A common thread in Madison County’s culture, its economy and its history is agriculture. The tools may change. The people come and go. The structures rise and fall. But the process of harvesting and raising plants and animals to nourish people lives on.
Agriculture is the fiber of this county’s identity.
This week, the Madison County Journal spoke with four people who have some perspective on life in Madison County in bygone years and how agriculture shaped their experience:
Ed Adams has worked over the years to maintain his Madison County family homes off Minish Road: the one he grew up in, which was built around 1914, and the much older house in the nearby pasture, which sits on a stone foundation.
That house was built by John Adams, who is buried on the land, which has remained in the Adams family since the 1830s. In 1835, Adams and his wife, Loudicie, moved from Pickens, S.C., to Madison County. He was 33 and she was 18 and they had two children, with another on the way. A milk cow pulled a big barrel, which was packed full of their possessions. When the barrel started wearing out, the couple would stop at willow trees and cut new strips to bind it.
For nearly two years, the family lived in a brush arbor or tent, while John hauled timbers and smoothed by hand the wide boards to build their home. When supplies ran short, John traveled all the way to Augusta, one of the closest big towns, to the store.
Ed Adams says many people living in the area today have some family tie to John Adams, whose headstone indicates that he lived to the ripe age of 103.
“I don’t know (how many descendants there are),” said Adams. “But there are people sometimes that want to come look at the graveyard and say ‘These were my ancestors.’ Well, it’s news to me.”
Adams said the life of John and Loudicie Adams was certainly tough. He marvels at how John managed to construct the cabin, which has stood for over 175 years.
“They (the logs) cut at an angle where they lock together and how he (John) got that stuff up there is beyond me,” said Adams.
Those on the Adams property have seen significant changes over the past 175 years. Now, Adams’ 8-year-old granddaughter enjoys free time playing “Minecraft” on a Kindle Fire. It’s a far cry from Ed Adams’ days as a young child, when he spent summer days barefoot and the family got by without a car, TV, running water or electricity.
His earliest memories include milking cows before being picked up by bus for elementary school in the old Ila school house.
“I remember when I got old enough, one of my duties was to go milk every morning before I went to school,” said Adams. “So I had to go, the cow was usually there. And I had to feed her and milk her and bring the milk back to the house and get ready for school.”
Once that milk was inside, his mother got to work.
“She strained it and put it in a churn,” said Adams. “Some of it she saved for sweet milk. A lot of it she put in a churn to make buttermilk. And it sat pretty close to the heater until it clabbered. Then you had to sit there with a little dasher and churn it up and down until the butter separated from the milk. Then you got the butter off the top. The rest of it was buttermilk.”
After school, Adams helped take care of the family’s cows, chickens and pigs, and also picked cotton — a job he doesn’t miss. He shakes his head with some disgust.
“You’ve never lived until you had to go to the cotton patch and dig out the grass and pick cotton,” he said.
Ed’s father, Roy, was one of the first chicken farmers in the area, putting up a chicken house in the early 50s.
“When we built the first chicken house, it had 2,000 chickens in it, which was unheard of in that day,” he said.
Adams remembers the feed trucks bringing food for the chickens in cloth sacks. Those sacks were used to make family clothes.
“They were soft,” said Adams of the sacks. “So my mother would take the seams out and open them up, wash them and then she sold a lot of them. People would buy them to make shirts or dresses, whatever. And I wore a lot of sack shirts for a while. They had all kind of patterns, stripes and plaid, some flowers, whatever.”
But when he saw the feed trucks arrive at the house, he wouldn’t think of the new attire in his future.
“No, not really,” he said. “I’d think more work.”
Adams remembers the process of securing meat for the year — the annual hog killing.
“We always had two (hogs),” said Adams. “And in the fall when the weather began to get cold, and there were frosty mornings and that kind of stuff, then the pig’s life was getting short. They’d kill them and take them over to the end of Erastus Church Road. Just beyond there is a concrete slab with a rail on top of it. We’d take them over there and dress them and bring them back home to that old smokehouse that’s still standing. That’s where they went. And then we’d have to work them up and some of it he’d salt cure and some of it he’d sugar cure and we had to do the lard and I hated that with a passion.”
Adams described the “lard” process.
“You had to take all the fat off the animal and then you had to cut it up in little blocks and you had to boil it and get all the grease out of it,” he said. “Then you had to take the solids out and you poured the grease in a five-gallon container and that was your cooking oil. I mean that’s the only thing you had.”
Adams said his family didn’t have a lot of money, but he said they never felt poor.
“We were self-sufficient,” he said. “In that time we had very little income. We had maybe three bales of cotton. But we raised wheat and we took it to the gin in Danielsville. And they took the wheat and then they would dole us out flour as we needed it. So we had our own flour. We had our own meat. We had our own milk. We had our own vegetables… I look back today; we were not poor. We didn’t have much money, but we were not poor by any means.”
