Ira and Susan Ella Ethridge

After the death of his wife in 1896, Joseph Robert invited Susan Ella, his youngest daughter, and her husband Ira Ethridge to come live with him, promising them ‘rations for one year’, free use of his land, and inheritance of the home place plus 114 acres upon his death. The arrival of Ira brought fresh energy and new entrepreneurial spirit to the farm in the early years of the 20th century. He began to add new buildings to the farmstead including a new steam operated gin, a commissary selling general merchandise, and a gristmill. Under his leadership the Shields-Ethridge Family came to occupy a more prominent position in the county; for example, in 1909 he supervised the building of a county school a short distance from the farmstead. Two of Susan Ella’s unmarried relatives donated the plot of land and it became known as Bachelors’ Academy. And in 1910, Ira began to enlarge the home place to reflect this enhanced social status.

Ira tried to keep up with scientific advances in agriculture and he was enthusiastic about new machinery and technology – he liked to buy the latest model of automobile, and in 1916 he installed his own telephone line into Jefferson. But the main agricultural enterprise – the growing of cotton – continued to depend on the muscle power of teams of mules and backbreaking labor by sharecroppers, so in this period the operation of the farm illustrated a mixture of new and old ways of farming.

The operation of the gin and the sale of cottonseed provided about half of the total income from the farm, and in good years the family prospered and Ira was able to purchase more land. But the business also suffered setbacks that challenged Ira’s energy and business acumen. In 1910, a fire destroyed the gin house and its machinery, none of which was insured; however a new gin was in operation by 1915 and the business then grew rapidly until the arrival of the boll weevil around 1920. The amount of cotton ginned in 1922 was less than half the total ginned in the previous year, and it was several years before control measures became effective. But by 1927 the business had recovered and in 1930 Ira installed new ginning machinery. In that ginning season the Shields-Ethridge gin produced 1162 bales of cotton and Ira was able to add more acres to the farm, bringing the total to 650 acres.

In the 1930s the farm was operated with the assistance of a dozen or more tenant families; some cropped 10 acres or less and nearly all of them supplemented meager incomes by working as wage laborers. Most of the tenants were black, but the proportion fluctuated as tenants came and went. These were tough times and some stayed only a year or two before moving on. The amount of land devoted to cotton was greatly reduced in 1934 in accordance with New Deal programs to address problems of overproduction. Thereafter crops such as corn and wheat gained in importance, and Ira must have looked to income from some of his other business enterprises to offset declines in returns from the gin.

Among the other enterprises on the farm the commissary and sawmill were probably the most important. A wide range of merchandise was sold at the commissary, primarily but not exclusively to tenants, for whom it provided a much needed source of credit. Lumber produced by the sawmill was used on the farm, but was also sold to various outside customers. For a few years it was also used in a furniture business based in a carpenter’s shop attached to the blacksmith’s shop. More enduring businesses included the repair and rebuilding of motor vehicles, mostly trucks, an enterprise that grew out of Ira’s enthusiasm for automobiles, and Susan Ella had a small herd of milking cows and sold butter in Jefferson for many years. In addition, Ira invested in a variety of local businesses, for example he was the largest stockholder in Jefferson’s first ‘picture show.’