Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm

For years, traveling to meetings and other events in Athens, I have passed the brown “Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm” sign and often thought: “I’ve got to go there sometime”. “Sometime” finally arrived yesterday! The newspaper had informed me that Saturday would be the annual “Mule Day” celebration at the farm and I had decided to go and check it out.

It’s worth a visit!

The Shieldses came to Georgia at the end of the 18th century, like so many others who migrated from Virginia and North Carolina to lands that had belonged to the native population for centuries. They grew tobacco on their hundreds of acres, and later cotton. Today, the farm is an outdoor museum of Georgia’s agricultural history.

The farm’s web site gives a brief overview of the Shields (James, 1785-1863, who had at least eight children, and Robert, 1827-1910, James’s youngest of three sons) and Ethridge families, but only makes casual reference to the Civil War years and the fact that slave ownership accounted for most of the family’s wealth at the time. Fortunately, we have the 2002 thesis of Frances Patricia Stallings, “Mr. Ira’s Masterpiece: Two Centuries of Agricultural Change at the Shields-Ethridge Farm” to complement the story.

“Mr. Ira” was Ira Washington Ethridge of Auburn, Georgia, who married Susan Ella Shields in 1896 and took over the farm’s management from his father-in-law Robert two years later. In today’s terms, he was an entrepreneur and “techie”, who embraced the changes that a new century demanded.

It would be interesting to know what became of the farm’s non-white residents. What happened to Sophia, to Jarvy and the “yellow boy Simon”, to Dicy and her sons Samuel, John and James? Do their ancestors still live in Georgia, or did they long ago move away?

Perhaps the most intriguing character in Ms. Stallings’s thesis is Jane Shields, the young widow of James’s brother Patrick (1775-1807), who in 1811, as a mother of seven, married a man named Thomas Thurmond, which was apparently not a welcome event in the family.

I enjoyed my visit and hope you will, too, when you get a chance to go there.

 Soap, in the 19th century, did not come from the store. It was made on the farm's premises and, having used some I bought yesterday, I can attest to its not being a bad product!