Preserving the Skyline Farms Colony

Posted by | July 24, 2013

Please welcome guest author Deborah L. Helms. Helms is the secretary for North Alabama’s Skyline Farms Heritage Association.  She’s a Cumberland Mountain, AL native and a 1991 graduate of Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Scottsboro-Jackson Heritage Center in Scottsboro, and is in her seventeenth year as a Family and Consumer Sciences teacher at Skyline High School.

Deborah L Helms

 

The pioneering spirit that led settlers to carve Skyline Farms Colony from the rugged north Alabama landscape in the 1930s is pushing Skyline Farms Heritage Association to resurrect its buildings, artifacts and culture.

“In a time of economic poverty, the men and women who settled Skyline Mountain exhibited a richness of character more valuable than money,” said Harold Owens, president of the association. “Although FDR’s New Deal was the architect for what locals called ‘the colony,’ it was the faith, hope and love of these families that lifted them out of the Depression.”

Owens hopes the group’s work to preserve historic structures and document the stories of the community’s first residents will honor the men and women who came to Cumberland Mountain seeking a sustainable agricultural lifestyle.

“Many people today have heard of Gee’s Bend, Ala., and the famous Gee’s Bend Quilters, but not many have heard of the Skyline Farms Colony,” Owens said. “Our goal is to achieve the same national recognition for our founders as other New Deal communities.”

Skyline School

Skyline School

Established in 1998, Skyline Farms Heritage Association works to preserve, protect and promote the unique history of the Skyline Farms Colony and the Cumberland Mountain area. By celebrating the region’s past, the association hopes to chart a brighter course for the community, which is still plagued by poverty.

“Our mission is to inspire residents to shape the community’s future with a greater appreciation and respect for their shared heritage,” Owens said. “We want Cumberland Mountain residents and visitors to understand the important role the mountain’s people have played in local, state, national and world history.”

Skyline Farms Colony was settled around 1933 in Jackson County, AL, about 15 miles south of the Tennessee line. Roosevelt-era work programs employed men from nearby towns to cut a road up the mountain. Settlers harvested timber and sandstone from the area to build homes and other buildings. The government provided families in the colony breeding stock, seed and other essentials needed to begin a new life. The plan called for members of the colony to sell any excess from their farms back to the community store as payment for their homesteads.

“My great grandfather on my father’s side, Lonzie Hill, raised his family during this time and helped to build the road up the mountain,” said Skyline High School graduate, Amy Cardwell Anders. “It’s really interesting to think about him being a part of this project. It kind of gives me a sense of pride to know where I came from.”

Rock Store in 1942

Rock Store in 1942

Today that community store — constructed of rusty yellow sandstone — is the focal point of Skyline Farms Heritage Association restoration efforts. Former owner/operator, Walter Tidwell, now aged 90, recalls, “Life in general wasn’t that bad. It was rough at times for everyone, but even though times were tough, we felt blessed. People in the community worked together, prayed together and played together. Our family made it through and I wouldn’t change one letter of my life.”

Rock Store with new roof and fascia boards, March 2013.

Rock Store with new roof and fascia boards, March 2013.

“In late 2011, the Skyline Farms Heritage Association was able to purchase the Rock Store and we are now in the process of restoring the building and establishing a museum with exhibits reflecting the life and times of the Skyline Farms Colony,” said Cindy Rice, historian of the association. “Last year, we applied for and were awarded our first grant. The grant was a two-to-one matching grant from the Bynum Trust Foundation. This grant allowed us to install a metal roof on the Rock Store in order to begin to weatherize the building.”

The group re-applied and was recently awarded another grant from the same organization. Association leaders plan to use the funds to replace windows and improve drainage around the Rock Store.

Grant funds, however, represent only a small part of the association’s investment in the community. Volunteers have given sweat equity to the cause during dozens of workdays and open houses. Their work attracted the interest of the Middle Tennessee State University Center for Historic Preservation, which helped write a Heritage Development Plan for the colony.

“The recognition of Skyline Farms Colony by regional and national organizations is fitting,” said Rice, “because the founders’ resilience is a hallmark of the generation that helped America survive the Depression and defeat tyranny during World War II”.

Rock House in 2009

Rock House in 2009

“Working together, our founders erected homes, established a school and built a community that earned national recognition for its music, innovation and resourcefulness,” Owens said. “In many ways, this experiment called Skyline Farms Colony inspired a nation and came to symbolize the spirit and resolve that made American great.”

Owens said his desire is for Skyline Farms Colony to once again be appreciated among locals and people across the country, just as it was in May 1938. That spring, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited singers and dancers from the community to perform at the White House.

The Jackson County Sentinel reported the event in its May 12 edition:

 The White House grounds rang with mountain music, hound dog wails and the shuffle of dancing feet Thursday. Twenty-two Alabama boys and girls, who helped homestead a hilltop to escape the depression, sang, danced and fiddled for 2,323 garden party guests.

Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was entertaining women executives of government departments, announced her entertainment had come 750 miles by car to play just as they do regularly on Friday nights in their own community house…in the Lower Cumberland Mountains.

Although Skyline Heritage Association’s most visible work occurred in the last three years, concerned residents began taking an active role in preserving the community’s heritage more than a decade ago.

In the late 1990s, the group’s efforts, along with the filing of an injunction by a Cumberland Mountain resident and the Alabama Preservation Alliance, prevented the old “Rock School Building” on the campus of Skyline High School from being demolished. In the fall of 1998, the building was listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage.

The association currently is working with owners of local historic sites to preserve the community’s unique heritage. The Rock School, Rock Store, the Rock House (which served as an administration building for the colony), rope factory, warehouse and cotton gin have been added to the Alabama Historical Register. On Dec. 4, 2012, the Skyline Farms Resettlement Project was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

For more information about Skyline Farms Heritage Association or to support its restoration efforts, visit the group’s Facebook page or contact Deborah L. Helms, secretary for the group at gracedlh@yahoo.com.

2 Responses

  • Terry L. Hardin Sr. says:

    Hello, I am a Skyline High School graduate class of 1977. I so much appreciate the endeavor to preserve our Heritage. My Dad, some of my uncles and even cousins graduated from Skyline too. It has been many years since I have been back on the Mountain but for a few quick visits. I want so much to come back for a long stay and visit the home places, sit a spell, see the sights. My Great Grand Parents home, Aunt Annie’s home, the Rock Store. My Grampa’s store at Letcher has long been torn down, but Dad secured a fireplace stone from the house he was born in. I’m glad I found this page, I’ll let others in my family know of it too. Thank you.

  • Chester Wayne Sharp says:

    Just a note—have not visited for a while and was impresssed again by all of the input to this history of Skyline Farms. My father, Joe Howard Sharp, played a large role in the tale of this story. He and a man named Chester Allen were the leaders of the band of musicians who went with all those people to play at the White House for the Roosevelts in 1938.

    Dr. David Campbell interviewed him in the early 1990s for his book, but I never got to see the finished product. I do have some of the music they played on tape but it needs to be converted to a CD one day. My maternal grandparents lived there during that time and participated in the project. My grandfather helped build the school and the old store. My dad also worked at the hosiery mill there; I believe it closed when WWII started; not sure. Thank you for all this information!

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