Augusta farm stands test of time

Susan McCord
The Augusta Chronicle
Charles Thompson photographed at his east Augusta, Ga., farm Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019.

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) - Mud, sweat and gears.

The words, printed on a recent birthday T-shirt, show the effort by Charles Thompson, his brother Harold and their ancestors to sustain their Augusta farm for more than 100 years.

Augusta's largest commodity farm and oldest African American-owned business, which was honored on Oct. 4 as a Georgia Centennial Family Farm, did not survive by happenstance.

Now more than 2,200 acres of choice river-bottom land five miles from downtown Augusta, the farm endured mud — from both its floodplain location and in mudslinging by others to take it, Thompson said.

His father's trusted attorney nearly caused the family to lose much of the farm in the 1960s, he said. After his father suffered a stroke, the prominent Augusta attorney advised him to sell much of the land — to the attorney and a group of investors.

Digging into the records, the younger Thompson realized his father's will needed changes to ensure the farm stayed with the family. Few local lawyers would take the case, but eventually Thompson said he found one.

"He got in there, he got things straightened out and got his will corrected so we wouldn't be in a bind," Thompson said. "If we hadn't dug into this and been really on top of it, we could have lost it."

Keeping a farm in successful, continuous operation meant keeping a close eye on many moisture-related factors — temperature, drought — to avoid worm and insect invasions or simply too much rain, he said.

The farm has never relied on any other source of water besides precipitation, Thompson said.

"Down in the river bottom so far, we've been able to get by with so-called dry land farming," he said.

The amount of human sweat has gone down with the third word, gears, he said.

"From one-row equipment to eight- to 12-row equipment — and equipment that drives itself now," he said. "From controlling weeds and grasses with steel to controlling them with chemicals."

Augusta historian Joyce Law said she and County Extension Agent Campbell Vaughn compiled much of the information to apply for the centennial honor from Thompson family, legal and city records.

The 100-year designation dates to the 1918 purchase by the Thompson brothers' grandmother — John Ann Crosby Thompson — of 660 river-bottom acres and the farm's uninterrupted operation since, Law said.

Vaughn said the grandmother's land purchase most impressed him.

"It's an amazing thing — this African American lady didn't even have the right to vote but bought hundreds and hundreds of acres of land and managed a huge operation."

Thompson said it was definitely his grandmother, not his grandfather, who ran the farm.

"When folks see that, how amazing that was, but she had a head for business," he said. "From my understanding, she ran things and he helped out."

Many blacks lost their farms over the years, as did many whites, Thompson said. Black farmers often lost farms because the younger generation left the South to find better jobs elsewhere, and those left behind lost track of the business, he said.

Black or mixed-race farmers owned 235,289 acres in 2,055 Georgia farms in 2017, out of the state's combined 40,500 farms, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture.

The Thompsons' land holdings actually date to 1870 during Reconstruction with purchases closer to downtown Augusta, according to Law's research.

In 1875, the brothers' great-grandfather, Charlie Crosby, won first place in a state competition for his mule, Stonewall, and the family's continued success as draymen — drivers of a low, flat-bed wagon without sides — enabled his daughter to pay off the 1918 mortgage in three years, Law wrote.

The family has made other historic contributions to Augusta, Law said.

John Ann Crosby Thompson's husband, John Thompson, was a charter member of the Augusta NAACP branch and its only farmer. In 1928, he was president of the Richmond County Republican Party.

Their uncle, Edwin Thompson, was a corporal in the World War I 325th (Colored) Field Signal Battalion, when the Army first recruited college-educated African American men to serve in the signal corps.

More recently, Harold Thompson was the 1959 valedictorian at Lucy Craft Laney High School and was one of the first African Americans to graduate from Augusta College, Law said.

The extensive application process was assisted by the city planning, IT, tax commission, city commission and cemetery departments; county extension; the Augusta Library's Georgia Room staff; the Savannah Riverkeeper; the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History; Historic Augusta's Erick Montgomery, who provided vintage maps; and others, Law said.

Mayor Hardie Davis presented Thompson with a key to the city and on Oct. 4, Law, Vaughn and Commissioner Bill Fennoy went with the two brothers and nearly 20 family members to the Georgia National Fair in Perry to receive their award.