A Farm on a River—Land&People

J. C. Hyde is a 90-year-old mule farmer who remembers as a boy making the twelve-mile, four-hour wagon ride to the town of Marietta to sell farm produce. Today, Atlanta surrounds J. C. Hyde’s farm, and Marietta is but a suburb of the city recently named the most sprawling in history. Atlanta has pushed outward in all directions, churning farmland and forest into subdivisions and shopping malls. So to find a nineteenth-century farm near the busy intersection of suburban roads comes as a shock–a sharp collision of two cultures: the rural agrarian and the urban technical.

Although most of us change to match our evolving society, J. C. Hyde has not. I saw that for myself when I visited him last fall. Cruising past Atlanta’s skyscrapers, exiting the ten-lane expressway, passing $500,000 houses in newly sprouted subdivisions, I finally come to the end of pavement and pause at a weathered and rusting mailbox, then slowly drive up the red clay driveway, letting the quiet beauty of the farm settle like a fog around me.

J. C. comes to the door of his uninsulated pine cabin, built in the 1840s. He is wearing faded Pointer brand overalls, the chain of a pocket watch dangling from them, and a worn flannel shirt. He stands at the top of the board steps, a shorter man than I expected, his sun-weathered face open and full of smile. “Come on in,” he says.

We would never have known J. C.’s story had he not made a certain vow to his father, and had a terrible threat to that promise not arisen. All his life J. C. farmed with his brother, Buck, both bachelors, growing sweet potatoes, okra, corn, and tomatoes. Before their father died, the two brothers promised him always to keep the farm. Then in 1987 Buck died, and suddenly J. C. was faced with inheritance taxes–a burden he might have been able to pay except that the 120 acres bordering the Chattahoochee River were appraised for commercial value. It could not be classified as active farmland, the IRS said, because less than half the acreage was in cultivation. At that time J. C. was farming 15 acres with the help of his good mule, Nell. Because it included one-half mile of riverfront property, the land was now worth millions and the tax bill was $563,000. Surely J. C. would have to sell at least part of the farm to pay the taxes.

That’s when Rand Wentworth of the Trust for Public Land offered J. C. an alternative. “We were competing with developers who wanted to build a luxury subdivision. Fortunately, J. C. loves his land and wanted to see it protected,” says Wentworth, who directs TPL’s Atlanta field office. TPL bought 40 acres of Hyde’s 120-acre farm and transferred them to the National Park Service for inclusion in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. J. C. is allowed to continue farming the land for the rest of his life. When he dies (if he ever does, as he jokes), many hope the entire farm will be preserved for the history it holds.

J. C. is standing under his pine lintel, bright-eyed, holding the door open. I slowly climb the steps, shake his hand and thank him for letting me intrude on his peace. He shuffles back through the kitchen toward the front room. It’s a small house, just a cabin. I notice the clean-swept pine floor, the old pie safe, the wooden table. Many of the furnishings are made of dark, unfinished wood, and the room is dim, lit only by morning sun cast through the squares of wood-framed windows. No chrome, no formica, no linoleum, no fluorescents.

J. C. leads me into the front room, where the wood heater sits. In October it’s still too warm for fires although we are wearing long sleeves. He eases into his favorite armchair and motions for me to sit down too. In demeanor he reminds me instantly of a student I met while teaching in South America. That young man had grown up on a farm so remote that he did not see artificial light until he was 14, when finally he made the daylong trek by foot out of the mountains into town. From the minute you beheld him, you knew he was special and deeply peaceful. J. C. Hyde is like that–a man who did not reject the modern world so much as be rejected by it, who was passed over by the god of technology, who is happy in the world of his childhood. In his presence you slow down, you think more than you speak, and you begin to pay close attention.

“I was raised up in the river hills, rambling around on the river and in the river,” he says, when finally I ask him about his history on the land. J. C. was 11 when his father bought the farm, located in the region where he himself had been raised, and returned home with his family.

“I learned to swim down there in the Chattahoochee. On Sundays we stayed in it.” During those sabbaths, free from the never-ending field work, J. C. and his brothers fished for “blue cat” or channel cat using cane poles baited with “spring lizards” (salamanders). “It was fairly clean then. You could drink the water.”

In 1998 the Chattachoochee was named among the ten most endangered rivers in the country by the environmental group American Rivers. It is what’s called a “working river,” since it passes through a major city and because it is the repository for industrial wastewater, pavement runoff, and overflowing sewage systems. For many, the current level of pollution is unacceptable. In response to local concerns, says Wentworth, “the Trust for Public Land has launched an ambitious plan to protect 180 miles of parkland along the river, working in partnership with an extraordinary coalition of nonprofits and government agencies. So far we have raised over $100 million to save the Chattahoochee.” “In 1950 it was in its worst shape,” recalls J. C. “I don’t know where they come from, but there’d be big old bubbles like soapsuds coming down.”

