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Georgia Industrial Children's Home Returns To Farm Life


By: Liz Fabian, Macon Telegraph
5/2/2012 10:39:58 AM


More than a century ago, the Rev. William Mumford opened a portion of the old Knight plantation to needy children. On nearly 200 acres of rolling green pasture in west Macon, orphans and abandoned boys and girls worked the land.

Life-sustaining skills took root as they planted and harvested crops, tended to livestock and sold eggs, meat and produce across the community. The proceeds helped keep the Georgia Industrial Children's Home running while children with nowhere to go found direction for their lives.

Now about 115 years later, the home is turning back to the land.

Over the years, it became less of a farm and more of a mini-trade school with lessons taught in shoe repair, sewing and cooking.

There are few traces left of the industrious, hands-on life of those early years. The nearly four dozen teens who now call the place home attend local schools. They learn life skills but aren't responsible for helping run the property like in the old days.

"This is not a place where kids in trouble come, but a place where children can come when they've been taken from homes," said Joy Fulmer Dyer, a volunteer who lives across the street.

Some of the abuse they've suffered was unthinkable in 1897 when Mumford opened the haven.

Although today's emotional problems are more complicated and fundraising is challenging, Dyer has a grass-roots solution.

Unlike many of the kids who seek refuge, Dyer had a loving father. The late Clemson University horticulture professor Pat Fulmer shared with her his passion for growing.

Dyer, a landscape designer, is now hoping to propagate a new generation of land lovers and provide needed funding for the home in tough economic times.

On a stroll through its vast pecan orchard a few years before Fulmer's death in July, he identified a wide variety of trees. The selection would ensure a crop each year.

Dyer wondered about having the youths get involved and sell the trees' nuts.

"I'd bring a bag of pecans and leave a note saying, 'You're sitting on a gold mine,' " Dyer said.

In the first harvest since the 1970s, last year's crop produced 2,800 pounds of pecans without irrigation in a drought year. That's not counting nuts that might have been pilfered.

Prices also hit record levels, bringing up to $3 per pound for raw nuts and more than $10 per pound for shelled pecans.

Dyer also sprouted an idea to fund renovating the historic orchard: a farm-to-table dinner in the moonlight.

On May 5, diners will sit at one long table under the trees and enjoy five courses prepared with locally grown food paired with Peach Valley wines.

The resurgence of small family farms and the organic food craze is creating a demand for workers with skills long abandoned for industry and technology.

"There's a need to train in food security and healthy food," Dyer said. "We need to make sure these kids know that's a viable career choice."

Many of the children don't see college as an option but could learn to live off the land, she said.

"It's a career path they can pursue with more fresh markets and community gardens," Dyer said.

Linda Finley, the program director for the home, sees the benefits.

After Twin Cedars Youth & Family Services took over managing the home in 2009, she realized the evolution of Mumford's ministry is a professional history of homelessness in America.

"The more we became industrial from agrarian, the more homelessness became prevalent as well," Finley said.

It's a particular problem for children whose parents can't or won't care for them.

"This is the most vulnerable population to homelessness, especially in the more severe cases," she said.

Children who have been convinced they would never amount to anything might take pride in the fruit of their labor.

Having something to show for themselves can boost self-esteem.

"It's good to get your hands in the dirt, too," Finley said.

The home's most important crop has always been the youths who live there. Freckled faces from yesteryear look out from faded, sepia-toned photographs pulled from a vast, but crumbling archive.

Steven Gonser, the home's educational services coordinator, is trying to piece together remnants that could be gathered into a more permanent and accessible archive.

Dyer and volunteer Jeff Battcher, who is helping plan the dinner, want to share the home's heritage. They are brainstorming about finding college interns who could help preserve the collection, which includes Bessie Bell Napier's sheepskin from Wesleyan College in the class of 1876.

"There are great stories here. Can you imagine talking to some of these families?" Battcher asked. "We have the makings of a Ken Burns documentary here."

They will be reaching out through social media to connect with some of the lives grafted into the home's nurturing environment.

Finley regularly gets phone calls seeking information from the 1930s and '40s. She tells folks to come see the documents.

A 1952 crop rotation chart pulled from the pile still has viable information.

Dyer and Battcher already are hoping to branch out to blueberries and capitalize on a hidden garden of wildflowers in the woods.

Projects could be tailored to teach children, and sensory gardens could help nurture delicate lives rescued from society's wilderness.

"I love these kids," Dyer said. "They don't have a traditional home where they can tend a garden or learn from grandparents, so we want to do it here."


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