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Family still down on the farm since 1792

Jefferson site offers glimpse into area's agrarian past

POSTED: January 10, 2009 12:30 a.m.

Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm

Susan Chaisson gives a tour of the Jefferson farm that has been in her family since 1792.

SARA GUEVARA /The Times

This road grader was used to maintain dirt roads on the Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm.

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JEFFERSON -- Not many people can look out of a window of their home and observe more than 100 years of their family's history.

Susan Chaisson can.

Chaisson lives in her family's home that was constructed in 1866. It overlooks structures of the Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm that date back to 1909 and 1910.

Under the watchful eye of the Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm Foundation, 150 acres of the 500 acre property serves as an outdoor, agricultural museum that is used to educate visitors about not only the Shields-Ethridge family history, but also the history of Jefferson dating back to the late 19th century.

"The Shields family came from Virginia in 1792 and settled on the banks of the Middle Oconee River, about a mile away from where our house is now," said Chaisson. "They later moved closer to this area and in 1866 my great-grandfather Joseph Robert Shields built this home for he and his wife Nancy Hill Shields after he returned from fighting in the Civil War."

When Nancy Hill Shields died, her husband asked their daughter and her family to move back home to help look after him and to help with the farm. They did, and the generations of the family have lived there ever since.

In its peak, the farm boasted more than 870 acres, a commissary, grist mill, blacksmith shop and cotton gin.

Although times have changed dramatically, there are two things that have remained the same on the farm since 1792: the property has remained in the hands of a Shields-Ethridge descendent and the farm has continued to be a working farm.

Since the first crop was planted the farm has had held a variety of agricultural-based businesses. At one point or another, the farm has produced indigo, tobacco, cotton and commercial cattle.

While those products are no longer being produced, Chaisson and her husband, Darrell Chaisson Sr., continue the family's agricultural legacy by raising poultry.

"I remember playing in the seed house as a child and sliding down the piles of seeds," Chaisson said. "It was really a great way to grow up, the simplicity of it."

Although Chaisson moved away from the family farm for a while, she and her family, which by that time included three children, returned to the farm for good in 1985.

"Darrell Jr. was 15 and the twins Betsy and Bobby were 12," she said. "I wanted them to grow up here. At first I thought that it would be a culture shock because we were moving from a subdivision in the city that had a pool and everything, but they adjusted."

The culture shock must have not been too severe, as all three of her children still live on the farm with their families.

"My grandchildren are the eighth generation to live here," Chaisson said. "I feel so fortunate to be able to share this with them and they love having so much land to run around and play on."

While the farm is a prized possession of the Shields-Ethridge family, they also open their doors to the public for special events and school field trips.

The farm's foundation has been able to use grant funding to renovate various buildings on the property. Chaisson says there is a lot of work still to be done which will require a lot more funding.

One of the buildings that has been renovated is the farm's school.

"When two Ethridge brothers found out that a school was going to be built on the property, they donated the land for the school," Chaisson said. "Because the brothers never married, the school was named ‘Bachelors Academy' to honor them."

Thanks to the hard work of Chaisson's mother, who compiled the history of the farm, the Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm and 65 of its structures were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.

"This place is really a gem, a piece of history that (the family) has felt challenged to keep as is," Chaisson said. "That's the whole reason why we formed the foundation. Our goal is to pass the farm down to our children and we hope that they continue the tradition going."



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