Society & Culture

UGA Cooperative Extension helps reinvigorate agriculture at Atlanta History Center

Extension - Smith Family Farm 1860s Gulf Coast sheep-h.env
Madison County sheep farmer Jan Southers' Gulf Coast lambs play in her field. (Credit: Merritt Melancon/UGA)  

Extension helps find solutions to livestock, water quality issues at urban farmstead

Atlanta, Ga. – When the Atlanta History Center needed to learn a lifetime’s worth of historical farming skills to implement on the 1860s Smith Family Farm in time for their annual Sheep to Shawl event, they went to University of Georgia Cooperative Extension experts.

Sheep to Shawl—which will be held April 13 from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.—has been a staple of the Atlanta History Center’s calendar since 1989. The center spent the past year reinvigorating the farm to provide a more authentic backdrop to the skills demonstrations. With UGA Extension’s help, they were able to solve livestock and erosion problems and add live animals and crops to the farmyard.

Mark Risse, the Georgia Power Professor of Water Resources in the department of crop and soil sciences, and Melony Wilson, a UGA Extension specialist in the department of animal and dairy science, helped the farm ensure that their animals won’t have any negative impacts on the local waterways. First, they found the best places to locate and build barns and poultry houses and then they worked with the center’s consulting engineer to refine their storm water management plan to make sure water runoff was “routed into rain gardens and infiltration swales and was not discharged into streams at the center,” Risse said.

They also advised the center’s staff on how to harvest the rainwater from the center’s buildings to use for livestock or landscape watering.

After fixing water runoff issues and preparing barns and chicken houses, UGA Extension was ready to help them find animals.

Census records from the 1860s showed that the Smith family kept all sorts of livestock, including sheep, cattle, pigs and chickens. The center’s staff knew their land would not support cattle and the neighborhood might not support pigs, but they definitely wanted sheep and chickens.

The challenge was “most of the livestock that we have in Georgia does not look like what we would have had during the 1800s,” said Ronnie Silcox, a professor of animal and dairy science.

To keep the farm historically authentic, he and Mike Lacy, head of the poultry science department, recommended Gulf Coast sheep and Rhode Island Red hens and roosters. Both breeds come closest to the animals a family would have kept during the 1860s.

The Gulf Coast sheep added to the farm—two ewes and two lambs raised by Madison County sheep farmer Jan Southers—descended from flocks of Spanish sheep brought to the New Orleans area in the 18th century. The breed was a staple wool producer across antebellum Georgia and, after hundreds of years in the southern U.S., has adapted to warm, muggy conditions.

The updates help the Smith Family Farm to continue to be a great and much needed tool for teaching agricultural literacy as well as history to metro-Atlanta students, said Fulton County Cooperative Extension Agent Menia Chester.

“It will be a good resource for all of the kids in the community. Unfortunately,” she said, many “people don’t know where their food comes from—especially kids. We want to help them to learn that process, from the field to the table.”

Michael Rose, executive vice president of the Atlanta History Center, agrees. “The Smith Family Farm experience has been one of the Atlanta History Center’s most important public offerings,” he said. “The farm provides not only an historic setting for interpretation, but also creates an important connection between our historic gardens, our folk life collections and exhibitions and school and public programs related to food ways and domestic arts—as well as understanding the lives of the enslaved during the time period.”

Sheep to Shawl is a celebration of the skills needed to make a living on mid-19th century family farms. It will feature sheep sheering, spinning and weaving by costumed interpreters and demonstrations of other mid-19th century skills. Storytellers and musicians will share entertainment from the period at the Smith Family Farm, located at the Atlanta History Center, 130 West Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta, Ga., 30305.

For more information on the Smith Family Farm, see For more information on UGA Extension, see