The earliest white settlers, Scots-Irish from Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina, arrived in northeast Georgia in the late eighteenth century. They farmed the land to survive, but those settlers were not the first to raise crops in the fertile valleys and river bottomlands of what would become Rabun County. Already living in the north Georgia mountains were Native Americans, who had been farming this region for at least a thousand years.
The Mississippians, a mound-building culture that spanned AD 800 to about 1600, were an agrarian society. Their villages were located close to rivers and streams. Periodic flooding replenished soil nutrients, keeping their fields and gardens productive. A small mound near Dillard in northern Rabun County probably was the site of a Mississippian village along the Little Tennessee River.
Mississippian Intensive Farming of Maize
One of the ways Mississippians differed from prior Native American societies in eastern North America was their heavier reliance on maize (corn) for subsistence. Maize had been grown earlier in the east, but the Mississippians farmed maize much more intensively than people had in the past. Mississippians also developed a new variety of maize called eastern flint corn that resembled modern corn and produced larger crops. This allowed Mississippian populations to grow and expand across large swaths of the country east of the Mississippi River.
As Mississippian populations dwindled due to warfare and diseases introduced by European explorers, remnant tribes banded together. This amalgamation gave rise in the 1600s to the Cherokee in northeast Georgia and adjacent areas in the Southeast.
Corn and Cherokee Spiritual Beliefs
Like the Mississippians, Cherokee culture was defined in large part by the cultivation of corn. From the earliest times in Cherokee history, the raising of corn was interwoven with spiritual beliefs. “Selu,” the Cherokee word for corn, is also the name of the First Woman in Cherokee creation stories. Cornfields would have surrounded the four Cherokee villages in Rabun County.
The Three Sisters, known as corn, beans and squash, were staples of the Cherokee diet. The method of growing these crops was ingenious. The strength of the corn stalks supported the twining bean vines, while the shade of the spreading squash vines reduced weeds and trapped moisture for the growing crop. Bacterial colonies on bean roots capture nitrogen from the air, which is released into the soil to nourish the high nitrogen needs of corn. For this reason, the farming practices of the Cherokee did not rapidly exhaust the soil.
Rabun’s Early Subsistence Farmers
The first white settlers in northeastern Georgia were farmers by necessity. They had to grow their own food to survive. These people were subsistence farmers, whose families consumed virtually all of their crops and livestock. Little, if any, surplus was left for trade.
Settlers grew a variety of crops, but as with Native Americans, corn was the staple. Corn not only provided food for the farm family, it also fed the mules, oxen and horses that did the farm labor.
Corn also was food for chickens, hogs and cows, which provided milk, meat, butter and eggs. This made early Rabun farmers largely self-sufficient with the exception of such things as salt, sugar and flour. Any surplus that the farm family produced was sold or bartered for these necessities. However, most farms were small, and with a mule, a farmer was able to plant, plow and till only about one acre a day. As a result, farm surpluses were meager.
Earning Cash By Moonshining
Growing corn also gave rise to moonshining. Distilling whiskey out of corn was a way for subsistence farmers to earn badly needed cash. For many, moonshining was an economic necessity. Since so many farmers were making illicit whiskey in mountain hollows, moonshining probably was Rabun County’s largest business at one time.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the house and barn of Henry and Rosie Kilby in the Persimmon community of western Rabun County are fully intact examples of a subsistence family farm. The house was built in 1898. In addition to farming his land, Henry Kilby raised cash as a blacksmith, by selling shoes made from the leather he tanned, and operating a gristmill on Persimmon Creek. Cycles in the regional and national economy had little impact on the Kilby family, since it largely was self-sufficient.
As Rabun County progressed through the 1800s, average farm sizes became larger, enabling farmers to raise more crops. This trend generated a greater surplus of food available for trade. By the early 1900s, a truck farming industry was born in the county with locally produced food marketed in Atlanta and Athens. Truck farming grew into a significant business during the first half of the twentieth century. To facilitate this development, the Georgia Department of Agriculture built a farmers market in Dillard in 1951 that provided a place for truck farmers to store and sell their produce.
In the county’s earliest days, apples were traded for necessities the farm could not produce. Over time, large orchards were planted and apple packinghouses were built in Mountain City and Tiger. The Clayton Tribune reported that the Mountain City Packing Company expected to sell 30,000 bushels of apples in 1933. Apple production in Tiger was down to about half its normal crop that year, causing Tiger Mountain Orchards, another packinghouse, to ship only 8,000 bushels. It is estimated that 72,000 bushels of apples were grown in Rabun County in the mid-1930s.
Family Farming Program
A unique educational program advanced farming in Rabun County during the early decades of the twentieth century. The Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School offered a program in which families lived on the school campus to learn how to make a living as farmers. The families were given a house, barn, land for a garden, one acre to farm, and enough pasture for two milk cows. The harvested crops were shared equally between the farm family and the school. The length of residence was up to five years. In addition to receiving instruction in modern farm practices, some families were able to save enough money to purchase their own farms.
Much has changed since the Scots-Irish settlers began farming in Rabun County more than 200 years ago. Cherokee farmers are long since gone. Subsistence farming is largely a thing of the past. The annual corn harvest is far below the levels posted in the early 1900s. Growing apples, which peaked in the 1930s, is no longer a major business. However, one thing has not changed.
Virtually all of the food grown on huge corporate farms in other parts of the country is sold immediately into national and overseas markets. That is not the case in Rabun County. Due to the growing farm-to-table demand of consumers and restaurants, a significant portion of the food produced in Rabun County remains here…just like it did in earlier times.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in March 2021.