Prairie Farms House The Prairie Farms Resettlement Community in Macon County was one of several experimental planned communities established during the Great Depression by the federal government. It became home to 34 African American families, most of whom were displaced from land that later became the Tuskegee National Forest. Various New Deal agencies were responsible for creating projects that would foster rural and economic development in the United States. For example, the Resettlement Administration (RA) and its successor, the Farm Security Administration (FSA), oversaw almost 150 community projects in 40 states by 1938. Close to half of these projects were established in 10 southern states, including three in Alabama: Skyline Farms in Jackson County, which was for whites only, and Gee’s Bend in Wilcox County and Prairie Farms in Macon County, both of which were for African Americans.
The Prairie Farms Resettlement Project was actually one of two New Deal project efforts in Macon County. The first was the Tuskegee Planned Land Use Demonstration (TPLUD), which was begun in 1935 under the direction of the Land Utilization Division of the Resettlement Administration. As originally planned, the federal government was to purchase 40,000 acres of highly eroded and unproductive “sub-marginal” land inhabited by 400 families in east Macon County. Budget cuts resulted in only 10,000 acres being purchased. Tuskegee Institute acted as the administrative agency of the TPLUD, the only Land Utilization project with an all-African American management team, including the USDA project supervisor T. N. Roberts. Tuskegee Institute also provided staff release time for project support, campus office space, and supervisory support for labor provided by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In the field, TPLUD activities targeted soil conservation and erosion control, forestry, pasture and grazing improvement, recreation development, construction, and general land rehabilitation. In addition to its land-use objectives, the TPLUD plan called for the relocation or resettlement of 133 families, 121 of which were impoverished African Americans. Of this number, some 30 families would eventually relocate to Prairie Farms.
The Prairie Farms Resettlement Project, as originally proposed in 1935, was to include approximately 75 families drawn from the Black Belt counties of south-central Alabama. The resettlement was to place families on separate farms scattered in existing communities. By mid-1936, however, the plan had shifted to a “group-settlement” organization, in which participating farmers would be resettled together near local communities and their services.
Students in a Shop Class Both the land utilization and resettlement parts of the TPLUD were under the supervision of T. N. Roberts. In early 1936, he recommended that the resettlement phase integrate with the land utilization project. By 1937, Prairie Farms had been designated as the “resettlement center” for the families in the TPLUD project area. The Prairie Farms Project area encompassed more than 3,100 acres from two comparably sized plantations in northwest Macon County, the George E. Dozier estate of 1,751 acres to the north and the A. P. Tyson plantation of 1,411 acres to the south, purchased by the federal government for $77,645. Situated approximately halfway between Tuskegee and Montgomery, it was bordered by Montgomery County along the Okfuskee or Line Creek to the west, by Elmore County along the Tallapoosa River to the north, by the Cubahatchee Creek in Macon County to the east, and by US Highway 80 to the south. After budget cuts, the project plan was revised to include 37 farms ranging from 41 to 135 acres, two community pastures of 230 and 431 acres, and a community center with almost 10 acres. Further revision scaled the farm plan down to 35 and then 34 farms of between 39 and 134 acres, a 550-acre community pasture, the community center and school with 10 acres, a store, and a 6.63-acre home-site for the community manager.
By 1937, the first of 30 families from the TPLUD project area had started to settle at Prairie Farms. They joined four families who had been tenant farmers on the former plantations that now comprised the resettlement project. These initial families lived in existing housing until the new project houses were built by WPA crews. Eventually, each farmstead had a new house—31 of which had four rooms and three of which had three rooms—electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a drilled well, and a sanitary privy. Each farm also had a barn, stable, poultry house, vegetable house, and pig pen.
A key component of the Prairie Farms Project was its Cooperative Association. Organized in June 1937 for project farmers and other low-income farmers from the surrounding vicinity, the Prairie Farms Cooperative Association operated a store, canning plant, feed and grist mill, hay baler, tractor and plows, mowing machine, and a cane mill. It also provided cooperative buying for farm equipment and supplies, as well as cooperative marketing of farm crops and livestock. Finally, the association operated the 550-acre community pasture and cattle herd.