Betty Whitehead Sweeny
Betty Whitehead Sweeny was born in Carlton in 1927 in the bedroom of the South Railroad Avenue home where she still lives. She said the town of her youth was bustling with the industry of agriculture.
“The railroad came through here, so we had cotton platforms, where the cotton was taken there and sold,” said Sweeny. “We had two gins. They would bring that (cotton) in by wagonload. They would line up and they’d be all the way from down where the school was and those wagons were lined up for at least one and a half miles. There would be wagon after wagon. There would be two mules pulling the wagons.”
Carlton was also a place that helped farmers get what they needed.
“Everything used was brought here by ‘drummers,’ salesmen, who would come here and take orders and later things would be delivered by the train,” she said. “We had at least three stores that sold everything a farmer would need, the dry goods, shoes, cheese, the food was limited, flour and cheese, but most people grew their own wheat and had their own flour ground.”
She said “fertilizer is what brought money.”
“The companies learned to mix the fertilizer and they would buy what was needed and it came in on the train,” said Sweeny. “And they had three warehouses that they used the floors to mix the fertilizer and they had an old truck that they could deliver it Madison County, Oglethorpe County, wherever.”
Sweeny also remembers the town’s gristmill, which grinds grain into flour.
“We had a gristmill and flour mill down the river below town,” said Sweeny. “They ground corn to make meal. I can remember everybody had some livestock, pigs and cows. The pigs would get tremendous. I don’t know, 500 lbs? They’d feed them what was leftover from the gristmill. They’d put that in a great big barrel and called it ‘slopping the hog.’”
Those hogs would be slaughtered and then salt cured to keep for a long period of time.
“Everybody would have a house where they’d have these great big boxes and they’d put the ham in there and cover them with salt,” said Sweeny.
Of course, before the days of electricity, keeping food fresh posed real challenges.
“We had an ice box and we’d buy the ice and put it in the top of the box to keep things cool and you’d put a pan underneath to catch the ice when it melted,” said Sweeny. “Other people had things like cooling areas where they dug underground, they put things in there to keep them cool.”
People also kept rain barrels as a water source, as well as making use of local springs.
“That’s where the washing was done,” said Sweeny of the water springs. “They had a wash pot. They’d heat the water with wood burning under a black pot. And they’d put the clothes in there and stir it with a stick. They made their own soap. The soap was made with lye and it was not too good for your hands. They washed the clothes and heated that water in the pot, then put in cold water to rinse them.”
Sweeny said Carlton had several stores. There was Steven Martin and Company, where her father worked keeping books. There was Tiller Glenn, which had a drugstore. There was Bob Rowe’s store, which sold cotton and fertilizer.
“He sold candy and he gave a lot of it away to us,” remembers Sweeny. “…We had a grocery store and they had a big thing of bananas hanging outside. And I always wanted one and they cost a nickel. It was not very often that I got one.”
Sweeny said Hugo Smith also had a store.
“He had a black Hudson Terraplane automobile,” she said. “I think it was a convertible. I remember riding in that.”
Sweeny remembers the summertime duties she shared with her sister, Mae Whitehead Snelling, who served at the high school as a counselor and passed away in 2012. The two were the daughters of Chloe Adams Whitehead and Walter Joe Whitehead.
“In the summer time, we’d wax the floors,” said Sweeny. “You’d take an old sheet and cut it up and put Johnson’s wax in there and sew it back up. We would put mops on the floor and get them clean. Then we’d get on our hands and knees and wax them with those. That was to keep the wooden floors were pine floors and they would splinter if you didn’t keep them waxed.”
Sweeny has many fond memories of her youth in Carlton. She remembers the ball games between the boys of Comer versus the boys of Carlton.
“The boys went up to the see the girls in Comer and that always caused a big ruckus,” she said. “And they played ball to amuse themselves. They would play ball in Carlton and Comer would play Carlton and there was a post there and a telephone and they would pick up the game and announce the game on the telephone to Comer and the people at the drugstore would sit around the drugstore and listen to the results of the game. So that was broadcast. I’m sure there was a lot of other stuff going on. But that was done at the ballpark at the old school grounds.”
Sweeny said her family made their own clothes, except for the one time a year when her grandfather would take her and her sister to Atlanta to buy an Easter dress.
“We didn’t really feel poor,” she said. “But I think the love that we had from our families that was the important thing. Hardly anyone had anything. It was at a point where you didn’t feel you were so very, very poor, because everybody was poor.”
The Comer that Aubrey Thomas knew when he was growing up next door to Comer Baptist Church was a busy agricultural town where farmers came to buy and sell, and where trains rolled regularly into the town’s depot to do business and transport passengers on what was then known as Front Street (now North Avenue).
In fact, Thomas said he always heard that the town of Comer came to be after much of the local population migrated from the Paoli community westward in order to be near the new railroad.
