To be included in the Arkansas Century Farm program, families must show documentation that proves their farm has remained in the same family for at least 100 years.
Willie Gammon had the required paperwork for his Gammon Farm to be added to the list in 2013. But he has something even more telling about his ancestry, something with much more feeling than a land deed.
He has his great-great grandfather’s slave papers.
“It’s an honor,” Gammon says, “looking back and seeing what they (his ancestors) achieved, especially coming out of slavery and through the great migration to the state of Arkansas.
“Just to have those slave papers in my hand and to see how many family members were located on that farm is breathtaking.”
A Family Tradition
The Gammon Farm, which has been in Crittenden County since the 1890s, exemplifies the reason the Arkansas Agriculture Department implemented the state’s Century Farm program in 2012.
The Gammons’ story is but one of many from the 239 family farms that have been added to the list in the program’s first three years. “The overall purpose is to showcase the richness of our agricultural history and legacy,” says Cynthia Edwards, deputy secretary for the Arkansas Agriculture Department. “It really is the backbone of our state, and it goes way back. Their farm means so much to these families. They’re obviously going to take good care of the land, because they have such great pride in their heritage.”
A Long Journey
Gammon’s pride is evident as he recounts his family’s history. His ancestors came to America in the 1700s on a slave ship from Africa, first being sold at auction in Virginia before going to South Carolina in the 1800s.
John Gammon, Willie’s great-great grandfather, was later sold to a farm in Mississippi.
After slavery was abolished, he made the trek over the Mississippi River and settled in eastern Arkansas.
“It’s certainly inspiring to look back and find out exactly where you came from and the road that they traveled,” says Gammon, who operates Gammon Farm with his brothers, Carey and J.B.
“It’s amazing what they had done, even coming to Arkansas. At the time when there were no bridges between Arkansas and Tennessee. I’ve heard stories of how they got stuck in the Mississippi River coming across. My great-great grandmother had to get out and help push the wagon across.”
Willie Gammon’s cousin, John Gammon, kept the farm going through much of the 1900s and played a key role in Arkansas agriculture. He was an analyst for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and later organized the Negro Division of the Arkansas Farm Bureau as well as the state’s first Negro Poultry Cooperative. He started the John Gammon Foundation in 1967 to provide college scholarships for black young people “who could not otherwise attend college,” and was inducted into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame in 1989.
Like many family-owned farms in Arkansas, the Gammons have had bumps along the way, including droughts, floods and the Great Depression.
Gammon says the farm has been reduced over the years from one that was involved in timber, cattle, orchards and row crops to now just soybeans, primarily due to drainage issues from the nearby St. Francis levee.
Despite these issues, the family farm moves forward, and will one day reach a seventh generation of farmers toiling the same land as their ancestors.
“It’s amazing,” Edwards says, “what families have gone through but were still able to keep the land in their family all these years.”