Sunday, April 14, 2024

Heard County homesteaders cling to older rural lifeways while navigating New Media Age

This one farmstead structure stands frail. Debilitated by Mother Nature’s handiwork. Evident from its hind side. Barnwood craftsmanship currently exposed and splintered. Where livestock, hay bales and farming equipment once depended on the handmade frame for shelter in the early 20th century. “Now, it’s just falling apart,” said Tammy Harris, 46, co-founder of This Old Farmhouse GA, Inc. where the multipurpose barn lives out its final resting place on revived land. Harris’ pressing charge is identifying the best resources to help keep this slice of local history alive. For generations of Franklin, Georgia, residents. For America’s Black Belt Region.

But wrestling with the pandemic for the past two years has created a challenge for the groundskeeper to connect with preservationists willing and able to restore the barn. Uncommon to this part of the Peach State, the Appalachian-style stable originated from the Southern Appalachians – a specific segment of the Blue Ridge mountain range that covers Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland, West Virginia and North Carolina. Former generations of property owners probably traveled from the Appalachian area to settle in West Georgia, Harris said. Appalachian outbuilding indicators are its barn loft, breezeway construction, and grain and hay storage sections. 

“One of the hardest parts to a restoration project like this has been finding the original wood,” said Harris. Until she can identify the right help to rehabilitate the barn, the petite, freckled-faced Harris and her statuesque daughter Kiyah clutch other homestead scenes like grandmother’s pearls. Both steward the natural beauty and resources of the 2-acre tourist destination in their own approaches.

The Appalachian-style barn trying to hold strong at This Old Farmhouse GA. Photo by Matt Odom Photography.

Since the agritourism and cultural site is also open for the public, Tammy exercises the grounds to educate guests about early farming history and practices. Through the lens of Franklin’s Southern, small-scale landowners, tenant farmers and sharecroppers. Even thoughtfully interjecting women and children into the site’s storyline to remind tourists of survival-based roles each were often required to own: Like developing household products (soap and candles). Learning how to sew garments suited for Southern lifestyles. Participating in outdoor chores to help save more money. Growing and preparing food from scratch. 

Kiyah nurtures raised garden beds of jalapeño peppers, soybeans and dogfennel (a natural insect repellent for mosquitoes). “When visitors leave here,” said Kiyah, 24, “we want them to leave knowing they have the power to produce something on the land that they can use in everyday life.” Tammy and the family’s matriarch, Bettina Vernon, randomly drove down a split-second slope off Highway 27 and discovered the 1920-constructed farmstead back in 2013.

Found in worse condition than the Appalachian barn is facing today, the bungalow-style homestead initially earned the title of a community eyesore. Increasingly fading into Heard County. Incorporated and designated the county’s seat in 1831, Franklin ladened with mills. One cotton factory with a well-to-do business model. According to “Statistics of the State of Georgia” by George White, Franklin’s manufacturing industry included 17 grist mills, 13 saw mills and 3 flour mills at the time. Its West Georgia soil light. Cooperative to cultivate. Wheat, corn and cotton led productions. While rye, barley and oats produced in small quantities. 

Key feature of the barn is its barn loft construction. Photo by Matt Odom Photography.

When the family’s car ride turned into a time traveling experience through local cotton gin history, Bettina and Tammy made the purchase. Since then, This Old Farmhouse GA remains the state’s only nonprofit museum owned and operated by three generations of African-American women. What was traditionally a single-family farmhouse is now a cultural heritage center. Still applying self-sufficiency and agrarian traditions. Homesteading classes and personal tours demonstrate the community’s folklife, community customs, and importance of regional and cultural preservation. 

COVID presented new obstacles for the historians and land conservationists. Tourism slumped. Considerably. The trio wanted to keep engagement high and neighborhood relationships united. Therefore, attention went toward online efforts. A shot at a website, an online newsletter and a YouTube channel. “That’s a lot of work,” Tammy said, “especially when it’s not your area of expertise.” Their digital offerings needed to align with the farmhouse’s physical appeal and Southern life nostalgia. Tammy, Kiyah and Bettina attended a Black Farmers’ Network (BFN) asset and capacity-building gathering at South Georgia agritourism site EM Farms in Culloden, Georgia. 

BFN is an U.S. Department of Agriculture research grant that provides farmers with an online platform to promote their farms, products and services. The network held its first Black female farmer forum December 2021. The daylong Southern affair allowed the three to have genuine conversations with farming and homesteading colleagues of the Georgia Black Belt. Leading into serious conversations about authentic and valid strategies to shift operations online.

Mother-daughter farmers Tammy Harris, 46, and Kiyah Harris, 24. Photo by Matt Odom Photography.

But not by any arbitrary means. With rural community professionals who have local to international experience in 21st-century content creation. Known for organically reaching new audiences and tourists virtually. At the networking event, each of the 11 farmers invited learned of BFN’s annual “Marketing & Branding Makeover.” The chance to have the grant project’s award-winning media experts design a customized brand strategy that increases a farmer’s digital presence. Nominations opened March 2022. Tammy joined a dozen or so Georgia farmers in applying for the opportunity. And This Old Farmhouse GA’s significance to rural economic development as a tourist destination became the network’s 2022 makeover recipient.

The network will spend the remainder of 2022 helping the agritourism attraction rebrand its online image through a modern website. One that automatically zaps digital guests back to West Georgia lifestyles during the early 1900s. Sneak peeking online tourists of the museum’s seven farmhouse exhibit rooms, wellhouse, smokehouse, new fireside space and seasonal garden projects. Homesteading classes typically offered throughout the year: caring for fruit trees, bread baking, butter making, foraging 101, using herbs for healing, soap/candle crafting, cooking with cast iron, basic hand sewing, open fire cooking, concocting essential oils and seed saving.

The brick-and-mortar business seeks instructors with expertise in both older and newer homestead and agrarian lifeways. The possibility of online classes is in conversation. The farmstead goal: become the premier attraction in Heard County and the state of Georgia, said Tammy. Continue to change the narrative of Black Belt people’s contributions to America. Rebuild spaces like the Appalachian barn as reminders to ancestral land contributions as part of American South storytelling. “Our ancestors did what they had to do to support their families,” she said. “They worked hard so the next generation would have more.”

Tammy helping Kiyah with a new raised-bed garden project. Photo by Matt Odom Photography.

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