In 1985, the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University assumed responsibility for the Century Farms program, which was designed for recognition, as well as a documentary effort.
First, the program honors and recognizes the dedication and contributions of families who have owned and farmed the same land for at least 100 years.
In the 30 years of operation, the statewide and ongoing program has 1,399 certified farms. Of that number, 143 farms are 200 years old, 611 are 150 years old and 645 farms are more than 100 years old.
Bradley County is the home of six Century Farms — the oldest are the Varnell Farm located 11 miles south of Cleveland on land previously owned by the Cherokee Indians; and the Chatata Valley Heritage Farm located eight miles northeast of Cleveland — both established three years after Bradley County was established.
Founded in 1836, Bradley County was named in honor of Col. Edward Bradley, a Revolutionary War veteran, who served also with Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812. Cleveland is the county seat. Red Clay State Historical Park, an interpretive center for the Cherokee removal known as the Trail of Tears, is one of the tourist attractions in the county.
Other Century Farms in Bradley County include the Bend of the River Farm near the Hiwassee River, two miles east of Charleston; the Kelley Farm located nine miles southwest of the county seat; the Hiwassee Bend Farm two miles southeast of Charleston; and the Levi Trewhitt Farm on land first bought by a judge who migrated to Bradley County in the 1830s.
In each farm’s history, there is something unique — from finding graves of Cherokee Indians to having an owner serving as blacksmith, doctor and preacher. These farms survived the Civil War and are still active today with fourth and fifth generations of ownership.
The land for the Bend of the River Farm was given to Kate Anne Saulpaw Varnell as a wedding present from her parents, George Washington Saulpaw and Emeline Davis Saulpaw, in 1886. During the Civil War, Saulpaw operated a steamboat with freight barges on the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing, and in 1862, his boat equipment was taken by U.S. troops. In 1906 the Bates farm house on the property was burned, destroying everything except a porcelain statue which belonged to James and Kate’s son, Guy Maurice.
During the 1940s, TVA acquired the riverbanks on the property, decreasing its acreage. Also, during the 1940s, the Works Progress Administration (supervised by the University of Tennessee’s archaeology department) excavated about seven Cherokee Indian graves. The artifacts and skeletons are in a museum in Charleston.
John Simmons was a grist mill and brick kiln operator, a blacksmith, a doctor and a Baptist preacher. The Chatata Valley Heritage Farm reflects the vision of its founder, who, with his wife, Amelia Neil, purchased 640 acres in 1839. A son, Dr. Isaac C. Simmons, a Democrat and a Baptist, was a charter member of the Bradley County Medical Society and helped to establish the Chatata Academy.
During the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, a family of former slaves stayed on the farm and helped the Simmonses. Frank Simmons inherited 92 acres of the family farm in 1920 and followed in his father’s footsteps in managing a diversified farm; he played an important part in several farm organizations. The Simmonses had six children and their daughter, Ann Louie and her husband, Harry Theodore Chase Sr., inherited the property in 1945 — more than 600 acres. There is a church and log barn still remaining on the property, attesting to the farm’s rich history.
An ordained Methodist minister, William Bates established the Hiwassee Bend Farm, which dates back to the Antebellum age. He and his wife, Mary Camp, had 13 children. Sterling V. Bates, a second-generation Methodist minister, inherited 285 acres from his mother in 1868. He married Charlotte Robertson and they had three children. Their daughter Caroline married William L. Hambright and they became tobacco farmers.
In 1946, the founder’s great-granddaughter, Charlotte Hambright Alexander, inherited the Hiwassee Bend Farm. They specialize in beef cattle and have recently renovated the 19th-century farmplace, according to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.
Brothers Joel and Richard Kelley were Irish immigrants and located their 200 acre-farm nine miles southwest of Cleveland. An unidentified Indian, who served as a farm laborer, is buried in the family cemetery. In 1850, Joel bought out his brother and his only son, Elijah, acquired the farm in 1862. They sold crossties to the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad which was located near their farm. Also, the family established a public school at Possum-Trot.
The farm is now owned by Harold W. Kelley, the son of Sarah and Dailey Kelley, who was the son of Joel Kelley. Three generations of the Kelleys live on the farm’s 250 acres.
The Trewhitt family came from England to Bradley County in the 1830s — by way of Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. Judge Levi Trewhitt bought his tract of land around the same year Bradley County was established — 1836. He and his wife, Harriet Lavendar, had 14 children. He and his son, Levi Jr. were captured during the Civil War by the Union forces and were taken to a POW camp in Alabama. The junior Trewhitt escaped and returned to the farm, hiding in a dugout on the property. Judge Trewhitt died in Alabama. His body was brought back to Cleveland and buried at Fort Hill Cemetery.
The farm was deeded to Levi Jr. in 1865. According to family records, the Trewhitts gave some acreage to build the original Waterville Elementary School around the 1900s.
Some interesting facts to note are: William Trewitt and his wife, Annabelle Dodson, were the third generation to live on the farm; Trewhitt was president of the Farm Bureau in Bradley County and is wife was a member of the Waterville/Red Hill Home Demonstration Club, serving as president; the farm went to their daughter Ganelle in 1919; she married Morris McClure, the parents of William McClure and Ganelle Samples, who was a 4-H winner. Morris was a charter member of and his son William was also a member of the Waterville Ruritan Club, having perfect attendance for 27 years. McClure, the great-great-grandson of the founder, Judge Trewhitt, and his brother-in-law, James Samples (husband of Ganelle) are the present owners of the farm.
The Varnell Farm in 140 years has gone from grain farm to tobacco. The farm was established in 1839 by Samuel and Elizabeth Hannah Maroon about 11 miles south of Cleveland. It is on land previously owned by the Cherokee Indians. The Maroons were parents of 10 children and during the Civil War, the founder saw his sons join both the Union and Confederate armies.
Silas Wright Maroon inherited 100 acres from his father in 1880, and in addition to corn, wheat and hay, began to raise watermelons. He was an organizer of Mount Carmel Baptist Church and donated land for the Maroon School, also. His daughter, Anne Elizabeth, who married John Franklin Varnell, inherited the land in 1920. They expanded the farm by 200 acres and introduced dairy farming and tobacco cultivation. Their son, William Maroon Varnell, bought 160 acres in 1957 and added 91 more, specializing in the dairy business. Three generations live on the farm with his son, Wallace A. Varnell, working the land.
Part 2 in the series on Century Farms will feature Polk County.