Marshall County farm joins ranks of State's Century Farm Program

Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Tribune photo by Clint Confehr Standing at signs declaring the Big Orange Country Farm is a Century Farm are, from front to back, Jackson Haines, 8, Pryor Haines, 11, Mary Alice Sheffield, Amanda Cook and Shannon Sheffield Cook.

From staff reports

The turning of another year can be just as much a matter of place as time, and so it is this winter at the Big Orange Country Farm on land that a state office has designated as a Tennessee Century Farm.

Such a designation came a few months ago with an announcement from Caneta S. Hankins, director of the Century Farm Program in the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University.

Big Orange Country Farm on Mt. Vernon Road just north of Chapel Hill met and exceeded by nearly twice the requirements for century farm designation, the matriarch of the family explained in her living room one evening last week.

"In less than two years," the farm will have been owned by Mary Sheffield and her ancestors with the same last name for 200 years, Mary said while her Christmas tree decorations glowed and reflected their warm light on stockings hanging low from her fireplace mantel, laden with small presents.

"It'll be August of 2013," she said of the anniversary of the purchase of the property.

"According to research conducted in 1972 by historian Donald Jeter, the first acreage of the (then) Shuffield farm was purchased 23 August 1813 by Arthus Shuffield," Lynda Crunk Potts of the Marshall County Historical Society wrote for the recommendation to MTSU's Center for Historic Preservation.

"I never could have got the Century Farm designation if it weren't for Lynda Potts," Mary said.

Born in Wheat's Hospital in Lewisburg, Mary Alice Sheffield, 65, never married, but her twin sister, Martha, did. Martha's son, Shannon Sheffield Cook, Mary's nephew, is just as proud of the farm's designation as his aunt.

Mary intends for the land to remain in her family forever, she said that evening while discussing her life on such historic land.

"God has given this to take care of," Mary said. "Shannon and Amanda will have to take care of it... I've been to Michael Boyd (an attorney in Lewisburg) to make the will."

Amanda "Mandy" Daniel Cook sits in one of the comfortably cushioned chairs near her husband, who promises to maintain the farm "as long as I can pay the taxes...

"Taking care of it is rough work," Shannon said. "But we have enough to keep it up."

He's invested in the heritage, buying a bulldozer years ago to clear land, opening a pasture that hadn't been used for 50 years, and planting crops; first tobacco and now oats. More recently, Shannon bought a tractor.

Mary's earliest recollections on the farm are of milking cows.

"We'd milk in the afternoon," Mary said of herself and her sister, Martha. Their brother, Johnny "milked in the morning."

They also picked cotton. Mary and her family laughed because "We hoed-down as much as we could" because it's such a backbreaking task, she said. "We had tobacco, too. We had to set it out. Of course, the neighbors helped us with that and we helped them, but they wouldn't help us pick cotton."

Mary graduated from Forrest High School in 1964. She attended three years of elementary school at Holts Corner School. The one-room schoolhouse had one teacher, Lucy Martin, known as Cun Lucy because she was a cousin.

In 1966, Mary's brother, Johnny Sheffield, died when his helicopter landed on a mine in Vietnam. His death is the subject of a song by the Marshall County trio Us Two and Him. The Sheffield and Rickman families came to know each other through the Eagleville Road Community Club. Johnny Rickman wrote the song about Johnny Sheffield sending money home from Vietnam to buy a tractor. While he never realized his dream, Shannon was able to buy a new tractor for the farm.

These days, farmers usually have another job.

"I worked for the Japanese my whole life," Shannon said. "First at Calsonic Kansei North America and now for Nissan" at Decherd where he met his wife.

International employment has been a big part of the family. Martha Cook's husband went to Saudi Arabia in 1995 and helped build King Faisal Hospital. During that time the farmland was leased to people who grew row crops and ran cattle.

Over the years, the land's heritage was revealed by plough shear and metal detector. Arrowheads half filled a five-gallon bucket when the land was turned for tobacco. A friend, Jerry "Juicy" Joyce, found bullets and buttons with a metal detector. Another friend, one with a special interest in artifacts, found a rock ball and said it's a sign that Indians lived there, instead of just passing through.

The Sheffield's farm has direct ties to the Revolutionary War, according to the MTSU center director. Her announcement springs from historical society research also reveals the following chronology.

The farm's founder, Arthur Shuffield, was an American Revolutionary War veteran. He, his father and his two brothers fought the British for America's independence.

Meticulous research traces transfer of the land from one Sheffield to another, and reports from records of ancestors' passing, including an 1843 tombstone inscription from when a doctor let Harriet Brunson Sheffield Little die in childbirth: "Destroyed by Dr. Brock on child bed..."

Over the following decades, the land was inherited and brothers sold and bought parcels to and from each other.

One of the owners was Jason Bryant Shuffield, a member of the first Marshall County Court that met Oct. 3, 1836. He married twice and fathered 16 children. Several of his sons and a son-in-law fought in the Civil War.

Within the next 100 years, the spelling of the name changed to Sheffield and in 1959, Elisha Jackson "Jack" Sheffield inherited the farm.

He and his wife, Alice Wheeler Sheffield, had three children who were active in 4-H programs. Jack increased his household income by driving a school bus and working as a night watchman at Durango Boot Co. Alice Sheffield inherited the farm after Jack's death.

In 1997, Alice's twin daughters, Mary Sheffield and Martha Sheffield Cook inherited the farm when Alice died. The farm passed to Mary when Martha died. Mary is the 16th owner of the farm.

Shannon Sheffield Cook and his wife, Amanda, live on the farm with their son, Hayden, and daughter, Harlee. Shannon's sister, Angela Cook Baxter, also lives on the farm with her husband, Billy Baxter, and sons Pryor and Jackson Haines.

Few farms remain in the same family and carry the same surname for nearly 200 years, but that is the case with the Tennessee farm now owned by Mary Sheffield.

Big Orange Country Farm is the 14th certified Century Farm in Marshall County. Since 1984, the Center for Historic Preservation has been documenting Tennessee's agricultural heritage and history through the Tennessee Century Farms Program.