As a boy J. C. hunted the river bottoms for squirrel and rabbit, using the .22-caliber rifle he saved for and mail-ordered when he was twelve. He is quick to say, however, that hunting was not a sport for him. “I never did kill but what I killed it for us to eat.”

J. C.’s family supported themselves by keeping milk cows and growing a patch of sugar cane, which they carried to a neighbor to boil down into syrup. Until boll weevils hit, cotton was the family’s cash crop. They grew corn, which they ground into meal and grits. “I bet there ain’t a corn mill within fifty mile of here,” J. C. says.

It was the farming that most closely connected J. C. to the land, and through it he developed his profound land ethic. Until three years ago J. C. worked his fields with Nell. “Tractors ruin the farming land,” he says. “We’ve got this red clay under the soil. Tractors pack that. When you know you have to make your living from a piece of land, you try to build it up. If you let it wash out every year, you get to making less.” It is the maltreatment of land that most grieves J. C. “People don’t study one thing about what’s going to happen to the land,” he says. “All they can study is what they can get out of it right then.”

J. C.’s favorite fields to tend were those in the river bottom. “I liked working down by the river,” he says. “It made more.” Then he smiles. “Many times, after plowing all day I quit and jumped in.”

Later, J. C. dons his straw hat and guides me around the farm, first down to the scuppernong vines where the grapes are ripe. He fumbles through the heart-shaped leaves, filling my hands with fruit. He shows me the open-ended shed where the old Farmall tractor is parked, where the walls are hung with dusty iron tools, chains, and lanterns; then the small pasture where Nell is grazing out of sight. Plantain is lush underfoot in the farmyard, and a few chickens roam about. We check their nests for eggs. In the barn there’s a wagon as old as J. C. and a passel of mule-farming implements: hay rakes, mowing machines, guano distributors, traces, hickory-handled plows.

“It’ll never be like it used to be,” acknowledges J. C. “There’s too many people in the world now for it to change back like it once was.”

J. C. moves slowly, shuffling, as we walk past the house, pausing at the hand-laid chimney to feel the stones and the clay mortar between them, then going to stand near the water well and look out over the front field, sparse with stalks of okra, now harvested. Out of the corner of his eye J. C. sees an animal in the distance dash for the woods.

“It was white,” he says, “bigger than a dog.” Maybe he glimpsed the flag of a deer; all I see is a red-tailed hawk floating over the far field. “I think it’s the happiest life they is, on a farm,” he says.

J. C. wants to walk down to the river with me. “I used to sit on River Hill and listen to that river roar,” he says. But it’s a quarter-mile away, and he’s afraid he won’t be able to climb up out of the bottoms. He had a heart attack three years ago and has to take things easier, although he still cuts a little grass and hauls in wood for the heater.

“I worked hard all my life and enjoyed all of it,” he says. “Right now I have the hardest job I’ve ever had and that’s doing nothing.” I am thinking of the hawk, high in the air. Out of one eye the hawk sees Atlanta, so close, and out of the other, the pastures and winter-fallow fields of J. C. Hyde, looking the way they’ve looked for a century, peaceful and full of life–the way they will forever remain.

A Big Boost for the “Hooch”
In November 1999 the dream of a 180-mile greenway along the Chattahoochee River came a step closer to reality as Congress authorized enlargement of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, established in 1978. This legislation will allow the National Park Service to purchase land from willing sellers and connect existing units of the recreation area along a 48-mile stretch of the river through metropolitan Atlanta. The new boundary increases the authorized land base of the recreation area from 6,800 acres to 10,000 acres by authorizing the park service to acquire undeveloped land within 2,000 feet of the river’s banks.

Key support for the legislation came from Senators Paul Cloverdell and Max Cleland and from Representatives Nathan Deal and Johnny Isakson.

TPL–which is leading a coalition of business, government, and environmental groups to create the Chattahoochee River Greenway–has optioned key properties within the new boundary, and Congress has appropriated $25 million for land acquisition.

In signing the legislation into law, President Clinton pointed to its strong bipartisan support from “Georgia’s congressional representatives, Georgia state and local government officials, the National Park Service, and private organizations, including the Trust for Public Land, which has played a key role in bringing together the various interests involved and developing a vision for the future of this critical area.”

Land & People, Spring, 2000

Writer and environmental activist Janisse Ray lives on a family farm in the coastal plains of southern Georgia. Her nonfiction manuscript about growing up on a junkyard in the ruined longleaf pine ecosystem of the Southeast, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, was released by Milkweed Editions in October 1999.