“County agents,” as we call them, date back in Georgia 100 years. They are part of the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, celebrating its centennial this year helping residents with home, garden and farm advice.
While the service began in 1914, it would be 1916 before Hall County got its first county agent and home demonstration agent. They were Eugene Baker, who served only two years, and Hortense Kimbrough, also two years.
During its century of existence, Hall County has had only 13 county agents and a dozen home demonstration agents.
People in both of those principal Extension Service positions became integral parts of the community, often looked to as leaders not only in their fields but in other aspects of community service. Real old-timers might remember Vernon Chapin, who was county agent during the World War II years. Many Hall Countians remember and revere L.C. Rew, who served from 1944 till 1962 and was a real influence not just among farmers, but across the area population.
Others who followed made important marks on the community and served long term: O.L. (Whitey) Butler, 1963-81; Bob Lowe, 1982-92; Gene Anderson, 1992-2002; and Billy Skaggs, 2002-11. Michael Wheeler is the present county agent.
Likewise, home demonstration agents became fixtures in Hall County for many years. Longtime residents might remember Jean Vivian Coleman, Grace Adams, Sheppie Moorhead and Helen Benton, who served during the 1940s. Women especially, however, would more likely identify with Sue Clark, 1950-52; Sara Allen Van Horn, 1952-71; Helen Bennett, 1971-85. They would meet with Home Demonstration clubs in their homes. Debbie Brown Wilburn, 1985-2011, actually was the last family and consumer science agent, who covered anything related to families and home. State and local funds for that position dried up.
J.W. Stephenson, Hall County agent from 1935-40, wrote a history of the local Extension Service. The mission, he said, was “to extend lifelong learning to the people ... through unbiased, researched-based education in agriculture, the environment, communities, youth and families.” That continues to hold true.
When Hall County was more rural, there was a proliferation of county fairs competition, boys and girls clubs, such as 4-H. Four-H remains a viable activity in several schools around the county.
Michael Wheeler, present county agent, said agents were more hands-on in the 1950s and ’60s, almost acting as surrogate veterinarians, helping vaccinate livestock or pulling calves. Because of administrative duties today, he said, he is confined to the office more than he would like. However, he visits farmers as often as he can, and people frequently come to their office on Crescent Drive with their problems. He might learn as much from them as they learn from him.
One of his most satisfying accomplishments was helping apple growers in Gilmer County better manage pest control.
In the past, Wheeler said, county agents were among the most educated, well-rounded and knowledgeable people in the county. Their opinions were respected. The difference today, Wheeler said, is that there is a wider participation among residents in approaching problems.
While Hall County remains one of the top farming areas in the state, urbanization continues to convert former pastures into subdivisions, shopping centers or factories. However, Wheeler said he believes the poultry industry alone will keep agriculture an important element of the area’s economy. That’s in addition to dairying, cattle, vegetable and fruit farming. Because of escalating land prices, smaller tracts will be used for growing vegetables and fruits to supply the existing five farmers’ markets in the county.
As long as heirs don’t sell off their farm land, Hall County will continue to have ample green space. Wheeler says people don’t appreciate enough the importance of agriculture in providing green space.
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County agents sometimes are thrust into awkward positions. Wheeler said spouses often might disagree on something and call the county agent to settle their argument. “I’ve got to be a peacemaker,” he said.
He also tells the story of a county agent in a neighboring county who was called by a nudist colony to come out to offer advice on some issue. The agent, at first anxious, became kind of excited, looking forward to it, but might have been a bit disappointed when he was met at the gate by a naked 75-year-old man in a golf cart.
Not quite what he had expected.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.