After 100 years, Augusta’s Thompson Farms is still going strong

 

It started on a baseball field.

In the years after the Civil War, a new game called Base Ball – always written as two words in those days – became a national obsession. Boys laid out baseball diamonds in empty lots and fields and pastures in every town and village. Schools, mills, factories, and towns organized baseball clubs for friendly and not-so-friendly competition.

Augusta had dozens of teams, White and Negro. In the 1870s and ‘80s, the Negro waiters of the Globe Hotel, Augusta Hotel, and National Hotel all had baseball clubs. They played at the Negro baseball grounds. Like an ever-increasing number of things after Reconstruction, baseball was segregated.

Before the end of the century, semi-professional teams organized and began touring, playing against local teams and drawing enthusiastic crowds to the stands. Teams from Atlanta often played in Augusta.

John Thompson played for an Atlanta Negro team. Trained as a blacksmith by his stepfather Augustus Thompson, he was strong, fast, and good-looking. The Atlanta Constitution describes a John Thompson playing for the Atlanta Champions in an 1886 game: “[John] Thompson, the pitcher for the Atlantas proved to be a fine pitcher; he has a remarkable speed and great endurance.” In one of his games in Augusta, Thompson caught the eye of a pretty local girl, John Ann Crosby.

John Ann (or JoAnn, as she was called later in life) lived with her aunt and uncle, Cherry and Charles Crosby. The Crosbys had moved to Augusta, like many other African Americans, after the Sherman’s March to the Sea. Charles had built a business here as a drayman, hauling cotton bales and other goods in wagons pulled by mule teams. An early account holder with the Freedman’s Bank, he purchased property for a home here in 1870. His niece was smart as well as pretty, with a head for numbers and a nose for business. She served as his growing business’s manager.

The handsome baseball player courted the clever girl. They married in 1884. He was 27, she was 21. He laid aside his bat and glove, moved to Augusta, and joined his wife’s uncle in the dray business, which was perfectly suited to someone who knew blacksmithing and mule-handling. Charles Crosby died in 1892, but with John Thompson now in charge and John Ann managing the office, the business prospered and grew. That meant buying more wagons and mules, finding them wider pasturage, growing hay and oats to feed them.

Perhaps John Ann saw this as a business opportunity. She started buying tracts of land, and in 1918 purchased 660 acres of rich bottomland on the Savannah River. Remarkably, the deed for that land is in her name. At a time when women—let alone African American women—had few legal rights, John Ann did the purchasing, managed the transactions, signed the papers. 

So began the remarkable saga of the Thompson family and their farm, a saga spanning three generations and the tumultuous changes the family witnessed from the Reconstruction Era to the second decade of the 21st Century.

Thanks largely to the tireless research of historian Joyce Law, Thompson Farms has just earned the designation as a Georgia Centennial Family Farm by Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

With John Ann’s 1918 land purchase, the Thompsons became farmers as well as  draymen. With their four children, a girl and three boys, they lived in a two-story house on Calhoun Street (now Walton Way) that John Ann inherited from her uncle. It stood on the site Popeye’s now occupies at the intersection of Walton Way and the Gordon Highway.

The Thompsons’ dray business continued well into the twentieth century. A photo taken in the 1920s at the corner of Fifth and Taylor streets shows a procession of six wagons loaded high with hay bales and pulled by 18 mules. At the reins of the mule team is John Thompson, with a crew that includes his sons Harold Depew and Charles Augustus, delivering hay from Thompson Farms to the Augusta stockyards.

The farming enterprise continued to grow. In 1921 The Augusta Chronicle reported that “John Thompson, a worthy colored farmer, is ‘clearing up’ some land, nine miles out, between the river and the levee. This, it is said, the first time any land has been ‘cleared’ in this vicinity since slavery times.”

“I can’t imagine how much work it took to clear and farm that land,” said Campbell Vaughn, Richmond County’s Extension Agent. Vaughn worked with Joyce Law and the Thompsons in their Centennial Family Farm application. Today, he said, that acreage is probably the most productive crop land in the county.

