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History at your fingertips
High-tech tour preserves, documents 200-year-old Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm
Some of the original buildings at the Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

In the early 1900s, when Ira Ethridge went to work on his family's farm, the tools of his trade were basic.

If it was harvest time, he probably made sure he didn't leave his house without a well-worn ledger to record who brought what to the bustling cotton gin for processing or to the grist mill for grinding.

Or if his business dealings for the day related to the on-site commissary frequented by farm tenants and neighbors, then he more than likely double checked his pockets to make sure that he had the keys to the store and maybe even a list of wares that would arrive later that day.

Just as her grandfather did then, Susan Chaisson makes sure she has just the right items in hand before heading to the family farm.

These days, more than 200 years after the farm was founded in 1799, Chaisson's tools of trade include her newly acquired iPhone.

Yes, in the midst of a centuries-old farm, Chaisson has an iPhone — and with good reason.

Although the grindstones have long since stopped transforming shelled corn to grits on a regular basis, and the property's garage that once held Ira Ethridge's prized vehicles now stands empty, Chaisson's phone allows her to step back in time and be a part of the action.

With just a few manipulations of her fingers, Chaisson can pull up a map of the farm's 18 historic structures, circle the one she's interested in learning about and a narrator's voice transports her back in time - with the help of a few well-placed sound effects.

"It's just over the top," Chaisson said. "I'm so tickled."

The Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm iPhone tour was made possible through a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission. The grant also helped the farm's foundation create interpretative signs, a printed brochure and an enhanced website that allows visitors to direct themselves on a self-guided tour.

"To think about how far the foundation has come - to look at everything that has fallen into place ... it's just fabulous. The grant has enabled us to open things even wider to the public," Chaisson said.

"Instead of having to make an appointment for a tour guide to lead you, you can just pick up a brochure and discover the place at your own leisure. We still do guided tours, but this lets even more people enjoy it."

During the tours, participants get to learn about the rich history of each of the structures, information that may not be readily apparent by looking at them. For instance, the farm's old schoolhouse, known as Bachelor's Academy, was constructed in 1909 for $361. White children attended the school until 1938; after that, the area's black children were educated there.

On display at the schoolhouse are photographs of the former students, a scrapbook made by one of the teachers from yesteryear and even a report card belonging to Lanis Ethridge, Chaisson's father.

The grant also gave the farm's foundation the opportunity and team to properly record, preserve and archive family artifacts that date back to the 1700s.

"It's unbelievable that (family members) kept every little piece of paper," Chaisson said.

The archives include everything from old photographs, to movies and even the tin stencil used to make the original signs for the buildings that date back to the early 1900s. That stencil has since been duplicated and used as a form to make new signs for the buildings.

To get a closer look at her family's history, Chaisson has to do little more than walk out of her front door and cross the street. She realizes that not everyone is as fortunate, which creates the basis for her next project.

"It would be nice to pull out all of the names from the commissary ledgers and the cotton gin records to help other people be able to locate their ancestors," Chaisson said.

"We're so lucky to be so rich in family documentation. It would be nice to share all of that with other people, to help them discover their own family history."