Farms in the family
Alabama pays tribute to its Bicentennial farms
By Jim Plott
Before Alabama became a state in 1819 and the outbreak of the “Alabama fever” that would follow, many families had already moved west to what was then the Mississippi Territory.
Obtaining land patents, three families migrated from Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia to establish new farms in the sparsely settled regions.
More than 200 years later, three descendant families continue to utilize those same soils tilled by their early arriving ancestors and every generation since.
As a result, those families were acknowledged through the state’s Bicentennial Farm Program.
Headed by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, the program recognizes Alabamians who are still active in some form of agriculture on at least 40 acres of land and can document their ancestry 200 years or more back to the same land.
“With the state’s 200th birthday coming in December of 2019 and all of the celebration preparations being made for Alabama’s Bicentennial, it seemed like the perfect idea,” says Amy Belcher, state Agriculture communications director.
Establishing a legacy
More than likely the Harrison, Wallace and Cates families took the Federal Road to settle into what is now Butler County. They all settled within a few miles of the rough, narrow trail that extended from Fort Mitchell on the Georgia line to Fort Stoddert in Mobile County.
In the western part of the state, two other families claimed land in what is now Greene County.
Col. John McKee, Indian agent of the Cherokees, Choctaws and Chickasaws and later U.S. Congressman, settled near present-day Boligee and built a house, “Hill of Howth.” In later years, William Proctor Gould, whom McKee regarded almost as an adoptive son, brought his family to live in the house with McKee. Gould inherited the property at McKee’s death.
Just a short distance away during that same era, Thomas Reeves and his family moved to the area from Virginia and began the process of clearing land on 150 acres.
The Harrisons, Wallaces and Cates, who settled just north of present-day Greenville, married into each other’s families. Like many farm families of the times, they likely came to frontier Alabama out of necessity, Ann Cates Boutwell said of her ancestors.
“They would pick up and leave the farms they had, and think nothing of it,” says Boutwell. “They had basically worn out the land they were farming. They didn’t understand at that time the need to replenish the soil to grow crops.”
Col. Eric Cates Sr., who died this year at 99, was the last one to grow crops and raise cattle on what has become known as Persimmon Ridge Farm. He also had a distinguished military career serving in both World War II and the Korean Conflict and later with Alabama National Guard. In addition, he served in the state Legislature.
“Every generation of my family farmed,” Boutwell says. “My father started farming when he was 14 years old and basically farmed all his life, and our family grew up in a farming environment. When he got older he converted all the farmland and pastures to timber and divided the land up among his children.”
Boutwell might have left the farm, but she didn’t exactly leave farming. Her husband, John Boutwell, also a Butler County native, took a job with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. That job progressed to one with McQueen Smith Farms in Prattville, where the Boutwells live. John Boutwell also spent several years row-crop farming on leased property in Autauga County.
While Don Wood, 58, a descendant of Thomas Reeves, lives and works as a certified public accountant in nearby Tuscaloosa, he and his 11-year-old daughter, Mary Hardy Wood, still manage to maintain what is now a 1,455-acre farm, Wilkes Creek Plantation. He raises cattle and his farm is used to grow soybeans, cotton and timber.
During the non-growing season, he manages a successful commercial hunting operation that has attracted country musicians like Blake Shelton and the late Troy Gentry and numerous Alabama and Auburn sports legends.
“I always knew I would be involved in some activity at Wilkes Creek Plantation because it has been a big part of my life,” Wood says. “The love of the land and being able to spend time outdoors has kept me in farming. It keeps me in touch with my family heritage.”
Wood admits that even he is astonished that the farm, with its ebbs and flows, has made it through six generations in the same family. He hopes it will continue.
“It is humbling to know that my family has held onto the land for longer than Alabama has been a state,” Wood says. “I have included Mary Hardy in my farming operation since she was a baby. I am hoping to pass it on to her.”
Wood’s ancestor, Methodist minister William Stith Hardy, built the current house – said to be haunted – in late 1886. The property also contains a church built in 1830 where William Stith Hardy later pastored. A large barn, constructed in the early 1900s to replace an earlier barn built in 1880, remains in use.
Thet Spree, 70, grew up in the Hill of the Howth homestead and was living there when the land was divided up among heirs and the house, originally a log structure, was dismantled and used for construction of another house in the county seat, Eutaw.
Howth is an Irish term for health and was called that after the Choctaws showed the site to McKee.
“It never floods, and the water runs all year,” says Spree, who now owns the property and an additional 5,000 acres where he cattle farms, raises catfish and grows timber.
While Eric Cates III, 62, has spent much of his adult life away from the farm, lessons learned growing up in an agricultural environment still have an impact.
“I think the passage of time and departing a familiar place like the farm helps you better reflect on the value of those experiences,” Cates says. “I certainly gained an appreciation for what all farmers and their families learned. Our dad was always so proud of our farming heritage and instilled that in each of us, which is why ‘The Farm’ remains a focal point for our families and a place where we continue to gather frequently.”
The farming heritage will continue in some manner at Persimmon Ridge. The Boutwells’ son, Andrew, is employed with an Atlanta-based forestry consultant firm and also manages all of the timberlands grown at Persimmon Ridge Farms.
Wood says farming has always been a business of highs and lows, but he is confident that because of recent trends in consumer demands, agricultural opportunities will abound on Wilkes Plantation for Mary Hardy and for smaller farms in general.
“I would encourage anyone interested in agriculture to pursue their dreams,” Wood says. “People worldwide have become more and more conscious of what they are putting in their bodies. I think it’s only going to get better for the agriculture industry. Find your niche and go for it.”
The Bicentennial Farm Awards program is ongoing, and landowners who meet the following qualifications may apply as future recipients.
- Farm must have been in the same family for at least 200 years.
- Farm must be at least 40 acres of land owned by the applicant or nominee.
- Farm must currently have some agricultural activities.
- Applicant must reside in Alabama.
- Owner must complete an Ownership Registration Form supplied by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries.
Landowners should contact Amy Belcher at 334-240-7126 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org to receive an application.
A copy of the application is also available on the department’s website agi.alabama.gov under the “Forms” tab at “Century & Heritage Farm.”