Glimpse the past at Tall Timbers tour of tenant house

September 11th, 2015 by Red Hills

by Juanita Whiddon, published 8/4/15, Tallahassee Democrat

The story of tenant farm families at Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy illustrates a unique time in United States history. Tenant farm structures were once common sights on the Southern rural landscape, but few remain today. Tenant farming and sharecropping appeared shortly after the end of the Civil War and lasted in many of the southern states until World War II.

A few white farmers participated in tenant farming, but the majority of these small farmers were displaced former slave families. Large plantation owners were still “land rich” but “cash poor” and few of the former slaves had marketable skills. Most emancipated slaves were used to farming. The tenant system allowed the tenant to rent the land and often a house and shed from the landowner for a year for a contracted price. Rent was usually collected in late summer or early fall after the tenant had gotten his crop to market and had cash to pay the year’s rent.

The Beadels, whose family first purchased the property in the 1890s, depended on the descendants of slaves to work the land and maintain the property. By the time Edward Beadel and later his nephew, Henry Beadel owned the land it was a hunting plantation. Life on a hunting plantation was different for tenant farm families, because there were many activities associated with bird hunting that provided tenant family members to earn wages during the winter hunting season.

A few of these jobs would have included: shooting wagon drivers, dog handlers, cooks, laundresses and wood cutters. The actual number of tenant farm families on Tall Timbers varied from year to year, but the highest recorded numbers are in the 1920s and 1930s. During these years, there might have been nine to 12 tenant farming operations on Tall Timbers. These African American farmers built a self-sufficient and vibrant community on the plantation while living in rural isolation, depending on each other for companionship and survival.

Tenant farm families spent most of their time tending cash crops and working in their house gardens. Social activities revolved around the church. For children, it was work, school and then play. Chores included plowing, milking the cow, feeding the chickens and bringing in wood and water. Girls loved playing with their rag dolls and jumping rope. Boys made their own slingshots and played stickball. Emmitt Gay and Richard Jones recall playing with “anything that would roll,” such as old wheels, tin cans and balls. Hopscotch was also popular.

The farm house and complex has been restored and it opened to the public in 2008. Sisters, Rosa Jones Brim and Minnie Jones Leonard returned to the farm during the restoration. Upon seeing their childhood home for the first time in about 50 years Rosa exclaimed, “I always thought we lived in a big house, but it seems so small now.”

This site features listening posts with narratives from former tenant families. Some of the families that participated in these oral histories were the Sloans, Gays, Fishers, Vickers and Hayes, as well as the Alonzo Jones family. The Alonzo Jones family was the last to occupy the house during the 1940s. Colorful panels featuring the paintings of local artist Eluster Richardson vividly illustrate daily life on the farm.

The Jones Family House is open to the public for monthly tours. To see the tour calendar, visit www.talltimbers.org or contact Juanita Whiddon at 850 893-4153.

Juanita Whiddon is the archivist at Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy. She coordinated the Jones Family Tenant Farm project.

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