At Mountain Mama Farms, the Past is the Future
Stacie Marshall can often be found tending to a tract of land stretched among the soft, rounded summits that mark the tail end of the Appalachian Mountains in Gore, Georgia. She’s the fifth generation of her family to farm this acreage, which she’s recently named Mountain Mama Farms, and she’s got chores aplenty: milking goats and Dolly, the Jersey cow; helping her dad in the pastures with the beef cattle; weeding around her heirloom tomatoes; feeding chickens; and checking the latest buzz on her honeybees. A long list of routine agricultural activities—digging, cultivating, harvesting—defines most of her days. But these same verbs could also be used in the telling of the tale that’s still branching out from one defining moment.
It started when she was cleaning out her grandparents’ home, digging through a small mountain of tangible memories. “I was literally, physically immersed in my family’s history, surrounded by piles of all these things that had passed on to me,” she says. “And then I found a piece of paper, a copy of the farm’s slave records.” The understanding of what she held hit her hard. “I felt it in my gut, this Wow and a very sobering sensation,” she says.
It was early 2020, and she was in the process of moving her own family—her husband and young daughters—back to the farm where she grew up, to live in her grandparents’ farmhouse and to work the family farm after years away at college and then teaching. Marshall was still clinging to the rose-tinged view of her family’s heritage, two centuries that played out within a five-mile radius of the current farm, as she recalled the joys of her family working together and the solace of the tight-knit community. “We were and are so connected to our neighbors, other famers. We all help each other. I didn’t realize how unique that was until I left—decades of folks living together and really knowing each other,” she says.
“But then I found that paper and realized that this was part of that too,” she says. Her next thought: What do I do with this?
Marshall considered sliding the document in a drawer and pushing it shut. But the next question tugging at her heart stayed her hand. In this community with so many multi-generational families, I thought, What if some of the descendants of these enslaved people were right here? She initially struggled to understand her family’s silence on the subject. “I think some of it was just so much time had passed, but I think there was also shame. That idea that, ‘We’re a good family. We don’t want to be tied to that,’ ” she says. The record didn't include the names of the enslaved, just the ages and genders, all under her family’s name, Scoggins.
Marshall began itching to talk about what she’d found, but she wanted to learn more first. She was stymied on where to start until a buried recollection surfaced. “I was visiting my grandparents, and I was having a hard time nursing my first daughter,” she says. “My grandfather noticed and said, ‘That’s a trait of Scoggins women; many have trouble nursing. That’s why they bought that wet nurse, Hester, to nurse my great-grandfather.’” Marshall had never heard about Hester before, and her grandfather continued, explaining that Hester, an enslaved woman, was like family. “I’m sure it was all far more complicated than that, but that’s what was told to him and what he told me,” Marshall says.
Years later, when she found the slave record, she noted the age of one woman: 34. “I knew that had to be Hester,” she says. She began sifting through post-Civil War census documents and found a Hester Scoggins. Armed with this tiny amount of information, she approached longtime family friends and neighbors, Melvin and Betty Mosley, seeking their perspective and wisdom on what to do with the newfound knowledge. “Melvin and my dad grew up together, best friends playing on the farm, but because Melvin was Black, they went to separate schools until high school,” Marshall says. “He, and now his wife too, have been integral parts of our lives.”
The couple was excited that Marshall was anxious to bring this history to light. “To my relief, they too were curious to know more and happy with my desire to share this,” she says. “Melvin and his family prayed over me that God would break generational bondages, and that I would use our farm as a place of love for the community.”That was three years ago, and in July 2021, an article published in The New York Times put a spotlight on Marshall and her farm, focusing on her soul-searching regarding if and how to make reparations. But Marshall believes a bigger story is unfolding. “I now see that I’m on this journey of reconciliation that is more than that,” she says. “This is something I will live out for the rest of my life. I want to do what Melvin and Betty charged me with, to use this farm as a way to tie our community even closer. That won’t ever be truly finished.”
Additional characters are joining in. In fall 2021, a local historian helping Marshall figured out that Betty Mosley is Hester’s great-great-granddaughter. Today, Marshall and the Mosleys are partnering with Berry College in nearby Rome, Georgia, to share what they’ve learned and to spread the hope it has sparked. Students take an experiential farm tour, eat some of the Mosley’s barbecue, listen to Betty and Melvin tell them the farm’s whole history and then talk about it all. Berry students are also producing a documentary on the farm.
Mountain Mama Farms plans to hold more similar events in the future, but it is still a working farm, meaning Marshall is still actively farming. She’s carrying on in her kin’s footsteps, but adding some things, changing some things, and making improvements too, as she learns and relearns farm life basics from those friendly neighbors. “I have been using my area farmers to figure this all out, and I have for sure needed their help,” she says. She brought back her grandparents’ garden but has filled its rows with heirloom produce and is leaning on more sustainable methods. She sells the veggies and herbs at the local farmers market, alongside handmade soaps and salves made with her garden goodies and milk from her goats, drawing on traditional Appalachian techniques. (These products are also available in her online store.) The primary part of the farm operation remains beef cattle, and she’s helping the farm sell some of the grass-fed meat direct to consumers.
Learning the lineage of Betty Mosley has steeled Marshall’s commitment to nurture and grow the healing she’s found, and she’s driven by the farm’s future as much as its past. “The most rewarding aspect of my work is seeing my girls take this all in. This life is changing them, as it has me, and I’m getting a front row seat to watch that,” she says. She admits a desire for them to develop a deep affection for the farm as well as the surrounding community. “It is such a special place, and the way we’re doing life together with these folks, like the Mosleys, is special,” she says. That specific relationship continues to shape Marshall, but she stresses that her motivation is conviction, not shame. “Discovering that document has led to the most meaningful conversations I’ve ever had,” she says. “When we learned the connection, Betty said to me, ‘I hope your people treated my people well.’ I hope that is true too. But she also told me none of this changes her love for me, and I think that is pretty damn special, that someone has that much grace and love to give. That has forever changed me.”