By Zirconia Alleyne
It’s been almost a decade since William “Jack” Abshire died, but his two daughters and a visionary granddaughter are keeping his 61-acre farm in the family, hoping to honor his life’s work and to encourage other black farmers to keep farms in their families.
“There’s a lot of pride in it,” said Abshire’s oldest daughter, Dorothy Tolliver, who stays at the farm regularly. “Daddy worked from bootstraps up, and he put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that, so why would we say ‘It doesn’t mean anything’ and just let it go?”
William started out as a sharecropper then became a tenant and, in 1952 when he bought his own farm, he became the employer.
“Some people weren’t able to understand how he was able to do that being an Afro-American,” she said.
Dorothy, now 74, was 10 years old when her father bought the farm in Logan County.
Her sister, Josephine Abshire-Furlow, 72, loved being outside helping their dad. He raised everything from corn and tobacco, to chickens, cows and pigs.
“We slaughtered our own pigs,” Dorothy recalled. “It was cold as the dickens outside when we did that because they didn’t want the meat to spoil.”
Dorothy remembers stuffing sausage into casings and canning some of the meat with their late mother, Precious.
The sisters also have fond memories of driving the mule and wagon to pull corn, helping with the tobacco and eating fresh tomatoes out the patch.
“In the summertime, we would take sugar or salt and put it in a little plastic bag, and you’d get a tomato off the vine and eat that, then you’d take off, and you’d work some more,” Dorothy said.
Sunday afternoons were for ice cream socials. Grandma Hattie would round up the kids and take them fishing down at the pond.
Dorothy’s daughter, Janet Tolliver, 41, has fond memories of visiting her grandparents’ farm.
“Grandmother Precious was the backbone,” Janet said. “People wanted to come work for Granddaddy because they always got a meal. It was a feast.”
William would be 96 years old if he was still living, and his daughters are certain he would still be farming in some capacity.
In his later years, William took up gardening, which Josephine believes he enjoyed more than large-scale farming.
“He had a beautiful vegetable garden,” she remembered. “He had everything you could think of.”
William became known as “Vegetable Man” because he would sell his produce around the county and at the Russellville farmers market.
“It was his pride and joy to have the largest stalk of corn or cabbage or tomato,” Dorothy said.
After their father died, the sisters said their mother didn’t think twice about giving up the farm. And when Precious died several years later, Dorothy and Josephine didn’t think about selling it either.
Although neither of them farm today, the sisters lease the land to local farmers, which is a common practice among rural landowners, and both women handle the financial side of the business.
“There’s nothing that goes on at the farm that I don’t tell her,” Dorothy said about making decisions with Josephine, who lives in Detroit.
That’s just the way they were raised, Dorothy said, to do everything as a family, from work to church to decision-making.
In hindsight, Josephine — a retired college professor — said their parents were visionaries, and they taught them to be responsible, dedicated and to take care of everything they had.
“He had the foresight of looking forward and seeing what he wanted his family to do and be,” she said, “and that was to have your land, grow your own crops, and have your own livestock — just have your own.”
“I think it’s important to hold onto the land because that’s the legacy they left — a legacy of land and ownership,” she continued.
Dorothy said his mindset opened the door of opportunity, despite the fact that he wasn’t college educated.
William served on the Logan County Farm Service Agency board and was so respected by the staff that several of them were pallbearers at his funeral, Dorothy noted.
“He was able to go into banks and sit down with bankers and lawyers and know what he had in mind, to know the types of loans he wanted to get and being able to invest,” she said.
Dorothy said as long as they can keep the land, that’s what they are going to do. Although her son, Kenneth, has no interest in farming, Janet, who has a master’s degree in counseling and human development, hopes to one day inherit the farm.
Her vision is to open a transitional housing facility for felons and the homeless to learn work skills and how to be self-sufficient.
“I want to let them know what it is to grow a crop,” Janet said. “I would love to work with drug and alcohol offenders because when you have a felony offense, it’s hard to get a job.
“I would let them work the land, let them grow and cook their own food and make it a skill builder for resumes,” she continued.”If I can get this established — and that is my goal — I would, but that is up to them,” she said, looking at her mother.
At the end of the day, Dorothy said they will keep the farm in the family. She hopes to encourage other minority farm families to hold onto their land, if only for the location to be a family heirloom or meeting place.
“There are no African-American farmers up there anymore, except for one, and there used to be a lot of them up there,” Dorothy said. “In the essence of it being home, we can still go back. We stay there, and we have our family functions there.”
Josephine comes down to visit periodically, and Dorothy spends days at a time on the farm tending to the cats that still live there. Janet looks forward to Thanksgiving at the farm every year.
The family lost most of their memorabilia in a fire when Dorothy and Josephine were little girls, but a neighbor had a photo of the sisters that she gave to them as a keepsake.
Dorothy said the rapport and camaraderie is still strong among the farm families and friends their parents made in Logan County. She said her father was respected and loved by many because of his giving spirit and caring
“He had people working for him, but he treated people like he wanted to be treated …,” she said. “He would bend over backwards to help you if he could.”
Most of all, Josephine said her father was passionate about farming, her mother was dedicated to everything that involved the family, and at the center of it all was God. Precious served on the church Mother’s Board and William was a deacon.
“You never heard my dad complain,” Josephine said. “I know as hard as he worked, he had to be tired, but he didn’t complain. He had a lot of love in what he did. The proof was in the pudding.”