“Every store building you see today, and others not there any more, was full of some kind of business in those days,” Thomas said.
Even Chicken Alley had a grocery store, a beauty parlor and a restaurant, Aubrey’s wife, Annette, remembers. The restaurant was owned by their next door neighbor Settie Gray, who served up down home cooking dipped out of big black pots kept warm over a simmering stove.
Among the businesses on Front Street alone there was a bank, drug store, dry cleaners, dry goods store, hardware store, grocery store, five and dime store and the old Blue Bell sewing plant, where Mrs. Thomas worked.
Down on Center Street, Comer’s most prominent family, the Gholstons, operated their Ford dealership and showroom (where Thomas’s father worked). Next door was the the Comer News, a barbershop and several other businesses.
There were also three churches (two of which remain), doctors’ offices and even a jewelry store and dress shop in town.
Comer boasted two cotton gins, with farmers’ wagons often lined up at each one during the fall harvest season. Thomas has a photo of cotton bales piled in high stacks on Front Street, waiting to be loaded onto rail cars.
Mrs. Thomas, who grew up on a farm north of Ila, remembers her father loading up his wagon with cotton at night, hitching his mules to it before dawn the next day to make the trip to a gin near Commerce.
And though Mr. Thomas never farmed, he did help out by picking cotton on his grandmother Mary Elizabeth Thomas’s (known as “Little Granny”) farm just outside the city limits.
“Farming figured some way in everything (we did),” Thomas said.
Weekends brought farmers in to town to sell their crops and livestock.
“Buggies would be lined up in that alley way with chickens and eggs to sell,” Mrs. Thomas said.
Though still bustling when Thomas was a boy, Comer was hit hard by the Depression.
“The Comer Hotel was already closed and falling down by the time I was old enough to remember it,” he said. The formerly grand building, located near where the new gazebo sits today, sat empty for many years before it was finally torn down.
After serving in the Korean War, Thomas came back to Comer where he and his brother opened a Standard Oil service station, which was first located next to city hall, and later located where Comer Kangaroo Convenience Store now sits.
Their business grew, as farmers moved from mule and horse drawn wagons to the automobile.
The store was open from early in the morning until late at night. “We stayed open until folks quit coming,” Thomas said. As were most stores in those days, it was also a gathering place where men sat around the pot belly stove discussing the news of the day, and it remained so for 45 years.
Thomas’ most famous customer was Mamie Eisenhower, wife of then General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and their son, who stopped to get gas and use the restroom one day, on their way to parts unknown.
“I thought it was her and I knew for sure when she signed for the gas,” he said.
Thomas, 85, and his wife of almost 63 years, Annette, still live in the College Street home they purchased 56 years ago.
Marian Johnson Tiller
Marian Johnson Tiller grew up on a farm in the Neese Community, learning to work hard from an early age.
She was one of four children of Jacob and Vivian Curry Johnson.
“I was taught that you keep on pushing ‘til you get where you want to be,” she said. “My mother always said a quitter never wins, and a winner never quits.”
Tiller’s family moved from the old Planter community to the Neese community when she was about three years old, and began sharecropping on a farm owned by Willis Glenn.
“Everything was split 50/50,” she said. “We worked the fields raising corn, wheat and cotton, and later we had chicken houses – first broilers, then layers.” They also truck farmed for a while — raising bell peppers and okra to be shipped to South Carolina.
She and her two brothers and her sister were expected to help with the many daily chores after school each day.
“We children were all involved in the day to day operations,” she said.
Eggs were gathered by hand twice a day in those days and then they had to be washed, weighed and packed according to size (grade) into cartons for shipping. They also packed and sold eggs to the neighborhood. When they were raising broilers, they helped vaccinate them and then were on hand to catch them when it came time for them to go to market.
There were two cotton gins close by and they helped her father load the mule wagon, and later on the truck, with the cotton harvest to take to the gin.
She distinctly remembers picking cotton with her mother one day when she was about 10 years old and announcing that she didn’t intend to do pick cotton for a living when she grew up.
When her mother asked her what she planned to do, she decided right then and there she wanted to be a teacher.
As a teenager, she was given the job of bookkeeper for the farm’s egg operation. Her task was to keep up with the number of eggs produced each day and a count of how many dozen were sold.
“Mr. Glenn told me, ‘do a good job with this and maybe you can go to college,” she remembers.
Tiller said their farming community was very close knit. And while they were the only black family, she doesn’t remember ever feeling ostracized or out of place. “We all looked out for and helped each other,” she said. “We just all worked together.”
Tiller made good on her desire to teach, attending college first at Fort Valley State, where she received her BS in education and then on to the University of Georgia, where she received her masters in education and later certification in social work. She taught at Southside and later Comer Elementary for many years before going back to school to become a social worker at age 45. She then served as a social worker in the school system until her retirement in 1998.