Century Farms: A Slice Of History, Threatened

Jay and Ann Birdwell with their two granddaughters.

Jay and Ann Birdwell of Still Hollow Farm in Greeneville, Tenn., with their two granddaughters. The Birdwells hope the girls will eventually take over the farm. Noah Adams /NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Noah Adams /NPR

Along the back roads of states like Kansas, Iowa, Utah, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, signs pop up that say "Century Farm." The signs are proudly posted on land that has been owned and farmed by the same family for more than 100 years.

It's a way to pay tribute to the people who came to the land early. Their descendants can be determined to stay, despite a tough farm economy and the incessant push of development.

In East Tennessee, it's not hard to find those who inherited land. The owners face differing prospects — and are making key decisions for the next century.

Masengill Farm

From a hilltop in Piney Flats in Sullivan County, Tenn., if you squint a certain way, you won't see the highway and all the new houses spread over the valley. It's only grazing land. The hilltop is on the oldest documented family farm in Tennessee — from before Tennessee was a state, before the country was a country. The land was bought with shillings.

"It has been in my family by right of inheritance since it was first begun as a farm," says Sally Masengill-Bell. The Masengill name goes with this land back to 1775. Masengill-Bell grew up in Johnson City. By that time, her father had become a gentleman farmer. His wife wanted the sidewalks and town lights. He owned a women's clothing store. But he still enjoyed running things out in the country.

"With his business being so high-pressure downtown, he would put his hat on the back of his head and say, 'I'm going to the farm,' which was like saying, 'I'm going out for a vacation,'" Masengill-Bell says.

'I Just Wish I Didn't Have To Farm So Much'

Steve King can also look back to his forebears in the late 1700s.

"It's kinda hard to think back 200 years and figure out exactly what kind of people they were," he says. "They had to be tough; they had to be fighters. Sickness and death and hardship and cold winters — they encountered a lot of things that we'd just belly up and quit."

King raises cattle in Sullivan County. His could also be a Century Farm, but as yet it's undocumented. In fact, it would be a Pioneer Farm — like the Masengill place. In Tennessee, that means it's been in the same family for more than 200 years.

King has been spending time, especially when it's too cold for fencing work, in libraries and the courthouse.

"I just wish I didn't have to farm so much so I can do more research," he says with a laugh. "I don't know whether it's good or bad, but I'm enjoying it."

Organic Farming

Wendy Niebruegge has also been assembling a file. Her farm, dating to 1909, may soon qualify for century status.

"My husband and I, when we moved back to Tennessee, we purchased a house that is in the subdivision bordering the farm so our backyard backs up to one of the pastures," she says. "We put a gate in the fence and bought a golf cart and so now we are on the farm."

Niebruegge has a freezer on the back of her pickup. She's selling all-natural beef. Those who are tracking Tennessee's farm economy say this is the future: think green and add value.

"Part of our pastures are organic, and those are the pastures that the chickens are free-ranging on," she says. "They are out all day scratching through the pasture through the manure behind the cattle and in the creeks. We're selling cattle that are born and raised on our farm."

A Heartbreak

Near Johnson City, inside the city limits by way of annexation, is Lone Pine Farm. This is where Sarah Walters grew up. She's watched the subdivisions creeping out all around her. Forty years ago, she saw Interstate 26 come across the hills to take away part of her family's land, right next to the driveway.

"That was the biggest heartbreak," she says. "To me, it was like they were trampling on my ancestors."

And the city came even closer. With her mother's approval, Walters sold pastureland for a shopping center that now has chain restaurants and retailers like Cheddar's, Chili's, Barnes & Noble and Sam's Club. She and her husband, Don, put aside some of that money for her grandchildren's education — and managed to buy back 10 acres her family had let go earlier.

"We go to Cheddar's, and I always say I never fail to walk over and look at the creek cause we chopped thistles in that meadow," she says. "And I'd let those grandkids follow me around while I chopped thistles or sprayed 'em — and Don and I mowed that meadow and kept the fences up. But it's today. It's not yesterday."

Agri-Tourism And The Next Generation

An hour's drive to the west and a bit south lies Still Hollow Farm, home of Ann and Jay Birdwell. It's a Century Farm that is now involved in agri-tourism, which means a farm becomes an attraction, a destination. Visitors spend money.

"We was in the Grade A dairy business just about all my life and I quit milking in '01 and was gonna raise tobacco on a few years and then the tobacco market kindly went to dwindling away, which leaves us with a whole lot of nothing," Jay Birdwell says. "And this was her dream of doing something like this and it's worked right well."

"I saw an article on agri-tourism and that's what spurred it on, but you have to realize my background is costuming and redoing," Ann says. "So I just said this is it; this is what we're going to do."

Jay and Ann Birdwell own this 1860 granary on Still Hollow Farm in East Tennessee.

Jay and Ann Birdwell own this 1860 granary on Still Hollow Farm in East Tennessee. Noah Adams /NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Noah Adams /NPR

Ann Birdwell left her college theater department job and started dressing up her farm for weddings, reunions, and kids at $6 each, who come by the busload. The old granary, which dates to 1860, is now an antique store and a gift shop.

The Birdwells delight in taking care of their two granddaughters, ages 3 and 1. One of their sons lives on the farm, another lives in Florida, and Jay Birdwell Jr. is visiting from New York where 10 years ago he went to work as an actor. Now he's earning a master's degree in elementary education.

"New York is home right now," Jay Birdwell Jr. says. "My partner and I live in New York. His family's in Long Island. We're all very close, our families are close — we spend holidays down here a lot. We do as much as we can from the city. I try to come down every two or three, four months. It's hard being far away."

If you ask questions about the past 100 years of a farm, you also must wonder about the next century. What happens when Jay and Ann Birdwell are gone? Their son Jay has talked this over with his brothers.

"Can't sell it," he says. "I'm sort of like, 'Mom, I'd rather cut off a left arm before I'd sell an ounce of dirt.' I guess if push comes to shove, if there was a medical emergency — we've talked about it — if there were some serious problems in the family, of course, because we've always said this is Mom and Dad's retirement — if it gets to the point where me and my brothers can't take care of them, then yeah, we'd have to make hard decisions. But it would be a hard decision."

Ann says, "We told our boys, 'You don't inherit something when someone dies as much as you're born to it when you're born.' They inherited this land the minute they were born. They grow that inheritance. But they will have a treasure. Hopefully."

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