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The history of the Shields-Ethridge Farm is tied to cotton. This crop was in great demand in 1810, when Joseph Shields began growing “upland” cotton, the type of cotton grown most in the United States. The fertile land along Walnut Fork of the Oconee River had been cleared in 1790, when Shields and his sons bought 200 acres in what is now Jackson County, Georgia.
Cotton was and is the most important vegetable fiber used in producing textiles. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 made it practical to grow cotton in the Piedmont section of Georgia (the area between the state’s Coastal Plain and the Appalachian Mountains). The gin could clean the heavily-seeded upland cotton much faster than human hands. By 1804, the South’s production of cotton was eight times greater than it had been in the previous decade. By 1860, textile mills in the North imported all of their cotton from the South. The Southern production of cotton was also being consumed overseas by England and France who received more than three-fourths of their cotton supply from the American South.
Cotton farmers like Joseph Shields and his sons had enough land to benefit from this suddenly profitable crop for the next 50 years. They also had the second requirement for productivity: labor. By 1860 the Shields owned 20 slaves to plow, plant, and harvest the cotton. The Shields increased their land holdings to 496 acres by 1860.1
Before the Civil War, Georgia was one of the leading cotton producers in the United States, but the war changed the cotton industry. The Shields farm produced a small quantity of cotton prior to the Civil War, but when the war ended, both sons returned to Georgia to rebuild the farm and concentrate on cotton production.
The war devastated the economy of the former Confederate states. Due to the emancipation of slavery, former black slaves had farm labor to offer, but did not have the funds to buy their own farmland. Many destitute white farmers also found themselves in this predicament. White, Southern farm owners had the land and supplies to continue their production, but were without the necessary labor. Sharecropping was formed as a solution to this problem. When the farm owner and the laborer entered into a sharecropping contract, the farm owner agreed to lend the laborer farm land and supplies, but the laborer would then owe the farm owner a percentage of his crop. Many of the laborers who joined the sharecropping system ended up in a continuous cycle of debt and were therefore, tied to the land and the farm owner until they could pay off their debt.
Reconstruction in Jackson County meant rebuilding the capacity to produce cotton. The Shields faced two problems: repairing the cotton fields and finding field labor. For the Shields, the sharecropper system was the solution. Many former slaves continued to work on the Shields farm after the Civil War alongside poor white farmers who also sharecropped for the Shields. Under this system, the Shields brothers did well for the next 30 years. More land was acquired, and by 1890, the farm had grown to 1000 acres.2Robert Shields, grandson of Joseph Shields, inherited the family residence, which had been built in 1866 from hand hewn heart pine. Robert’s daughter, Susan Ella, and her husband, Ira Washington Ethridge, moved in to care for Robert in 1896. When Susan Ella’s father died in 1910, the home place and 114 acres were deeded to Susan Ella and Ira. The name “Ethridge” was now added to the farm, whose future was still tied to the cotton trade. Cotton still ruled the south, but prices for cotton fluctuated so wildly that cotton was called a “gambler’s trade.” Ira Washington Ethridge would gamble on cotton during the next 40 years, but he also “hedged his bets” by building a village to withstand the fickle cotton economy. It was a sharecroppers’ village, and all the structures built by 1920, except for some tenant houses, are still intact at the Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm.
1 Ian Firth, Landscape Master Plan of the Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm, Jackson County, Georgia (Robinson Fisher Associates, Inc., 1998).
2 Ron Shapard, “Shields-Ethridge Farm: Preserving Our Past,” Athens Magazine, May-June, 1997, 84-91; Jean West, King Cotton: The Fiber of Slavery (http://cuwhist.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/king-cotton-the-fiber-of-slavery.pdf); King Cotton (www.civilwarhome.com/kingcotton.htm); The Cotton South: Before and After the Civil War (www.cnr.berkeley.edu/departments/espm/env-hit/studyguide/chap7.htm).