Smith Farm tells the story of Georgia farm life and enslavement at Atlanta’s oldest surviving farmhouse, built in the 1840s for the family of Robert H. and Elizabeth Smith.
The Smith family moved from North Carolina to DeKalb County, Georgia, with their six children and took over the 800-acre farm of Robert’s brother, located near the contemporary intersections of North Druid Hills Road, Briarcliff Road and I-85. Today, the house and farm buildings present an opportunity for modern families, as well as individuals and school groups, to learn about life and work on a 19th century slaveholding farm in the antebellum and Civil War years of Atlanta. The farmhouse, its artifacts, and out-buildings are touchable history for contemporary visitors.
In addition to the 1840s farmhouse, the detached kitchen out back, with an ample hearth, was part of the original Smith Farm that was moved to its current site at the Atlanta History Center and opened to the public in 1972.
Other buildings – dairy, blacksmith shop, smokehouse, corncrib, chicken coop, barn, enslaved people’s cabin, and outhouse – were brought from different parts of Georgia to represent aspects of the original farm.
The majority of the men, women and children who worked the land, created community, lived, died and loved on the Smith Farm were enslaved people. This history is told around the property and centers on the enslaved people’s cabin behind the farmhouse and kitchen. Robert Hiram Smith may have owned between 11 and 19 enslaved people from the time the house was built to emancipation, based on census records and other research. Through the preservation of these buildings and this property a narrative comes to life not only about the Smith family, but also about the enslaved families living on the farm.
One example of those stories can be seen in the contrasting landscape of the farm’s kitchen garden and the garden for the enslaved people. While the kitchen garden is represented in the European planting style of rows and mounds, the nearby enslaved people’s garden embodies the companion planting technique -- now widely known and respected for the ability to maximize the use of soil and its nutrients.
The main house’s design is typical of the southern rural home of the mid-19th century. The traveler’s (or parson’s) room on the front porch remained unlocked for visitors/male travelers, who could enter at any time without disturbing the family. In the summer months, the front porch would have provided shade and space for rest and entertaining.
The house is simply furnished with antique wooden furniture evoking the period. The single bedroom downstairs (there are also two upstairs bedrooms off- tour) features a wardrobe of the sort that would have held the clothing of two, since most people then had only a few suits or dresses for each season (with out-of-season clothing usually stored in cedar chests). The loom in the bedroom represents how enslaved people and occasionally women in the homeowner family produced homespun fabrics for clothing.
As farming profits declined in the early 20th century and property values increased, the Smith acreage was used for timber, and later parceled off to make way for commercial and residential projects. The last family member to own the home was Robert’s great-granddaughter Tullie. After she died in 1967, the house and kitchen were disassembled board by board and moved and reassembled at the History Center.
The surrounding landscape represents Smith Farm in its early era, with historic varieties of crops in the fields, the enslaved people’s garden, the kitchen garden, and a swept yard by the house planted with heirloom flowers. Surrounding the farm’s outbuildings are naturalistic, native plantings. Heritage-breed sheep, goats, chickens, and turkeys make this spot a family favorite.
Today, the St. Regis Atlanta hotel rises not far in the distance behind Smith Family Farm, forming a striking juxtaposition between the mid-19th century farm and 21st century Atlanta that has caught the attention of many photographers.
As appealing as the animal residents of Smith Family Farm are to young guests, they are not part of a petting zoo. So why does the Atlanta History Center keep the creatures?
“The sheep, goats, turkeys, and chickens living the farm help visitors better understand the agricultural lifestyle of the Smiths and other families living in Atlanta during the city’s early years,” explains Brett Bannor, History Center Manager of Animal Collections.
From information provided by the Smiths for the 1850 census, Goizueta Gardens staff knows that the family then had 15 sheep. They reported shearing 33 pounds of wool that year. The breed on display today is Gulf Coast sheep.
It’s unclear if the Smiths kept goats – the same census did not inquire about them the way it did sheep. “So we aren’t certain if the Smiths had them – but they could have,” Bannor says.
Angora goats, the source of mohair, today share the barnyard with the resident sheep. The breed was chosen because records show that angoras were kept by Richard Peters, one of Atlanta’s founders. Peters bought his original stock in 1855 from the first United States importation of these goats.
“By the 1870s, mohair was commonly used to make seat cushions for passenger railroad car, so there is a great historical connection,” Bannor notes. “Atlanta was founded as a railroad town, one of the founders imported Angora goats, which provided mohair, which cushioned passengers as they rode the train taking them in or out of Atlanta. It all came full circle!”
Smith Farm also displays chickens and turkeys, typical of many southern farms. The turkeys are Standard Bronze, a domesticated breed that closely resembles Georgia’s wild turkeys. The chickens are Rhode Island Reds and Plymouth Rocks, heritage breeds originating in the 19th century.