A forgotten relic
Today it's mostly a forgotten relic of another era, a 147-acre slice of rolling country that'll be sold to whittle down the county's debts. Few know its past, and even fewer are left to talk about life on the farm. The last of the people it served died long ago.
But a few who lived on the farm as the children and grandchildren of its managers remember it with a gauzy fondness.
"It was a great place to live," said Beverly Baughn, who lived on the farm from her birth in 1959 to 1968. "My memories of the county farm are some of the happiest of my life."
Baughn's grandparents, Floyd and Ethel Robinson, ran the farm for the county for most of the '50s and part of the '60s. Her mother, Joan Grimes of Lancaster, and uncle, Jim Robinson of Lexington, lived there as well.
They shared the place with a cast of eight or so characters who rotated in and out depending on season and circumstances.
Shelton Moss, whose former in-laws, Jess and Jewell Simpson, managed the farm before the Robinsons, said the people who came to the place were homeless or "just a little unbalanced at times" and needed a break. Some stayed overnight, others for years.
They were "like street people today," said Moss, who is 70. "They were looking for a place to get some heat and food. When it got real tough, they had to have a place to stay and they would go there."
That's not to imply it was place to lounge and get fat. Every able body was expected to pitch in. It was a farm, after all, and with tobacco, cows and chickens, there was never a lack of work.
"You kinda had to earn your keep," Moss said. "You were fed enough to get you by ... but you didn't just go out there and become a draw on the county."
In addition to the main house, where the managers lived, there were six small cabins that housed the farm's tenants. Each had two bedrooms and was heated by coal. None had a bathroom.
"They would come to the house once a week, I think, and take baths," said Grimes, 61. "They carried their own water. Except (one-legged) Otis."
'Like a part of the family'
Talk to Grimes and Baughn about the farm and it's clear that what they remember most are the people who stayed there. The cabins, which were torn down long ago, sat near the main house. That proximity and the cooperative nature of farm life made familiarity, even lasting friendships, inevitable.
The pipe-smoking Tilda Bray, whom everyone called Tildy, helped Ethel Robinson in the kitchen. The residents ate in the house, helped out and generally tolerated rambunctious kids.
"It was different from anything I'd ever experienced," Grimes said. "It was good living there. They were almost like a part of the family after a while."
Some are remembered slightly less fondly than others, like Mily Beasley.
An older man, he didn't suffer smart-alecky children well, said Baughn, who lives in Ashville, N.C., and has done extensive research on the farm's history.
"We'd tease him and ask him if he was in the Civil War," she said. "Mily would spit. He could spit right in front of your toes. He could spit in your hair if you made him mad enough."
Otis, whose last name is lost to memory, was one of her favorites. The big man with the peg leg "like a pirate" was exempt from much of the chores, Baughn said. But for some reason, he took it on himself to be a kind of watchdog when the kids looked like they might make their escape.
"If any of the kids got near the front gate," she said, "he hollered, 'Miss Robinson! Babies at the gate!' I really liked Otis a lot."
Moss remembers well the woman with the pot on her head. "People would see her and say, 'Oh, she's crazy,'" he said. "To my knowledge, she never did harm anybody. She was just one of those ladies at the Derby last week, only she had a pan."
The end of an era
But the people, like their cabins, are all gone, and have been for 30 years. The old main house still stands, barely, a rotting shell that surely has a date with a bulldozer soon. Little else besides a decrepit barn remains from its glory days in the first half of the century. Near the house, there's a small cemetery for residents who never left, but the ravages of cattle and time have rendered it invisible.
For Grimes and Baughn, the farm's demise is a melancholy affair. They visited it together a while back and were dismayed by its condition. Grimes has no desire to see the place one last time before it's sold.
"I don't want to do that," she said. "I really hated to see it in the shape it was in." She prefers "to just remember it like it was."
So would her daughter.
"It was a great place to grow up," Baughn said. "It was wonderful."