Charles Robert Solenberger ‘57 arrived at MIT knowing little about the Institute. He had grown up in rural Virginia on his mother’s family orchard, going to a four-room schoolhouse for his earliest grades. When it was time for Solenberger to apply to college, his brother-in-law suggested MIT rather than the local state school. His father, who had always admired engineers, supported Solenberger’s choice.
MIT was challenging at first, but he was determined to make the most of the opportunities. “I had to work the first couple of years, but I fit everything in,” he says. “It taught me good work ethics. I’ve worked pretty much all my life. It gave me a way of thinking, a way of solving problems.”
Solenberger earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering and then worked briefly for Atlantic Research as a chemical engineer before returning to his family home in Virginia to devote himself to the orchard.
In the 50 years since he took the helm, Fruit Hill Orchard has evolved from a 150-acre plot to one of the largest orchards in Virginia, with more than 3,000 acres. The area, in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley only 70 miles from Washington, DC, has become much more populous since his childhood. Solenberger has preserved his land for agriculture, despite lucrative development offers.
He and his wife, Bessie, have three daughters; all work in the family business, which was founded around 1900. Each year, they grow more than a million bushels of apples, which are used for juice and applesauce. They also grow peaches on 30 to 40 acres, which Solenberger describes as a “very minor” sideline.
Solenberger’s business interests haven’t been limited to Fruit Hill Orchard. He has been involved with Green Inc., a supplier of agricultural chemicals mainly to the apple industry, and with companies that provide cold storage for apples and land moving for highways and tunnels.
He is also committed to community service and spent about 35 years on the board of a local hospital. In his free time, he likes to read, shoot pool, and hike. “I like land,” Solenberger says. “I like what land looks like; I like what it can be used for.”