Arts & Culture
Freewoods Farm—A Step Back in Time
Founded by O’Neal Smalls, Freewoods Farm is the only Historical Living Farm Museum in the United States and is dedicated to recreating, with historical accuracy, life on small Southern family farms owned or operated by African Americans after the Civil War. Although Freewoods celebrates the farms owned and operated by African Americans from approximately 1865 to 1900, it is also representative of all small farms throughout the South.
The Freewoods project has three primary goals. The first is to develop a comprehensive hands-on educational program emphasizing life on small animal/human-powered farms operated by African Americans. The second is to educate the public on the importance of small family farms to the economic prosperity of the state and nation. The third is to promote tourism and minority economic development.
Freewoods Farms is a 40-acre farm established in the Burgess community of Horry County where local African-American families established farms following the Civil War on abandoned lands known as the “free woods”. In the days after slavery as the freed slaves left the plantations with only the clothes they were wearing, they were promised 40 acres and a mule, but very few actually received them. Those that did received wetlands, because they were perceived to be unsuitable for farming. However, they soon found that the wetlands enriched the farms and were a vital part of ecology.
Although Freewoods Farm is the main component, the Freewoods Living Farm Museum consists of three educational experiences: the Freewoods Farm, a Wetlands Preserve and a Main Street. Each of these educational experiences are essential components of the small farm community.
The Freewoods Farm replicates authentic farming methods using tools and animals of the period for planting of the crops without automation. The workers on the farm use mules and mule-drawn plows to cultivate the fields. They also make syrup and soap, cook over wood fires and harvest crops by hand. On the farm are buildings of the period such as the main farmhouse, a tool shed, an outhouse, and a smokehouse, as well as livestock, tobacco and storage barns among the tilled fields and grazing land.
The second component of the living farm museum is the wetlands which were a vital part of farm life during this period. “The Wetlands Preserve highlight the value and functions of wetlands as it relates to the ecological balance of the farm. The nexus between farms and wetlands, like the nexus between wetlands and the environment are brought to light.” (freewoodsfarm.com)
“The third component of the Freewoods experience is Main Street. Main Street, the place in rural America where all segments of the population came together, was the political and economic nerve center of rural America. Freewoods will re-create a rural main street of the era with shops, a farmer’s market, restaurants, and cultural sites.” (freewoodsfarm.com)
The land for Freewoods Farm Living Museum was donated to the Freewoods Foundation by Skyanchor, Inc. Wachovia Bank, Home Depot, the Sarvis Foundation, the Wedlock Family, the State of South Carolina, Horry County, City of Myrtle Beach, and the U.S. Small Business Administration are among the donors that have supported the Freewoods Farm Living Museum, but they still need additional supporters and volunteers.
The Freewoods Farm Living Museum was developed in stages. A pond was dug in the front section of the farm, along with ditches and swells throughout the farm to use for irrigation and drainage. This was the system that was used by the post-Civil War farmers. The entrance road that runs from Freewoods Road to the back of the property was built using embanked dirt crowned with limestone. Similar materials were used to construct the parking lot.
The first public reception held on the farm was on October 6, 2000 in the Grain Barn. It was a Prayer of Consecration and a Donors Reception led by Reverend Charles B. Jackson, Sr., Pastor of Brookland Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina. The event culminated with a wagon ride around the farm.
The grain barn, livestock barn, cane mill and the kettle shed were built first. Thanksgiving week, 2000 was the first time that cane syrup was made on the farm.
The first Emancipation Day celebration was held on January 1, 2000 and oaks maples and cedars were planted along Founders Lane and in the parking lot in honor of the contributors to Freewoods Farm. Afterwards, there was a celebration held at St. James Middle School with the traditional New Year’s Day dinner, storytelling, singing and a worship service.
A 100-year old farmhouse was moved onto the farm, rebuilt and restored which is where the first public event was held on January 1, 2001. Former Chief Justice Ernest A. Finney, Jr. and the public enjoyed conversation around the fireplace as a part of the Second Emancipation Day Celebration. Peach stones as well as pecan, apple and pear trees were also planted. In the afternoon, they returned to St. James Middle School where Justice Finney delivered the principle message as they worshiped and listened to music. There was also a Dance and Drums presentation by the Egbe Killimanjaro Group.
On February 24, 2001, during Black History Month, there was a public demonstration of how the old famers made lime using oyster shells and fire. Afterwards, a fish fry was held using the syrup kettle to cook the fish over an open fire.
