With all the development and growth coming to the Jackson County area, it's easy to forget the county's agricultural past.
At one time, the county was covered in cotton and small farms — the big plantations were mostly in central and south Georgia while this area was primarily small owner-worked farms.
While much of that now stands in the shadow of industrial and commercial developments, the area continues to have a large amount of agriculture and certainly has an ag-rooted tradition.
That reality is made clear in a new book about the cattle industry in Georgia that features a number of Jackson Countians who have played a role in the state's cattle business.
"Herds and Heritage: The History of Georgia's Cattle Industry was published by the Georgia Cattlemen's Foundation earlier this year. Written by Jackie Kennedy, the book traces the long history of cattle in the state and how the business grew.
And Jackson Countians were deeply involved in that process.
In fact, the cover of the book features a photo of the late Jimmy Johnson with his Angus herd near Jefferson.
The Johnson family farm in Jefferson is a state Centennial Farm and is the oldest Angus farm in the state.
Jimmy Johnson began raising Angus cattle as a teenager in the late 1930s and it grew into his main farm business. There are a number of photos in the book of Johnson family members, including a chapter cover of a young Gus Johnson (Jimmy Johnson's nephew) being presented a cattle prize by Gov. M.E. Thompson in 1948.
Jimmy Johnson served two different terms as president of the Georgia Cattleman's Association and in the early 1970s, was a member of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.
Today, the Johnson family continues as the seventh generation on the farm, which began in 1871.
Another Jackson Countian who is featured in the book is Tap Bennett. Bennett was the county's first extension agent in 1913 and later became a major figure in the state's cattle industry. He was an associate of FDR before Roosevelt became president, having bought cattle for Roosevelt's farm in Warm Springs.
Bennett was also a leader in other Georgia agriculture endeavors for over 50 years. According to the University of Georgia Library, which houses his papers, Bennett was a pioneer on many fronts:
"A 1913 graduate of the University of Georgia College of Agriculture, Bennett made a career of practical innovation. As a county extension agent in Spalding County and associate of the Central of Georgia Railway, he started Georgia's first 4-H club, first 4-H camp, and helped expand poultry production. His greatest contribution was in the area of livestock production, where he helped free the region from the cotton economy by promoting and facilitating cattle farming. He loaned bulls to new stock breeders, introduced parasite control methods, began the seeding of permanent pastures, helped operate dairies, and put on Georgia's first cattle shows in Macon, Albany and Savannah. President Roosevelt, having heard of Bennett's work, hired him to run his model farm at Warm Springs. Bennett moved on to a post as supervisor of the Pine Mountain Valley Project, a New Deal Community based on diversified farming. Here he established the state's first assembly-line poultry processing plant. In 1944, Bennett returned to Central of Georgia as Director of Agricultural Development. He retired not long after suffering a stroke in 1959, but continued to work as Livestock Director of the Southeastern Fair. In addition to many other honors, Bennett was Progressive Farmer Magazine's Man of the Year in 1955, and elected to the College of Agriculture hall of fame in 1977. His son, William Tapley Bennett, Jr., was U.S. Ambassador to NATO."
Melvin Porter of Jefferson is also featured in the book for his leadership in the state's cattleman's association (he served as president) and for his Angus cattle.
In recalling his early days in agriculture, Porter mentions his former high school teacher, Jim Hix, who is now a member of the Jackson County BOC. Hix was an ag teacher at Jefferson High School before moving into education administration.
The book also has a photo of Jack Spruill and mentions that he married Jackson County native Ada Beth Pirkle. The Spruills operate Steadfast Farm in Hoschton.
Jack is the Georgia Department of Agriculture's marketing division and has a long history in the state's agriculture community, including raising cattle.
Also linked to the state is Agricultural Commissioner Gary Black, who wrote the forward to the book. A Commerce resident, Black graduated from Commerce High School where he got involved in agriculture through FFA. In addition to the forward, Black is profiled in the book as well.
Commerce native and CHS graduate Glenn Smith is also mentioned in the book for his tenure as executive vice president of the Georgia Cattleman's Association from 1985-1999. Smith also has expertise in the healthcare industry and is currently COO of a nursing home and rehabilitation facility near Perry.
Another local Angus cattle producer who rose to fame was Ed and Wilma Minix. The Minixs started an Angus cattle farm in Gwinnett County in the 1960s as a part-time hobby. Ed retired in 1985 from being vice president of the Varsity and the couple bought 286 acres in Hoschton and relocated their Black Witch Farm there.
The couple continued to raise superior Angus cattle there until after Ed's death in 1991. The next year, Wilma sold the herd and moved to Athens where she continued to support the state's cattle industry through a scholarship foundation.
Ed and Wilma were named to the Georgia Angus Hall of Fame in 2010. Wilma died in 2021 in Athens.
A cattle farm that caters to youth from Jackson County is also mentioned in the book. Cattle from K&M Polled Shorthorn farm in Commerce are in a photo in the book. The farm raises and sells club calves for youth to show.
Two other Jackson countians mentioned in the book are J.L. McMullan and Spud Welborn.
But all of that acclaim doesn't really capture the depth of the cattle business in Jackson County, or of its agriculture in general.
The county has an active cattleman's association group. In a 2017 ranking, Jackson ranked 5th in the state for cattle production (dollars), 7th for poultry and 3rd for sheep and goats. The survey had over 21,800 cattle in the county.
There are also a number of horse farms, boarding facilities and riding/training services scattered around the county. Add in the various poultry operations and the county ranks among the top 10 in the state.
So while industrial development gets the main headlines today, it's noteworthy to point out how many Jackson Countians played a role in the state's cattle history and in a lot of other agricultural pursuits.
The herds and Heritage book may be ordered via mail with a check for $65 to:
Georgia Cattlemen's Foundation, P.O. Box 27990, Macon, Ga. 31221