Ag agent wants to save county's farm history
By Steve Herring
Published in News on December 23, 2012 1:50 AM
As generation of farm families move further away from their agricultural roots, they are in danger of leaving behind a rich history that could one day be lost to memory.
While the historical statistics might remain -- the number of acres planted in Wayne County in the 1880s, what the major crops were then and what their economic impact was -- the personal stories of the people who made that history could vanish.
Wayne County Cooperative Extension Director Kevin Johnson is hopeful that the people of Wayne County, with help from the Wayne County Public Library, can keep that from happening.
"We want to get written histories, oral histories, and we need your help," Johnson said at the recent Farm-City Banquet. "We want to digitize photos. I have this vision of someday having a book we can publish, maybe have some websites that we can have some good photos on.
"This is a project that we are going to do, but I have got to have your help. I need anyone who wants to help out with this project. I would love to get volunteers to help with the project. We will need to digitize photos, write down histories, and record peoples' stories."
Library officials are trying to find funding to help in that effort, he said.
"I have already started taking a list of volunteers to assist," Johnson said. "I need folks to contact me if they are interested in volunteering, and I need people to cooperate with sharing photos and stories."
Johnson said he is a good example of what can happen.
During the banquet, Johnson said his grandmother had a shoebox full of old photos. The photos went to Johnson's grandfather when she died. When his grandfather died, the photos were passed down to Johnson's father.
"My granddad never really cared about who those people were, but I did," Johnson said. "I have a shoebox full of pictures, and I have no idea who they are. But really what good is that -- even if I give it to my kids who have a passion about it. Well, there are some pictures of folks, and I don't know who they are. We are talking about some of those old tin pictures from the 1870s. I have no idea who they are.
"The same thing will happen to you. I am not going to say that your legacy is going to be lost, but I think now is the time for us to digitize a lot of photographs. You need to be doing some yourself. You need to be writing down who they are. You need to be writing down the history. You remember when you sat around with your grandfather and he would tell you all of these stories?"
Those stories need to be written down before they are lost, he said.
"Write it down because in two or three generations there is a good chance it will be lost," he said "I do have a passion for history, especially agricultural history. We need to preserve our agricultural history. You can pretty much go anywhere and find the history of Goldsboro, the history of Mount Olive, Fremont, Grantham. Whatever community, you can find people's family history, but where do you find a collection of agricultural history?
"There is really not an agricultural history museum in the state, except maybe for the tobacco farm life in Kenly. There has been a lot of talk about having an agricultural history museum. This is one thing -- agriculture is the number one industry in Wayne County and has been since this county was formed, but we don't really archive that history.
"We are going to make an effort to do that."
In 1779, when Wayne County was created, there were approximately 5,000 people in the county, most of the living on farms. Today there are nearly 124,000, he said, and very few still live on farms.
Those early settlers were self-sufficient and lived in tight-knit communities growing cotton, rice, naval stores, followed by tobacco and today livestock, Johnson said.
"I can sit around and tell you how many acres of cotton were grown in Wayne County in 1880," he said. "I can go and tell you the major crops. I can tell you the economic impact, but I cannot tell you the personal stories. I want that. I think we need that. We need to be able to tell those stories. We need to preserve that history before it is lost."
Johnson asked those in the audience how many were farmers. A number of hands went up. More hands went up when he asked how many of them had grandparents who were farmers.
"The trend is there are fewer and fewer of us," he said. "In three more generations if I was to do the same thing there might be one or two hands pop up. There would be even fewer farmers, so we have got to preserve history now. I need your help."
In the 1950s there 4,915 farms in the county, comprising 290,887 acres. Today there are just 723 farms on 175,265 acres -- a loss of 115,622 acres because of development including highways, retail and houses, he said.
"Please get up with me," Johnson said. "Start thinking about what your granddad told you, or grandma. Start looking through old photos. If you don't do it for me as far as digitizing, at least do it for your kids or grandkids.
"Write down who the people are. I am a good example. I have a box full of old pictures that I might cherish, but they are worthless. So please do it. If you don't do it for me, at least do it for yourself or your family."
For more information about the project, contact Johnson 919-731-1521.