Noted Golfer Mary Harvey Isbell and Her Long-Time Friend
Nora Jernigan Join Forces for a New Adventure
"It’s not often someone can take up golf at age 30 and score lower than the temperature in July!"
That’s the way legendary golfer and golf course designer Gary Pate described Mary Harvey Isbell when she was one of the seven initial inductees into the Blount County Sports Hall of Fame in January of 1997.
More than a decade later, Mary, and her best friend since age 16, Nora Jernigan, continue showing that determination and knack for trying new things as they enjoy the animals and work on Mary’s family farm in Blount County.
Mary won the Women’s Alabama Golf Association State Amateur Championship in 1979, 1983 and 1985. She then won that organization’s Senior Amateur Championship in 1995 AND SEVEN more times! She also won the Lady Legacy category.
But her heart was always back at her family’s Blount County farm where she had hopped on the tractor to plow or bush hog as soon as she came home from school every afternoon and spent her Saturday mornings doing "tomboy" things like squirrel hunting with a single-shot .22 rifle.
"I was always ready to do whatever it took to relieve dad," Mary explained. "I always enjoyed the outdoors better than staying inside."
Mary lived on that farm with her parents Ike and Zelda Harvey until she was 20, when she moved to Center Point and married Lester Isbell.
Lester worked as a programmer for a computer-operated burning machine at a large Birmingham plant while Mary worked for Associated Grocers and then South Central Bell.
As time went on and Mary’s parents passed away, the couple began work on a house on the farm and spent as much time there as possible.
When Lester retired in 1997, Mary took early retirement and the couple moved to the farm full time, later building two beautiful pine-paneled additions to the home.
Lester and Mary operated a small golf shop in Oneonta for a time and then a popular driving range on the farm, an unusual but complementary value-added farm income.
Lester had health problems the last two years of his life before passing away two years ago this month (February).
Before his death, Mary and Nora talked with him and bought a couple of horses for him to watch in the 36 acres of rolling pastures.
Nora and Mary met when they were both 16 and became fast friends. While Nora’s family home was in Tarrant, she attended both Tarrant and Oneonta High Schools as her mother, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, was often confined to the Oneonta hospital.
Nora owned Miller Drug Store in Oneonta until her own husband, Jerry, who served as pharmacist there, passed away just weeks from Lester’s death.
Mary had worked as a pharmacy delivery person to help out her friend.
As both women struggled to face their losses their respective farms became more and more important.
Mary had already learned how important the animals could be as she struggled to deal with Lester’s illness.
"When Katrina was coming in, it was gray and cloudy and looked so bleak. But I sat out in the pasture on my cart and watched the horses for a couple of hours and it was the most relaxing time I’d had in a long time," Mary explained.
Now those original two horses, Rebel and Sweet Pea, live on Nora’s farm in the middle of Blount County (with Sweet Pea expected to foal in late April or early May) and the number of animals on Mary’s I&J Farm is ever-expanding.
There are now five Belted Galloways, three miniature Herefords (with a miniature bull to arrive as soon as new fencing is ready), seven horses, including one miniature, and two miniature donkeys.
There’s also Great Pyrenees Elvis to help guard the farm from predators like the increasing number of coyotes in the area.
"After those first two horses, Lester would hear Nora and me talking and planning for more animals and he joked ‘have you two lost your ever-loving minds?’," Mary now laughs.
As Mary and Nora show visitors around the farm, it’s amazing they note, "WE" built this section of fence last summer or "WE" built the attractive barns.
The two women do practically all the work by themselves with little outside help. Mary explained she and Lester literally built the attractive additions on their home themselves so other projects for her and Nora usually don’t appear too daunting.
They’ve stretched countless miles of electric fencing.
"Probably the time somebody would have needed a video camera the most was when I was digging the water lines for the four frost-free faucets at the troughs. I rented a Ditch Witch and it was all I could do to hold it on the line," Mary laughed.
One of their only failures, Nora explained, was when the pair intended to give Elvis a bath and he simply balked. "There was just no arguing with that big dog. He’s bigger than the miniatures."
At least one of the horses had been abused so it takes special loving care, and the miniature horse was a gift.
Mary decided on the Belted Galloways because of their docile nature. According to the U.S. Belted Galloway Society, while "sheeted cattle" are referred to in literature and arts as early as the 11th century, the first recorded history says the cattle may have been developed in the Galloway district of Scotland where the rugged and hilly seacoast region required a special hardiness for survival. But much of their selective breeding is still a mystery.
The miniature Herefords have joined the farm in the past few months.
"We researched them everywhere and really liked them because they are small enough for us to care for easily," Mary explained. "I just wish now I had paid more attention to my dad when he was tending our cattle back when I was younger."
One neighbor can’t understand Mary’s fascination with the animals on her farm if she doesn’t intend to use them for meat.
"If we name them, we’re not going to eat them," Mary stated.
But the animals have given the two women a special healing as they deal with the loss of their husbands.
"I can go out and just talk to the horses," Nora said.
But there’s also a lot of joy involved.
Mary has bought a small pink saddle and Nora’s twin two-year-old granddaughters, Darlene and Nora, enjoy riding the miniature horse and another younger friend, Cheney, just loves visiting the farm.
"We’re still learning all the time," Mary explained. "It’s a calming adventure."
Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County. You can reach her at