Bryant W. Corbett (1857-1917) built this hall-and-parlor farmhouse circa 1878-1879 and it served as the anchor for his growing family, which with his wife Rebecca Ann Carter Corbett (1855-1940) eventually included three children. In its early days the farm was focused primarily on corn, with a planting of peanuts done prior and left as feed for the hogs that did the work of rooting the fields. The description of Mr. Corbett’s farm in its nomination to the National Register of Historic Places could describe many such farms in Georgia in the late 19th century, as farmers of that time were really renaissance men when it came to the ways of the land. Their work was done with mules, incorporated available natural amendments to the soil, and was sustainable. These men did it because they had to, and the land often rewarded them for it. Mr. Corbett sold some of his corn for income, had some of it milled, and used the remainder as feed for his livestock. The livestock was used for milk and food. There were also mulberries and plums on the property which not only gave the family fruit for jams and jellies but attracted the bees which pollinated the farm. Pecans, walnuts, and grapes were also present on the farm.
Several historic outbuildings survive on the property, including this reconstructed well house. The wash shelter which stood behind it appears to have been lost in recent years.
As farms evolved over the years, owners usually built a utilitarian shed/barn specifically for the purpose of protecting their automobiles. We had a couple of car barns on our farm and I remember them well. They varied in style from simple shelters to sided barns with shelves and pigeonholes for storing tools. Other buildings noted in the National Register form included a chicken house and tobacco barn, which appear to have been lost over time.
It is not a stretch to say that Georgia was built on farms like this, often with the labor of immediate and extended family and hired men, and sometimes with sharecroppers. The hardships that these tenacious small farmers faced, along with their self-sufficiency and economy, often allowed them to save money and acquire more land and influence. Many families abandoned farming altogether between the arrival of the boll weevil (circa 1920) and the advent of the Great Depression (circa 1930) but those who prospered stayed and became leaders in their churches and communities. The Corbett family has done just that and has been the only family associated with this property since its purchase. Numerous family members have been good stewards of this property for nearly a century and a half. In understanding its importance and preserving it for future generations, they really are helping to tell the real story of Georgia, especially as it relates to agriculture and the rural experience.
This farmhouse was a landmark in my travels between Milledgeville and Macon nearly 30 years ago and I’m glad to see it still standing. It’s a great eclectic form, with a Georgian Cottage floor plan and a dormer on the front.
This property was originally settled by Joseph Shields and sons James and Patrick in 1802. With two slaves, they cleared and cultivated the land. The farm began producing “upland” cotton in 1810. When Joseph died in 1818, he willed the land to his son, James and by 1860, 20 enslaved people worked the land. James died in 1863 and in 1865 his widow, Charity, signed a contract with three of her former slaves, providing them housing and food in exchange for their work on the farm. When James and Charity’s son, Joseph Robert Shields, returned home from the Civil War in 1866, he built the main house and soon applied the sharecropping system to the entire farm, managing many of his former slaves alongside poor white farmers.
By 1890, the farm had grown to 1000 acres. In 1897, Joseph Robert’s daughter Susan Ella returned to the farm with her husband Ira Washington Eldridge. Joseph Robert Shields died in 1910 and Susan Ella and Ira inherited the house and surrounding property. To hedge his bets against increasingly unstable cotton prices, Ira Eldridge built a self-sustaining sharecropper’s “village” near the main house. In 1914, “Mr. Ira” transformed the main house from its historical Plantation Plain appearance to it present Neoclassical appearance by adding columns and raising the porch. The structures seen today were built between 1900-1930. Most of the sharecropper housing is gone today, but a few scattered examples survive.
When Ira died in 1945, his son Lanis understood that the farm would soon be changed by mechanization. He diversified and in the early 1950s began breeding cattle and slowly expanding pastureland on his acreage. At his death in 1970, the sharecropper’s village was long abandoned. His widow, Joyce Ethridge, began documenting the history of the farm and in 1994 she and daughters Susan E. Chaisson and Ann E. Lacey gave 150 acres of the farm to the Shields-Etheridge Farm Foundation to preserve the site as an agricultural museum. Joyce’s research also led to the listing of the property on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Shields-Etheridge Heritage Farm is the most intact collection of historic farm structures in their original location in Georgia, and is an amazing place to visit.
Situated on some of the most idyllic land in Oglethorpe County, the historic property known as Smithonia was for a time perhaps the largest single farm in Georgia, eventually encompassing nearly thirty square miles. It was a self-contained enterprise, with its own railroad, commissary, and enough tenants to necessitate a post office, which operated from 1889-1907.
This may have been the post office. I will update when I can confirm.
James Monroe Smith (Jim) was born in 1839 near Washington, Georgia. The lifelong bachelor built an agricultural empire on the gently rolling hills around this exceptionally large house (built circa 1866), and by the turn of the century was a millionaire. The three large brick barns (the first a stable) were built circa 1888 at the height of the farm’s productivity. They remain its most significant architectural legacy.
The primary means by which Smith amassed his fortune was the use of laborers he “rented”from the state’s prison camps, and nearly all of them were African-American. Many had been Smith’s slaves on whom the irony of being back in his “employee” was surely not lost.
Smith’s wealth and desire for influence led him to politics and he served terms in both the Georgia house and senate. He made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1906.
He died on the farm in 1915 and due to his bachelor status, his estate was unsettled for many years. Numerous claims were made for his land and considerable fortune.
Numerous owners have owned parts of the property over the years, including country music legend Kenny Rogers. The most recent owners, Pam and Dink NeSmith have made improvements to various aspects of the sprawling landmark and have recently listed it for sale.