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Family farm full of local history
Jefferson homestead goes back nearly 8 generations
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Old tools hang along the outside wall of the Commissary building, built in 1900. Many of the 65 buildings on the farmstead date back to the early 1900s. - photo by KATIE DUNN

BRASELTON — The discovery of a weathered, wooden box stowed away for an untold number of years yielded Susan Chaisson an intimate journey into her father’s family history.

Chaisson and her mother, the late Joyce Ethridge, discovered the box in the attic of the house Chaisson’s great-grandfather, Joseph Robert Shields, built in 1866 following his return from fighting in the
Civil War.

The two-story, white-columned home rests in the midst of the Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm in Jefferson. Once a bustling agricultural center, the farm is now an outdoor historical museum.

The farm itself is a remarkable monument to Georgia’s agricultural past, but it was with the box’s discovery that Chaisson said "the history of the Shields-Ethridge family began to come alive."

Within the box, bound tightly together with a cord, family documents that date back more than 200 years were found atop other aged trinkets, including a pill box that still rattles with pills inside, a knife, mirror, tattered wallet and toothbrush.

"As each piece of paper was carefully unfolded, it opened up a picture of the good, honest, hard-working people, loyal to their families, their church and their country," Chaisson said.

On Feb. 10, Chaisson spoke briefly of her family’s history during the Friends of the Braselton-West Jackson Library’s monthly Lunch and Learn series.

Joan Smith was among the 60 guests who gathered for the luncheon, and she said learning some of Jackson County’s history was intriguing.

"Not being from this area, it was extremely interesting, it really, really was," she said. "To have something for eight generations, that is unbelievable."

Smith recently moved to the Village at Deaton Creek in Hoschton from Peachtree City.

Farm history

Though she spoke for less than an hour, Chaisson laughed, saying she could talk for hours about the farm’s history.

And she likely could. The Shields family arrived in Georgia in 1792 when Joseph Shields and his family traveled from Virginia and settled along the banks of the Middle Oconee River. In 1799, the family moved to where the Shields-Ethridge farm is now located. Chaisson’s family is the eighth generation to reside on the property.

More than 200 years after her ancestors tilled the soil for the first time, Chaisson continues to maintain a working farm.

Though the fields once brimmed with corn, wheat, cotton, tobacco and indigo, Chaisson and her husband, Darrell Chaisson Sr., now raise chickens.

The couple lives in her great-grandfather’s house, one of 65 structures scattered across 150 of the farm’s 500 acres.

Chaisson was born in 1946 and grew up on the farm, but later moved away and lived in Savannah until 1985. She and her husband then decided to return to Jackson County with their three children, Darrell Jr., 15, and twins Betsy and Bobby, 12.

Until this time, Chaisson said her mother had maintained the farm alone. Chaisson’s father, Ira Lanis Ethridge, died in 1970.

The box Chaisson brought with her to last week’s luncheon was found when the family began some home repairs in 1985.

Even though they were stored in the attic — a seemingly inhospitable place for aging documents — the papers were still legible and dated as far back as 1774.

A purchase account for Joseph Shields, dated Sept. 1774 to May 1775, was among the documents uncovered. It reveals a glimpse into a pre-revolutionary America when the country was still under British rule. For his purchases, Shields owed five pounds, 12 shillings and threepence.

Another document, a bill of sale, showed Shields purchased two slaves for $562.50 in 1799.

The documents even helped one woman reconcile a missing link in her family history. Sometime after the box’s discovery, Chaisson said she was contacted by Beverly Gray who lived in Washington, D.C. Gray was researching her family history and was trying to find information on her great-grandmother, Dicey Gray. She told Chaisson she was looking into the Shields family for a possible connection.

Chaisson said without the box, the link between her family and Gray’s may never have been found. A contract, dated August 1865, was found among the papers. The document noted that three former slaves, including a Dicey Gray, entered into an agreement with Charity Shields, wife of James Shields, who was the son of Joseph Shields. In the agreement, the three former slaves agreed to help Charity Shields maintain the farm for food and a place to live.

"We were able to put her on my farm and give her this information," said Chaisson of helping Beverly Gray. "It just made me at that point realize what we had."

With Chaisson’s return to Jackson County, she and her mother worked to restore the farm so others too could enjoy its rich history.

Preserving the legacy

Through her mother’s efforts, the house and 65 structures were placed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Two years later, the Shields-Ethridge Farm Heritage Foundation, Inc. was established to help maintain the farmstead. Chaisson currently serves as the foundation’s president.

When her mother died in 2004, Chaisson said she felt it was her duty to ensure the farmstead’s legacy remained within the family.

"It’s just all of this has been saved and you feel like when you’re in this family, it’s somebody’s job to continue that," she said. "And being there on the farm with momma ... I feel like I’m taking her place now and doing what she did."

A blacksmith shop, grist mill, mule barn, wheat house, cotton gin, teacher’s house, seed house, milking barn and schoolhouse are among the buildings dotting the landscape, most of which date back to 1909 and 1910.

Currently, Chaisson said the farm is open to tour groups by appointment, but a recent grant the farm received may make it even more accessible to the public.

The farm was awarded a $25,000 matching grant by the Appalachian Regional Commission in October, which will go toward placing informational boards throughout the grounds so people can take self-guided tours. The grant will also help develop a Web site to show where each board is located on the farm.

"I’m excited about doing that because it’ll open it up better to the public," Chaisson said.