When O’Neal Smalls returns to the tiny community of Burgess near Myrtle Beach
, he goes home in more than one way.
Smalls, a retired University of South Carolina law professor, divides his time between Columbia and the farming community in which he grew up before going off to earn degrees from Tuskegee Institute, then Harvard and later Georgetown.
It was while Smalls was working in Washington, D.C., more than 20 years ago that he began thinking about how African-American farms were becoming rarer and rarer. And that troubled him.
“African-American farmers played a huge role in American history,” Smalls said, adding that generations since the 1950s sought opportunities away from the farms that had sustained their families since the end of the Civil War.
“Children of that generation didn’t want anything to do with the history of sharecropping,” Smalls said. “They don’t understand that those farmers built the churches and schools and fraternal organizations in the community.”
Smalls was determined that that part of American history – his history – would not fade away.
After nearly 25 years of planning, Smalls, with Burgess community members serving as advisers, opened Freewoods Farm
in 2000. A 40-acre living history museum, Freewoods is a working farm that replicates the practices common to black farms from the turn of the 20th century to the 1950s, which means the farm is not mechanized – it is “animal-powered.”
Because the farm is located in low-lying wetlands, an intricate system of ditches, based on early local farming practice, was dug to provide needed drainage.
“The original farmers were wise,” Smalls said.
Freewoods contains three components – the actual farm (which takes up about 30 percent of the 40 acres), protected wetlands and a planned Main Street project that once completed will feature markets, restaurants and an amphitheater that will generate needed revenue for the farm, Smalls said. A large farmers market near the entrance to Freewoods is rented for special events (weddings, reunions, group meetings) will be the anchor for the Main Street, he said.
A farm manager lives on-site and oversees the growing of the crops – potatoes, peanuts, melons, beans and peas, a little cotton for demonstrations, and sugar cane – much of which is sold to visitors and neighbors.
Each November, community members and school children come to Freewoods to help with the processing of the sugar cane into syrup. Mounds of cut cane are gradually fed into a mule-powered mill. The cane juice is extracted, then transferred to a 65 gallon kettle and cooked. Smalls estimated they process about 65 gallons of syrup each year.
Guests are welcome to visit Freewoods Farm year-round, Monday through Friday between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. There is no charge but the farm accepts donations and sells sugar cane syrup and produce grown there. Those wanting guided tours should call ahead, (843) 650-2064.