June 2017
Farm & Field

A Legacy of Love

Jerry and Theresa’s farm in Escambia County was named an Alabama Century and Heritage Farm in 2013. Theresa’s family has farmed the land for the past 140 years.

 

Theresa and Jerry Bell preserve 140 years of family-farming history at Legacy Acres.

To grow up on a farm that has been in your family for over 140 years is something very special! Theresa Bell did just that, but even more remarkable is the fact that she has been able to raise her own family on the same farm! She has watched as her loved ones worked hard to be good stewards, so they could bequeath a lasting legacy to the children who came after them.

Theresa’s connection to this land goes back to 1876, when her great-grandfather Coleman Strength purchased 320 acres of farmland in Escambia County.

Coleman used the virgin longleaf pine trees on the property to build a home for his wife and five children. There are many stories of Coleman’s stewardship, but one told about him floating timbers down the creeks and rivers to Pensacola, where he received his payment in silver dollars.

In 1910, Coleman deeded 80 acres to his son Frank, who built a family home for his wife and seven children in 1911. Today, this home remains on the property, next to a cane field.

Byron Strength, one of Frank’s sons and Theresa’s father, still lives on the farm.

  The Bell family are (from left, back row) Seth, holding Millie; Angie; Whitney; (front) Cooper; Jerry; Owen; and Theresa. They are standing in front of the home built by Theresa’s grandfather in 1911.

Through the years, family members have continued to raise corn, peanuts, cotton and soybeans, along with cattle and hogs. They have worked hard to preserve the land and to make it better for those who followed.

Theresa grew up on this farm with a deep connection to the land and a love for the heritage it represented. She now lives there with her husband Jerry, off Alabama Highway 113 in the Pineview Community, the highest point in Escambia County. The Bells have continued the Strength family tradition of stewardship and preservation on their working farm. They keep 22 head of Brangus cows, planting and harvesting the corn and grass to feed their herd.

They also plant sweet corn, squash, tomatoes, okra and watermelons. Each spring, their farm becomes a you-pick destination for tomatoes and a few other vegetables, and their barn porch becomes a produce stand where they sell plants and other seasonal farm products.

The Bells use the bounty from their land to help others. They raise sugar cane and donate it to Crossover Ministry, a group from Opp, who helps men overcome drug addiction. The men come to their farm to cut and strip the cane. Then, they make the syrup at their campus and return some for the Bells to sell.

The Bells also sell pecans from trees planted by their ancestors. Theresa often shares the family story of the five pecans. When Theresa’s grandmother married, an uncle gave her five pecans to plant. He told her the proceeds from these trees would pay her taxes each year. Only two of the original trees are left, as Hurricane Ivan destroyed the other trees in 2004. The remaining trees still produce many pecans that the Bells sell each fall.

   

Frank Strength, Theresa Bell’s grandfather, built this home in 1911. The Bells hope to restore the home that suffered some damage from Hurricane Ivan.

 

In 2013, the Bells applied to be designated an Alabama Century and Heritage Farm. To receive this distinction, the farm must have been in continuous use by the same family for over 100 years. Because Theresa’s family had farmed this land for the past 140 years, the farm received the honor.

The Bells named their farm Legacy Acres. The name seemed appropriate, given the long family history of developing and preserving the land as a legacy for the next generation. However, Legacy Acres has taken on a different meaning, as a turn of events in the Bell family has cast doubt on their continuing the legacy in the traditional way.

"We wanted the farm to be passed on to our children and grandchildren," Theresa explained. "But when we realized our two children were going to be engineers and not farmers, we decided to leave a lasting legacy for them to come back to and visit."

Wishing to provide a real farm experience for not only their own grandchildren but also for other children and adults in this rural area, the Bells turned their working farm into an agri-tourism destination, hoping to encourage people to get outside and learn more about the environment and farming.

To get ideas for their new project, the Bells visited agri-tourism farms in North Alabama. With the help of their children, Whitney and Seth, they set out to implement their plans. Whitney suggested they take down an old pole barn, damaged by Hurricane Ivan, and replace it with a new event barn. The Bells built a new structure, adding a caterer’s kitchen and restrooms, so the barn could be used for weddings, reunions, corporate meetings and any other get-togethers. Jerry repurposed some of the old barn boards into tables that are now used inside the new structure. He placed an old carriage inside for a focal point and a backdrop for pictures.

With hard work and help from their family, the Bells had their Grand Opening and Barn Raising Oct. 22, 2016. Their desire was to provide a quality experience for all who came to the farm. In the new barn, they held an old-timey square dance. For the kids, the Bells created a corn maze and a corn bin. They also provided many other games. They brought in a food truck to serve snacks and soft drinks to guests. Using a 1934 Meadows Mill Jerry had restored, he ground corn to let visitors see how meal and grits were made.

Theresa and Jerry Bell planted 1,000 strawberry plants in their hoop house. Customers can pick their own or purchase the delicious berries in containers or flats.

 

When the Bells had their Grand Opening and Barn Raising last year, they kicked off activities with an old-fashioned square dance.

Whitney handled marketing for the venture, developing a webpage and posting on Facebook and Twitter. She also designed T-shirts and caps, and even made games for the children. Seth worked with his father on building many of the displays and helping to coordinate the visitors.

Even though their agri-tourism venture started with what they laughingly called "baby steps," the Bells hope to expand their plans even more in 2017. They are dedicated to helping children know where their food comes from, how it’s grown and what it takes to grow that food. They hope to partner with area schools, inviting classes to visit the farm. The county schools already come to the farm for the district soil judging contests each year, but the Bells hope to involve even more students.

Jerry and Theresa plan to reopen Sept. 9, 2017, and run until the end of October. They will offer a pumpkin patch, corn maze, hay rides and other games and activities such as face painting, cut outs for pictures, a petting zoo, horseshoes and corn bag toss. They are presently trying to find someone who will make syrup on-site. Also, Jerry will once again grind corn meal on designated days for both kids and adults.

Pioneer Day will be held Oct. 7. They will host a Cow Pattie Toss, with proceeds going to the Royal Rangers, a group who does re-enactments of times prior to 1840. Visitors will see black powder guns and tomahawks, sample food cooked on open fires, and experience numerous other activities showcasing how people lived in the 1800s.

Whitney praised the work her parents have done to preserve the farm.

"I’m extremely grateful to have grown up on a farm," she stated. "I learned the value of hard work, and I got to see the true principle of reaping what you sow. With Legacy Acres, I hoped to show people the beauty of living in the country. You have an opportunity to really highlight a simpler life and just how wonderful that is. I’m so proud of all of the work that Mom and Dad have done to make this happen."

The Bells noted that many people have helped them. Jerry singled out Todd Booker, manager of Atmore Truckers Association.

"I not only got supplies at the Co-op," Jerry explained, "but Todd also came out here and gave me some real good advice. He has been a valuable resource for us!"

Theresa and Jerry know they are merely keepers of this land for a little while.

"We know if it were not for God and all of His blessings, we would not have been able to accomplish any of what has been done," Jerry stated. "All we are trying to do is be good stewards of what He has blessed us with."

By following the examples of so many other family members who have come before them, Theresa and Jerry Bell hope to leave a legacy of love that will touch their children and grandchildren for generations to come.

If you are interested in having an event at the Bells’ Event Barn, you can contact them at 251-363-0964, 251-363-0966, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Carolyn Drinkard is a freelance writer from Thomasville. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..