Celebrating century-old farms
by BETTIE MARLOWE, Banner Staff Writer
Jun 26, 2011 | 1991 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
McMINN COUNTY boasts 43 Century Farms. This is the home of Edna Varnell Pickens on the J.K. Pickens Farm, which has been in the Pickens family for 113 years. The house was constructed prior to the Civil War and the front was added in 1866.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: In this series, we are visiting Century Farms in Bradley, Polk and McMinn Counties. In addition to contacts with farm owners, historical information and some photos were obtained from the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University, which administers the Tennessee Century Farms program (used by permission).

Century Farms Part 2

McMinn County

McMinn County, which was established in 1819, was named for Gov. Joseph McMinn. Athens is the county seat. Located in the state’s southeastern corner, McMinn County lies between the Tennessee River and the Cherokee National Forest and boasts 43 Century Farms, including Mayfield Dairy Farms, one of the largest dairy processors in the Southeast.

The two oldest farms in the county are the Big Springs Farm and the John C. Cate Farm, which were founded in 1819 — the year McMinn County was established.

According to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Charles Cate in the 1810s, sought “good land, good timber, plenty of water and land to establish a homestead and raise a family.” He bought about 155 acres in what is now the town the Niota. He and his wife Lucy had 10 children, and in 1831, their son Elijah acquired a half interest in the farm. He then bought another 502 acres making more than 657 acres of land, which he deeded to his son John Columbus Cate in 1873.

In 1914, the great-grandchildren of the Cates — Nellie Lou, Nannie Browder and Thomas L. Cate — inherited 155 acres of the original farm. Since the children never married, in 1970, the 410 acres of the farm were divided between John Columbus Cate I, John Columbus Cate IV and Richard Montague Cate. John Cate IV, who manages the farm today, acquired another 300 acres of the family land six years later.

The John C. Cate Farm, dating back to 1823, is the third Century Farm in McMinn County to come from the original property of Charles and Lucy Lawrence Cate. John Columbus Cate inherited 65 acres — plus partial interest in another 410 acres of the family farm in 1916 and, in 1976, deeded his original 65 acres to William Sunday Cate, John Cate’s great-great-grandson.

When he died a few weeks later, his land was left to his widow Wanda Coleman Cate, who now manages the farm.

The Mayfield Century Farm in McMinn County was established in 1833 by Thomas Brummit and Sara Rudd Mayfield, who owned 510 acres of land on the Madisonville Road, east of Athens, the county seat. Second-generation owners Thomas B. Mayfield Jr. and his wife, Elizabeth Brient, farmed a total of 600 acres and managed a dairy, also.

The farm went to a fourth-generation grandson, Thomas B. Mayfield, in 1914, who developed the dairy into one of the best in the area. Today, the farm is owned by Scottie Mayfield, his wife Lisa, and children, Charles, Mariah and Michael. Mayfield directs the farm agricultural operation, producing dairy foods, corn, soybeans, alfalfa and beef cattle.

Mayfield Dairy is located on the farm and is one of Tennessee’s most popular businesses. Parts of the farm are protected by a conservation easement with the Land Rust for Tennessee, according to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (website: www.tncenturyfarms.org).

On June 23, Scottie and Lisa Mayfield invited their fellow Century Farm owners and families to join them for dinner in the “Barn.” More than 80 families responded to the invitation from Century Farms in eight counties.

William and Sarah Davis Stephenson established the W.T. Matthews Farm in 1872 on 80 acres of land located two miles west of Riceville in McMinn County. In addition to producing cash crops such as corn, cotton, cattle and swine, the Stephensons operated a whiskey still on the property.

In 1904, one of their eight children, W.E. Stephenson, inherited the land and added wheat to the agricultural products. He and his wife, Sadie Gaston, had six children. Ester Stephenson Dinsmore, the founders’ granddaughter inherited a portion of the farm and, three years later, another grandchild, W.T. Matthews, acquired 75 acres of the original family from Dinsmore.

The Matthews family added some 200 acres and introduced tobacco to the farm’s operations. W.T. Matthews’ son, Paul Matthews, and grandson, William Thomas Matthews, worked the land and, upon Matthew’s death, inherited the farm.

The Varnell Farm, two miles north of Calhoun, has a connection also with the Matthews Farm. Paul Matthews wife Mary Ruth, was a Varnell — a descendant of David and Martha Varnell, who established the Varnell Farm in 1843. The Varnells farmed the land 50 years before deeding 252 acres in 1893 to their son, James F. Varnell, who started a dairy business in addition to crops. In 1918, the founders’ grandson George Varnell, received 97 acres of the property and in 1977, their five children inherited the land.

Edna Varnell Pickens, the sister of Mary Ruth Varnell Matthews, is the owner of the J.K. Pickens Farm. Her husband was the grandson of Julius Kennedy Pickens and his wife, Rose Beasley Pickens, who bought almost 400 acres of land about 10 miles south of Athens in 1898. The Pickenses had four children — Verbena, Reece, Diora and Charles — and lived in a house which was constructed prior to the Civil war. The front was added in 1866 and a granary and barn were also added to the farm that same year.

Charles Pickens, who acquired the property in 1909, married Kizzar Price and they had three children: Spencer Price, Marie Dodson and J.K. Pickens. Mrs. Pickens belonged to the Tomato Club, the forerunner of the Home Demonstration Club, which in recent years, was renamed the Family and Community Education Club. J.K. Pickens and his wife, Edna, became the next generation to own the farm and she still lives on the farm, which has been in the Pickens family more than 100 years. She joined the Home Demonstration Club in 1946, and is still active in the Claxton Homemakers.

Part 3 in the series on Century Farms on June 29 will feature Polk County.