When you step out of the bus at the Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm, you step back in time. The landscape you see is a puzzle. Because the history of the Shields-Ethridge Farm spans so many years and so many agricultural changes, a timeline will help make sense of what you see here.
Seven generations of one family have lived and worked at the Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm. Those generations are shown at the end of this document..
Period 1: 1802 to 1861
From settlement to Civil War
Joseph Shields and his family settled on the Georgia frontier, in 1802. With two slaves, they cleared the land and raised crops, chiefly grains. When Joseph died in 1818 he owned 294 acres of land, hand tools for farming, and cows, pigs, and sheep.
Joseph’s son, James, was willed the land, livestock and tools. He bought 60 acres of land to add to his property. James and Charity Shields had six children, and their two sons fought in the Confederate army. When James died in 1863, Charity was left all the property. In 1865, Charity signed a contract with three former slaves. In exchange for food and a place to live, the three women helped Charity run the farm.
Period 2: 1866 to 1900
Struggling to rebuild
Joseph Robert Shields, the eldest son, returned from the war and built the present main residence on the property in 1866. As the story goes, the new home was paid for with two bales of cotton. The women who were left to manage hid the bales from enemy troops and Confederate tax collectors, according to the story.
Joseph Robert Shields continued to farm, growing corn, wheat, and oats. On about half the land, cotton was grown. The farm produced some livestock products and small amounts of fruits and vegetables were grown. Joseph Robert’s wife died in 1896, and he asked his daughter, Susan Ella to return home. Susan Ella was newly married to Ira Washington Ethridge, when they came back to live at the Farm in 1897.
Period 3: 1900 to 1945
Success and setbacks
Ira Ethridge began planning and building a sharecroppers’ village, believing that a cotton farm could prosper. Under Ira Ethridge’s management, the size of the farm more than doubled. The years 1900 to 1920 were successful years at the Shields-Ethridge Farm. Sharecroppers worked the land, and in return for a share of the crop were provided a house, a mule, and cotton seed. Everything a sharecropper needed would soon be found here.
In 1900 a Commissary, or store, was built, as well as a blacksmith shop, a milking barn were built. An engine, equipped with different pulleys, powered a grist mill, a hammer mill (where corn cobs were pounded into feed for livestock), and a planing mill. A sawmill was built behind the gin, but is no longer standing. In 1909 the Bachelors’ Academy was built, and a new cotton gin was constructed in 1910. The wheat house was also built in 1910, where wheat was stored upstairs and wagons downstairs.
After a fire that destroyed the gin house in 1910, Ira Ethridge built a water tower in 1913 to prevent another disaster. He also built a mule barn and a smokehouse. Ira Ethridge became known for his good business sense.
As business improved, Ira Ethridge improved the main house. In 1914 the porch to the house was raised and white columns were added. A screened sleeping porch was built upstairs. New windows were installed, and the old “nine over nine” (nine panes) were removed.
A new dairy barn was built in 1925, along with additional tenant houses. The sharecroppers’ village hummed along, and a gin office was added in 1930, along with a barber shop.
Setbacks came with success, however. The boll weevil arrived in 1920. The stock market crashed in 1929, and the price of cotton also fell. While many were out of work during the Great Depression, sharecroppers had homes and work at the Shields-Ethridge Farm. In 1940 there were 26 mules still working the farm, and all the cotton fields had been terraced to prevent erosion. Ira Ethridge was a competent farmer, and the sharecroppers’ village he created provided goods and services for the area.
Period 4: 1945 to 1969
From cotton fields to pastures
Technology soon changed the sharecroppers’ village. Mechanization was in full swing, after electricity was brought to rural areas. Tractors replaced mules; cotton harvesters replaced humans. Ira Ethridge died in 1945 and his son, Lanis, saw what was ahead. Small farmers could not afford the high price of new equipment. Lanis purchased his first bull for cattle breeding in the early 1950s. He also experimented with mechanical pickers in the 1960s. However, the Ethridge gin could not remove the dirt picked up by the mechanical pickers. The cotton gin needed updating, but prices for cotton were falling.
Finally, in 1964, Lanis decided to close the gin. The last cotton crop was grown in 1969. When Lanis Ethridge died in 1970, the sharecroppers’ village was a ghost village. The land returned to pasture and is now a poultry and cattle farm.
Period 5: 1969 to the present
The mechanization of agriculture forced the owners of the Shields-Ethridge Farm to adapt. In 1970, Joyce Ethridge (Lanis’ widow) began documenting the history of the farm. By 1992, 140 acres and over fifty structures were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The nomination said: “these outbuildings represent the broadest assortment of 19th and 20th century domestic, agricultural, and industrial buildings known to exist on a single farm in Georgia.” A year later, the Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm was recognized as a Centennial Farm in Georgia.
The Bachelors’ Academy was restored in 1996, and a master plan for creating an agricultural museum was prepared. Today the owners stress education to increase an understanding of Georgia’s agricultural and natural history.
Ian Firth. Landscape Master Plan of the Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm, Jackson County, Georgia Robinson Fisher Associates, Inc., 1998.
Diane Messick, K. Joseph, Natalie Adams, Tilling the Earth: Georgia’s Historic Agricultural Heritage: A Context (Atlanta, Georgia: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, 2001)
Ron Shapard. “Shields-Ethridge Farm: Preserving our Past” in Athens Magazine, May-June 1997, 84-91.
Frances Patricia Stallings, Presenting Mr. Ira’s Masterpiece: Two Centuries of Agricultural Change at the Shields-Ethridge Farm (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia, 2002)
|Joseph Robert Shields
|Susan Ella and Ira Ethridge
Farm becomes historic district
1970-2004 in 1992; 140 acres preserved
The seventh and eighth generations, Susan Chaisson’s children and grandchildren, still live on the Shields-Ethridge Farm.