Category Archives: Irwinville in the News

“The Farm Was Our Own: Memories of the Irwinville Farms Project” – A Short Film by Erin O’Quinn

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/90821868″>The Farm Was Our Own: Memories of the Irwinville Farms Project</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user26571688″>Erin O’Quinn</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>

This is a wonderful tribute to the Irwinville Farms Project! Erin O’Quinn expertly blends archival photographs with the anthem of the Great Depression, Happy Days are Here Again, to set the context and has a great interview with Irwinville Farms resident Edward McIntyre.

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Irwinville Farms: The Making of a Community by Joy Wilson McDaniel

Perhaps you follow my Irwinville Farms blog, but most likely, unless you’re from that part of South Georgia, you know very little about it. It was one of numerous resettlement communities overseen during the Great Depression by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the Resettlement Administration (RA). As today, there was much debate over the role of the government in dispensing what many considered welfare, but the FSA and RA were much more than that. They brought modern agricultural practices and equipment where there had been none, and they brought vaccines and health awareness in much the same way. In the process, they fostered a strong value system and sense of community that remains among descendants and survivors of the project.

Irwinville Farms: The Making of a Community is one of the best local histories I’ve seen in a long time, and not just because I’ve always been fascinated with the area, but because it goes beyond local folklore and hearsay to provide detailed statistics about all the farm families involved with the projects. Joy and  her son Gary McDaniel went to the Library of Congress while she was compiling the primary documentation for the book and sifted through and photographed three boxes full of original material related to Irwinville Farms.

The book also tells the story of the Jefferson Davis Historic Site, another project of the federal government during the Great Depression, and of the legendary Irwinville Farmers basketball team of the 1940s. Photos from the Library of Congress, as well as other rarely seen images, are well distributed throughout the book. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of Irwin County, agriculture, or the Great Depression. It is very well done and quite enjoyble.

Irwinville Farms: The Making of  a Community is currently available for $30 plus $5 for shipping. To make a purchase, contact Joy at 770-345-2562 or by e-mail at joy_mcdaniel@comcast.net.

Son of sharecropper who will be resettled on the Irwinville Farms Project, Georgia.

Photo by Arthur Rothstein, August 1935 – Courtesy Library of Congress

This is Joy Wilson McDaniel’s brother, Bill Wilson.

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Irwinville Farms Presentation by Joy McDaniel

If you’re in or near Fitzgerald tonight, please stop by the Blue and Gray Museum for Joy McDaniel’s presentation on Irwinville Farms at 6PM. It’s free and open to the public, and Joy will have copies of her book of reminisces and Irwinville Farms history for sale!

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Wallace “Country” Childs

10 Country: Worth the wait

November 12, 2002

Irwinville- The fall brings out many parades and shows of community pride. A small community that doesn’t even have a traffic light had a small parade recently for a long- lost reason.

The tiny community of Irwinville has a rare quality. They continue to show their appreciation for their former basketball coach, 82-year-old Wallace Childs.

“This is a great community. A great, great community,” said Childs. In the late 40s and 50s, he took a group of farm boys who had nothing but determination, and made legendary basketball teams out of them.

“Wallace told us to bring in our bathing suits to use for basketball trunks. Our response was, ‘We don’t have basketball trunks because we all went skinny dipping in the creeks,'” said former player Legette Zorn.

The Irwinville Farmers won three state championships, had a winning streak of 78 games. They gather every five years to reminisce, like they did at their 55th reunion recently. The former players credit their coach with more than teaching them how to play the game of basketball.

“You are not going to lose if you get out there and work hard,” said former player Rudene Gentry. The coach retired in the 70s, but the former Irwinville players didn’t. They wanted their coach in the Georgia Sports hall of Fame.

“There’s people up there who don’t have the record Wallace has. They are in there,” said former player W. L. Taylor.

The team was down to its last chance to get its beloved coach re-nominated and they only had five days to do it in. “We got busy and I got the resumes and everything, and sent them to all of them,” Childs said.