In March 2001, the primary source of power for the farm arrived—two mules whose names are Pete and Jake. During this time, Ms. Janet Page Turner of Mullins, South Carolina, gave a 100-years-old pole-type tobacco barn to the Freewoods Foundation. A second tobacco barn was given to the foundation by Mrs. Evelyn Wells and family of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. Both tobacco barns were disassembled, moved and reassembled on the farm. The Smokehouse was also completed in 2001 and is used to make sausage and smoke hams as well as the Display Barn where old farm equipment will be housed
Freewoods is continuing to plan and build Main Street which represents the rural community’s nerve center during the Post-Civil War era and is an important part of the educational program and will serve an important economic function. There will be several buildings built and each of the businesses that occupy them will pay rent to the Freewoods Foundation to help support the Freewoods project.
Among the buildings will be Aunt Sarah’s Kitchen which will also serve as a dinner theater; a Farmers’ Market that will sell produce and Freewoods Farm, local gardens and local farms; and a General Store that will sell canned goods from Freewoods Farm and gardening supplies. There will also be a craft shop selling works by low country and South Carolina craftsperson and artists; a City Hall to headquarter the Foundation which will include a gift shop, public restrooms and additional office space to rent; and a gift shop to sell sweets made on the farm such as cookies, candies and other goodies.
There are also plans being developed for an Amphitheater with removeable walls to be used for storytelling for children, performances and presentations. They are in the process of developing plans for a Children’s Day Camp Program for children nine to fifteen years of age with educational and recreational opportunities to target vacationers to the Grand Strand.
The Children’s Day Camp Program will acquire university interns to work with the children who will arrive at the Farm at 7:00 a.m. Their mornings will be spent feeding livestock, picking fruits and vegetables, weeding, and doing age-appropriate chores around the farm to help them understand the importance of manual labor and the value of hard work. Their afternoons will be filled with recreational activities such as cook outs, nature trails, and field trips to Brookgreen Garden, old plantations and modern farms in Horry County.
Educational programs will be developed for each of the components of the Freewoods project using graduate students that will be funded by the Freewoods Foundation. There will be mini-courses on historic data about animal-powered farms and wetlands, daily farming activities, gardening, making preserves, caring for house plants and canning. Freewoods will also have scripts for tour guides, handouts for visitors, and self-guided tours of the wetlands
Jim Hodges—Former Governor of South Carolina lent his support:
“As we approach the 21st Century, it is important that we not only recall the events of the last 100 years, but also work to preserve their memory for generations to come. Freewoods Farm will provide a valuable living historical resource to educate our children and highlight the important contributions of African American farmers to the Palmetto State. All South Carolinians will benefit from the preservation of this important part of history.”
Laurie McLeod, Former Chairperson of the Horry County Council also lent his support:
“As you know, farming has been the lifeblood of Horry County. The type of farming that will be represented by Freewoods Farm was the way of life for most residents of the county until the mid to late Sixties. It would be entirely fitting and proper for us to establish here a living farm museum that represents our great heritage and tradion. Surely our children, grandchildren, and generations to come should know about the foundation of our modern economy. The small family farm has been a national treasure. As times change and as the old way of life fades into the sunset, we would honor those farmers who breathed life into agriculture and the state itself, by creating Freewoods as a symbol of our gratitude. I, therefore, request that you give it your full support.”
A typical year for Freewoods Living Farm Museum begins with the Emancipation Day celebration, followed by a Black History month celebration which is a demonstration of how the old farmers made lime and a fish fry. During the summer they grow crops—sweet potatoes, peanuts, watermelon, sugar cane and garden vegetables—which are harvested the old-time way. Crops are harvested in the fall. During the season, the farmers market is set up on Saturday mornings and Tuesday afternoons to sell the crops. November and December is the time to make syrup by stripping the sugar can and cooking it over an open fire.
You can help Freewoods Farm workers make syrup the old-fashioned way with Pete and Jake pulling the cane mill round and round and the syrup being cooked in an open kettle. Freewoods Living Farm Museum is open for work sessions and tours and if you would like to have a Freewoods Farm Wedding, that is possible too. You can call O’Neal Smalls at 843-650-2064, Geneva Smalls at 843-650-2734, or Freewoods Farm @ 843-650-9139. Freewoods Farm address is 9515 Freewoods Road, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. For additional information and directions, please visit www.freewoodsfarm.com.