Ashley Smith Fletcher and her mom, Micki Smith, quickly discovered that proving the family’s 1,000-acre farm in Bristol deserves a “Centennial Family Farm” design by the State of Georgia is about as cotton-pickin’ hard as the farming itself.
To Ashley, however, all the work was well worth it to be able to surprise her father, Jerry Smith, with the special recognition on his 67th birthday in November of 2020.
“He’s always loved history – especially his family’s history – and was always real interested in his ancestry, so I thought it’d be something unique to give him as a gift, I guess,” Ashley, now of Tifton, explained. “He’s very hard to buy gifts for.”
Ashley, the couple’s only offspring and the end of their direct family line, said her father had seen something about the Centennial Farm Program on public television earlier in 2020 and that’s what lit the fire under her to pursue it for him. But she had no idea what she was actually getting herself into at the time when she started working on the application that May.
Ancestry records, deed documents, photographs, crop yields and land transfers from both the Pierce County and Appling County courthouses were necessary to include in the paperwork.
And all that was made even more challenging by courthouse fires and the loss of Jerry’s parents’ home to a fire in 1984.
“We lost a lot of photographs of the farm when his parents’ house burned down,” Micki, 59, said recently at the home on the corner of Harry Road and TJ Smith Road she’s shared with Jerry since their wedding in 1980. even found court records that had sea marks on them from a fire. She was probably lucky to get what she did.”
All their diligence finally paid off when Jerry and Micki were, indeed, awarded an official certificate and two large yellow and black metal signs proclaiming they were a Georgia Centennial Farm as of Oct. 2, 2020.
“I was well pleased,” Jerry, now 68, said of the award.
He can now add that to his collection of about 160 tiny toy tractors displayed on large book shelves and in a protective china cabinet.
Due to COVID-19, the award ceremony in Perry, on Oct. 13, 2021, combined the 2020 and the 2021 winners as part of a program in existence since 1993 to “distinguish family farms that have contributed to preserving Georgia’s agricultural history by maintaining working farms for more than 100 years.”
The program has recognized 530 farms around the state so far. It is administered by the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources in partnership with several agricultural and forestry entities.
Through Ashley and Micki’s six months of research, they were surprised to discover that Jerry’s great-grandfather, Seaborn Smith, had been imprisoned in Valdosta by the Union Army during the Civil War before the war’s end in 1865.
It wasn’t until Feb. 8, 1867, that he purchased the original 250 acres of the Smith farm for growing cotton from a Lawrence P. Steedley, Jerry said.
“It’s been in the family ever since,” Jerry said, adding the farm is actually 155 years old now.
When Seaborn died 10 years later at age 42, instead of the farm going directly to his wife Martha, it had to be administered by Martha’s brother, Jacob Carter, since the women couldn’t legally own the land at that time.
It was then passed down to Jerry’s great-uncle, Alfred Smith, and eventually landed in the lap of his grandfather, Thomas Howard Smith, when he came of age and then on down to Jerry’s parents, TJ and Nora Smith, and grew to the 1,000 acres it is today.
TJ Smith also was Pierce County Commission chairman in the late 1970s/early 1980s.
Jerry vividly remembered driving his father’s 1957 model 640 Ford tractor when he was only 4 or 5. He also had the specific chore at that age of helping gather up the fallen tobacco leaves.
“I wasn’t big enough to ride and pick, so I tied my little Western Flyer wagon up there with a rope and then I’d pick up the scattered leaves that fell out and put them in my wagon,” the second son of TJ and Nora Smith recalled fondly. “I started pickin and carrying rows when I was about 9.”
Jerry also had two sisters. Although all four children were raised on the farm, when they reached adulthood, Jerry’s oldest brother, Gene “Peanut” Smith, ended up working in the insurance industry, the oldest girl, Sue, ended up marrying her love James and moving to another farm in Bacon County, and Jerry’s baby sister, Jan Murphy, lives in Douglas with her husband.
Sue passed away in 2007 after surviving a stroke and bypass surgeries 19 years earlier.
It was up to Jerry to carry on the Smith Farm legacy.
“He wanted to go to college and do something else, but nobody else could take the farm,” Micki explained.
Jerry said he would have loved to have been a high school history teacher.
Micki was only 17 when she married Jerry, who was almost nine years her senior at age 26. They’d met at the Tastee-Freez in Alma, a popular hang-out back then.
Micki’s mom, Mary Brooks, didn’t think the couple had a chance because of their age difference.
“She said it wouldn’t work,” Micki said. “I guess we showed her!”
Micki and Jerry are still mourning the unexpected death of her mother to COVID-19 in early 2021 – just before the vaccines became available.
“I thought she’d outlive me,” Micki said. “She was so healthy. It was such a shock.”
The Smith farm has seen a lot of changes over the years.
When it was only mules hauling the plows and the rest was done by hand, Jerry’s dad could only get four or five acres planted in a day.
“With those big tractors now, I can cut five acres in 10 minutes or about 13 acres an hour, so 110 to 130 acres in a day,” Jerry said. “If we do a six-row planter, we can plant 60 to 70 acres of cotton a day.”
Jerry figures he has close to $1 million worth of farming equipment now, which is mostly John Deere brand. The monstrous cotton picker alone is probably worth about half a million, he and Micki agreed.
Although they’ve experienced tough years with hail storms and winds destroying crops and barns alike, this past year was one of their more recent best, Jerry said. They brought in about 600 rolls of cotton from 800 acres and 2.5 tons of peanuts from 200 acres.
Their main helper, Jerry’s nephew, Brad Murphy, has been a godsend to them both.
“I don’t know what we’d do without Brad,” Micki said.
Ashley said she felt bad that because she didn’t have any children, there aren’t any offspring from the Smith line to hand down the farm to. But she’s hoping Brad or his daughter will be willing to take it over when the time comes for Jerry to hang up his dusty Georgia boots.
Micki said they try not to worry about all that.
“We will be gone and it won’t matter,” said Micki, whose grandfather, William Brooks, started the Brooks Auto Parts business in Douglas many years ago. “It’s not really ours, anyway. The Lord has provided and it’s ours for only a little while and then it will move on to somebody else.”