Once at Prairie Farms, the settlers were given a lease-purchase agreement for a long-term mortgage from the U.S. government at low-interest rates. The agricultural program, directed by Tuskegee graduate Coleman Camp, was based on diversification and self-sufficiency, a system of farm production based on livestock (especially hogs), vegetables, and hay and away from dependence on cotton. According to Camp, the goals were to grow sufficient food for the family and feed for the livestock and have a surplus of each to sell. This transition was slow; in his first-year progress report to the FSA in 1939, Camp related how few of the farmers were able to meet their financial obligations. This was anticipated, because the project was just starting up. The FSA presumed that, with experience, future years would prove more successful for the Prairie Farms residents.
The other major center of activity was the school, which was named the Tuskegee Institute Prairie Farms Laboratory School and headed by principal Deborah Cannon, who was recruited by Tuskegee’s third president, Frederick Douglass Patterson. The physical plant of the school consisted of a five-room school building, along with home economics facilities, a farm shop with tools, a health center equipped for examinations and treatment, a teachers’ cottage, a barn, and a playground that included two basketball courts, a volleyball court, a baseball field, and a track.
Prairie Farms School and Community Building The school was equipped to instruct 175 students and 213 were enrolled from the resettlement families and farm families in the surrounding area. The curriculum, which covered grades 1-9, focused on relating reading, writing, and mathematics to the experiences and problems that students encountered in their everyday lives and in their community. Tuskegee Institute also provided teachers who were education majors, supplies for the classrooms, instructional support by its faculty, visits by extension agents and the Booker T. Washington Agricultural School on Wheels, and even transportation for fieldtrips to the Institute campus that included meeting famed agricultural educator, inventor, and researcher George Washington Carver.
Student activities were an important part of the school, with a student council made up of two members from each grade, a number of academic and social clubs, a 4-H program, a school newspaper called the Prairie Farms Highlights, and a student cooperative that sold paper, pencils, fruit, and candy.
The school building also served as a community center where residents held community meetings, plays, and interdenominational religious services every fourth Sunday. Additionally, the facility provided a hot lunch program for students supported by the PTA and a community health center with a full-time nurse that included a baby clinic, provided exams, and offered preventive medicine and treatment for illnesses. It was also a site for evening adult educational classes in basic skills, agriculture, and home economics. The school also held an annual Spring Festival, often associated with National Negro Health Week, that included health-related entertainment, lectures, clinics, and even athletic contests and a barbecue dinner.
Remnants of Prairie Farms The outbreak of World War II and southern political dissatisfaction with what were considered liberal social programs combined to end federal support for Prairie Farms and other similar FSA projects, both financially and politically. However, interest in the resettlement communities continued, and in 1940 the FSA considered expanding Prairie Farms by at least 2,000 acres to accommodate 25 to 30 additional families and to make the farms more economically viable. In 1944, the FSA reported to Congress that the farms and community in Macon County were still viable. The same year, the first three farm units were sold by the U.S. Government to private owners. By 1947, more than two-thirds of the farm units were sold, and the sales of the last two farm units occurred in 1951.
Prairie Farms Recreation Center Today Despite the brief existence of these programs, a generation of African American farmers received benefits that would not have been available otherwise. Landless sharecroppers were given the opportunity to own farms, receive instruction, send their children to school, and access the resources of Tuskegee Institute. Many of the individual farms survived and were passed to the next generation, and some are still in operation today. The Prairie Farms site today is much like any other rural community; it has experienced many changes. Full-time agriculture has declined, farms have been sold, and extensive mining has displaced the landscape. Some of the units have been consolidated to make larger farms, and others have been subdivided into home-sites for family and extended family. The school building has been relocated and replaced with a recreation center for seniors; thus the children of the original settlers at Prairie Farms continue to quilt, play checkers, exercise, and meet and eat together much like their parents did when they started a new life in west Macon County.
Partridge, Deborah Cannon. “A Plan for Redesigning the Curriculum of the Rural Laboratory Schools of Tuskegee Institute.” Ph.D. Diss., Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, 1945.
Pasquill, Robert G., Jr. Planting Hope on Worn-Out Land: History of the Tuskegee Land Utilization Project, Macon County, Alabama, 1935-1959. Montgomery, Ala.: NewSouth Books, 2008.
Resettlement Administration. Various Prairie Farms Project reports and files. File RR-AL-28, Record Group 96, National Archives, Washington, D.C., 1935-1941.
Zabawa, Robert E. and Sarah T. Warren. “From Company to Community: Agricultural Community Development in Macon County, Alabama, 1881 to the New Deal.” Agricultural History 72 (Spring 1998): 459-486.