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History preserved in Statesboro
Couple protects local farm from progress
W 011916 JOHNSON FARM 02
The original tractor purchased by Paul H. Johnson is sheltered by the old train depot on the farm.

Only long-time residents are familiar with "old Statesboro," where much of the town's current business district was nothing but woods and farmland. Where Buckhead Plaza now stands, there was once a stately home with rolling pasture, and the Southern Square shopping center was a thick forest of pines.

With progress consuming the quiet woodlands and historic farms, some are concerned about the threat of losing those lush green spaces. That is why Dave and Carrie Welter have registered their farm just outside of Statesboro with the Central Savannah River Land Trust.

The registry will ensure that long after the Welters are gone, much of the farm that was Carrie's father's passion will remain as it once was - restored to its original state and preserving history.

Located on Highway 80 West and Woodrum Road, the homestead holds a testament to time in its renovated farmhouse, mule barn, smokehouse, train depot and tenant houses, Carrie said.

Her father, Paul H. Johnson, purchased the farm in 1930, later moving his family into an existing tenant house while the family home was built. Throughout the years, that home has been remodeled. When Highway 80 was constructed, a porch on the house and two of its rooms were ripped away. Three tenant houses on the original property had to be moved, too. All the buildings on the farm have met with renovations, but the Welters have kept the changes as close to the original layouts as possible.

Carrie inherited only a part of Johnson's farm, as her siblings received shares as well. However, with her inherited 8.5 acres and an additional 3.5 acres she purchased years later, the 12-acre tract is now safe from progressive construction, she said.

But the dream of restoring the farm was Dave's idea, she said.

The Welters restored the barn and smokehouse, then lived in a camper on site while renovations to the home and tenant house were done. Given to them by a family member, Dave was thrilled to discover tongue-in-groove heart of pine treasures inside the tenant house. He tore off the exterior, sanded it, flipped it to the underside and replaced it, then had it moved to their property by the same company that had moved other tenant houses when the highway was built, he said.

After moving onto the property four years after he purchased it, Paul Johnson worked the farm while his wife, Minnie, operated a store on the site. That store had to be moved due to highway construction as well.

"A man bought it to remodel it into a house," Carrie said of the store, which still stands in the West Main Street area of Statesboro.

The train depot was a small spur that enabled Johnson to ship his products, including mules.

"They would ship 24 to a car," Carrie said.

That was also a reason the mule barn was so large; the mules were stabled at Johnson's farm until they were taken to the livery stable or sale barns in town.

"Carrie used to collect eggs from an old boxcar that was on the property," Dave said.

But, "one day I came home and it was gone," said Carrie, who learned that her father had sold the boxcar.

The couple's most unusual and impressive discovery as they restored the farm was what they believe must have been a dance floor in the barn loft.

A 30-by-20-foot square in the center of the floor was "tongue-in-groove, heart of pine, finished lumber," Dave said. "It had been sanded."

Outside the square, the loft floor was made of unmatched, unfinished wood that had been pieced together.

"Back then, there were several dance halls within a 2-mile radius," Dave said.

The couple surmised the man who built the barn in 1918, Morgan Olliff, was following the trend of the day, when dancing was a popular pastime.

The stairs to the loft were not the usual ladder, and they are easy to access even today as the Welters continue to host barn dances, wedding receptions and other events upstairs.

They also hold "cane boilings" each year as they grind and boil sugar cane grown on the farm using an old cane mill they found in the barn. They also maintain an orchard that produces pecans and black walnuts.

Echoes of the past can be heard as whispers when strolling through the farm and its buildings. Pieces of century-old farm equipment hold secrets and tell tales of the day when the farm was booming, and the Welters are happy to make sure history is protected for years to come.

"We want to keep this in permanent condition," Dave said. "This farm will be like it is 100 years from now."

The Savannah River Land Trust is a nationally accredited nonprofit that has protected nearly 6,000 acres of land throughout the region since 2001. It is funded entirely by donations and grants.

The Welters live in Augusta but visit Statesboro weekly, and they offer the farm to residents who want to hold events there. They also welcome tours of the farm. Anyone interested may call (706) 738-2796 or (706) 231-3842.

Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.



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