they’re ripe, and purple muscadines also appear to be plentiful.
For the Renns, their orchard is more than a backyard backdrop; it’s a place to relive the past and for new memories to be made. And for deeper meaning to be uncovered, if you’re looking beyond the right branches for it.
“It’s not to make money,” Jessica said. “We did try to sell some pecans last year and I felt guilty. It was given to us. We just want to bless others.”
Call or text 252-425-5879 to reach the Renns.