John Thompson died in 1927 at the age of 70. His two older sons, affectionately known as “Hal” and “Bubba,” kept the farm going into the 1960s. Hal headed the farm operations, while Bubba headed the trucking transportation, until his death in late 1941. Edwin, the youngest, had his own dreams. “Farming was not for him!” his nephew Charles explained. Edwin became a dentist.

Today Hal’s sons, Harold Jr. and Charles A. Thompson,  carry the family farm into its third generation and second century.

Thompson Farms, hidden down Lovers Lane behind the chemical plants on Sandbar Ferry Road, now covers 2,200 acres in soybeans, corn, wheat, rye and peas. It is the largest commodity farm and oldest African American-owned business in Augusta-Richmond County.

To achieve Georgia Centennial Family Farm designation, which it received on October 4, a farm must have been in the family for 100 years. It’s hard to imagine a less auspicious year for African Americans to start a farm than 1918. Fifty years after the end of the Civil War, institutionalized racism kept African Americans “in their place.” Jim Crow laws denied them the vote, forced them to the back of streetcars, segregated their neighborhoods. Ware High School for Negro students was closed by the Richmond County Board of Education in 1897. An African American prisoner was lynched in 1900. The Ku Klux Klan re-emerged in the 1920s, thousands of robed Klansmen marching down Broad Street.

Yet in the midst of all that John Ann Thompson quietly bought hundreds of acres of the richest farmland in the region. The Thompsons cleared it, plowed it, planted it, worked it, harvested it, and prospered.

But they cultivated more than land. Their children received the best education available. Their son Harold graduated from Paine College’s Normal Department; Edwin graduated from Harbison College, served in the trailblazing 325th (Colored) Field Signal Battalion in World War I, graduated from Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry, earned licensure in Georgia and became a dentist in Pennsylvania. He even served five terms in the Pennsylvania state legislature. Harold’s sons, who run the farm today, attended Augusta’s segregated public schools, then went on to college: Harold graduated with a business degree from Augusta College, Charles with a natural sciences degree from Paine College.

The Thompsons also cultivated their community, even in the most repressive years of Jim Crow. John Thompson served with the Reverends C. T. Walker and Silas X. Floyd on a relief commission after floods in 1908. In 1917 he was one of the 28 prominent African American citizens who signed the charter for the Augusta Branch of the NAACP. As President of the Richmond County Republican Party, he led voter registration drives in the African American community eight years later.

But the farm could not have survived the huge changes the twentieth century brought in agriculture, technology, and urbanization had it not been for the family’s ability to change with the times. As the dray business declined with the coming of cars and trucks, the farm grew, increasing its cattle herd to 1,000 head in the 1940s. However, the 1980s brought another change as global market demand shifted from meat to soybeans and other commodities.

“You’ve got to move and move fast or lose your profit,” said Charles Thompson, who has run the farm with his brother since the 1960s.

“My father never heard of soybeans. He didn’t grow wheat or rye. Now the whole technique of farming from when I was a kid to today has turned about 200 percent. In my father’s day, you farmed with a mule and a plow. A plow isn’t hardly used any more. We do no-till, or minimum-till farming, move the soil as little as possible to build up organic matter on the top.” That method involves investment in expensive equipment.

Charles and Harold never forget the economics of farming. “The first thing you do with a farm is the business. If you have to neglect something, neglect plowing this row to keep up on your books, keep the business in order. There are good farmers, very good at growing crops, but didn’t keep up with the business end, and it caught up with them.”

At the same time, farming can’t be just a business.  “You’re dealing with nature and nature can be very cruel. You need a personal touch and personal involvement and the love has got to be there. Ask any farmer why he farms: it’s out of love of it. It’s not because he makes a lot of money. He just hopes to make a profit out of what he enjoys.”

That love, and a family culture that values intelligence, grit, and business savvy, has enabled the Thompsons to do that for more than a century.

Appears in the November/December 2019 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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