And they waited– like they had for more than 10 years. Now they have just learned that Wallace will be inducted in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. They had won again!

“Everybody who has had anything to do with this, thank you so very much,” said Childs.

Coach Wallace Childs opened doors for the players, and in the end, they opened a door for him to walk into the basketball record books, too. Coach Wallace Childs gets formally inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in February.

This story was shared by Tommy Gentry, whose grandfather, the late Rudene Gentry, was a member of this legendary team. Rudene Gentry was later known for his long service as Superintendent of Irwin County Schools. Stay tuned for more updates and stories of the Irwinville Farmers in the coming months.

 

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Hope in the Dust: The Story of Irwinville Farms – By Brian Brown

From the Autumn 2010 issue of Georgia Backroads

When the stock market crashed on October 24, 1929 – infamously known since as Black Thursday – the people of Georgia and her sister states in the old Confederacy barely took notice. Rural southerners already had been enduring a financial crisis of biblical proportions for nearly a decade.

During the World War I years, Georgia farmers had enjoyed a welcome increase in the price of cotton as demand rose.  Following the war, a dramatic drop in prices coincided with the catastrophic arrival of the boll weevil, bringing hard times to nearly every Georgia farmer and everybody who depended upon agriculture for a livelihood. By 1930, the market price of cotton was just a nickel per pound, down from the wartime high of 30 cents. The price of corn, the other staple crop of small farmers, also suffered.

To add to the dismal financial situation, many Georgia farmers didn’t own the land they worked.  In 1920, Georgia led the South in the proportion of farmland rented to sharecroppers (60%).  The difficult economic situation and the low quality of living prevalent in rural Georgia (and in the rest of the South and most of the country) was apparent to lawmakers in Washington, D.C.  To relieve the acute poverty and assist tenant farmers in purchasing land, the federal government established New Deal relief programs like the Resettlement Administration (RA) and Farm Security Administration (FSA).

One ambitious project of the FSA was to create “utopian,” self-sustaining communities throughout the country.  The intent was to establish communities with good, affordable housing, as well as to provide cultural and recreational opportunities previously denied to the working class.  The FSA took things a step further by promoting reclamation of farmland for sharecroppers and small farmers. Government-backed or funded low-interest loans would allow sharecroppers to acquire land.

Today’s enormous farm subsidy programs also had their origins in New Deal programs, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration sought to halt the overproduction of agricultural staples since excess supply drove down prices, as many cotton growers could attest.  And while sharecropping remained a common practice throughout the Great Depression, subsidy programs slowly brought that way of life to an end.

Federal aid and education programs encouraged farmers to raise corn, tobacco, peanuts, and livestock. Today, it is hard to believe that crop rotation and diversification was a revolutionary concept in the rural South, but it took relief agencies many years to dissuade farmers from the old “cotton is king” notion.

Like the rest of Dixie, the economy in south Georgia’s Irwin County was depressed long before the Great Depression.  Irwin County was a dusty, hardscrabble place whose people had struggled for generations, yet the farmland was among the finest in the state. The fruits of its natural wealth were, however, unevenly distributed.  According to the 1890 Census, the average farm in Irwin County was just shy of 300 acres, yet less than ten percent of all land in the county was considered “improved.”  This disparity, along with poor farming practices, a lack of modern equipment, and the inequities of tenant farming posed a serious threat to the welfare of many Irwin County residents.

To address the situation in Irwin County, the RA and FSA established Irwinville Farms, one of 34 subsistence homestead communities created in the United States.  Here, farmers would live in close proximity to one another under the guidance of government consultants. The FSA promoted land ownership, modern farming practices, medical care, health insurance programs, and even offered classes in cooking and child care.

Irwinville Farms Project Manager W. P. Bryan made an effort to fit in with the local populace.  He succeeded not only to that end, but also earned the praise of his superiors in Washington. Presented with blueprints and a cost list for the RA-specified barns to be built at Irwinville Farms, Bryan instead drafted his own plans for a less expensive barn. Called “Bryan Barns” by other managers within the program, Bryan Barns cost $145 – a substantial savings over the $350 price tag for the regular RA barns. While both types would be built at Irwinville Farms, Bryan made it clear that many of the people he was resettling had no need for the more expensive, elaborate structures.

Bryan was also a proponent of cooperatives, a concept that allowed farmers and their families to purchase goods on credit.  Before the implementation of this program, many sharecroppers around Irwinville were unable to afford basic necessities like clothing and shoes for their children. In that era, it was not uncommon for children and adults to work the fields barefoot in the summer.  To cover their feet in winter, some wore cardboard or newspaper bound with string.

Bryan recruited a local physician, Dr. Herman Dismuke, to provide medical care at Irwinville Farms.  In the past, his patients seldom had access to a medical doctor. Furthermore, to encourage health education among children, the popular May Day pageant became the May Day Health Fair.

At first, the local population had misgivings about “outsiders” coming into their backyards to tell them how to live their lives. Georgia’s popular Governor, Eugene Talmadge, was uncompromising in his opposition to the New Deal. So averse was he to outside interference from the federal government that he seriously explored a run for the presidency on that platform. But the changes brought about by Washington proved too tempting for a class that had done without for so long.

Construction of the Irwinville Farms Community Auditorium, and appearances there by entertainers from the Grand Ole Opry, were important enhancements to the cultural scene in the wiregrass region. Rachel Parrish, a lifelong resident of Irwinville, fondly recalls the community’s appreciation for these shows:  “Grandpa Jones, Minnie Pearl, they all came through Irwinville,” she noted in a recent interview.

The FSA’s most tangible and enduring achievements may have come in the areas of housing and land reclamation.  For instance, the use of insulation in housing replaced drafty tar-paper shacks, and in those houses vaccinated schoolchildren read by electric light.  There were also improvements in education and recreation.

Photography played a large role in promoting Irwinville Farms and other “utopian” resettlement communities.  FSA Photographers who went on to national prominence included Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, and Jack and Irene Delano.  Their stark, vivid, evocative photographs helped ensure funding for the New Deal and brought awareness of the harsh reality of rural poverty to a wide audience.

At Irwinville Farms, photographer John Vachon showed the public what a difference an appliance like a refrigerator could mean to a rural family.  He photographed Mrs. Chester Foster with a new refrigerator in her house in 1938.  Mrs. Foster proudly displayed her new appliance, stocked with food items that would have otherwise spoiled.  Low interest loans made it possible for farmers to purchase time- and money-saving inventions.

Today, the legacy of the FSA’s Irwinville Farms program is still evident.  Though officially dissolved by 1942, the FSA’s effect on the community was far-reaching.  Many of the Irwinville Farms Project families today still work land obtained by their ancestors during the Great Depression. A majority of the farmhouses and barns built for the project are still in use today, even though most have been modified in one way or another.

In total, more than 100 families benefited from the Irwinville Farms project.  Like many FSA programs, however, resettlement communities eventually fell victim to politics, an improving economy, and increasing attention to military and international matters as World War II neared.  As the country focused on winning a global war, interest declined in social welfare programs, and thanks to the military buildup, manufacturing and industrial jobs were readily available. This lessened the need for further funding of the recovery projects.

The staff at the Irwinville Farms project office, once housed in the old Bank of Irwinville building, simply packed up and left Irwinville, as did W.P. Bryan, who was always well-liked by the community.  The auditorium continued to serve the community until fire destroyed the building in the mid 1960s, but Irwinville Farms is all but forgotten today. [Mandy Bryant remembers the auditorium burning when she was a young girl, as her family lived right across the road.]

Agriculture remains the lifeblood of Irwin County and is carried on today by some of the same families whose forebears benefitted from assistance provided through New Deal programs.  From baseball to medical care, from vaccinations for children to art appreciation, Irwinville Farms had a profound impact on those it touched.

Other New Deal Communities in Georgia

Flint River Farms, Macon County

Hazlehurst Farms, Jeff Davis County

Piedmont Homesteads, Jasper County

Pine Mountain Valley, Harris County

© Brian Brown, 2010

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