The connection between agriculture and West Tennessee is as old as the last ice age. When the glaciers retreated and the sea whose northern reaches brushed the southern edge of our state dried, what remained in the land between two of the great rivers of our nation was a fertile alluvial plain that stretches from the line of hills bordering the Tennessee River all the way to the Mississippi River. This plain which covers approximately 10,650 square miles or 6.8 million acres is the largest single geographical region in the State. The region was home to a number of various Native-American tribes and civilizations, although by the time European settlers began to arrive in the region the land was unoccupied. This region’s rich soil and abundance of natural waterways that provided ready-made transportation routes for crops are the reasons that it was so highly prized by settlers during the opening decades of the nineteenth century.
The city of Jackson, or Alexandria as it was originally named, served as a commercial, legal and administrative hub for the region. The history of Jackson begins on this borderland between agriculture and industry. By the middle of the 1800s and the arrival of railroads to West Tennessee this position was only strengthened as not one but multiple separate railroads were built through the city in the years before and after the Civil War. With the waning of the railroads new major highways were constructed that took their place. All of these served to make Jackson a center for funneling the agricultural resources of the area to other locations.
This boundary between agriculture and the services and industries that support it has changed in the last half century. Jackson is no longer, nor are most of the larger cities of Tennessee and the South, defined by their roles as agricultural conduits or support centers. One of the great changes of the last hundred years has been the radical shift in the United States from a primarily agrarian society to an urban one, and while this shift like most things that happen in our country came later to the more conservative and traditional South it has nevertheless arrived. But I don’t want to climb on my Wendell Berry soap box here to bemoan this fact; rather I would like to encourage you to make peace with the current state of affairs.
You, me, all of us who live inside Jackson are part of this new urban society, but most of us also are not that far removed from a time and place where things were different. Three out of my four grandparents were raised or lived on farms, and while most of us can’t, or—let’s be honest—don’t want to, go back and recreate this earlier state, understanding our agrarian roots and in some ways embracing them will allow us to have a better and fuller understanding of who we are, and why the South is the way it is.
In Jackson we are fortunate to have a wonderful resource in our city to help with this. The West Tennessee Agricultural Research Center just off the By-Pass on Airways Boulevard is a great place to reconnect with you agrarian heritage. The oldest research center in the UT system it was founded in 1907 and whether you want to stroll through their beautiful and ever seasonally changing gardens, take classes on gardening, or get information about new trends in agricultural research the Ag Center is the place to go.
And if you have the day free tomorrow (July 9th) you are in luck. The annual Summer Celebration at the Ag Center starts at 9 a.m., with the opening of the Master Gardeners’ Plant Sale, and runs all the way until 6 p.m. The cost is $5, and for that you have access to the plant sale, lectures on gardening, and a host of vendors from across the area. So get out and reconnect with you rural heritage tomorrow if you have the time or at least take some time this summer or fall to visit the West Tennessee Agriculture Research and Education Center. You will be glad you did.
Visit the West Tennessee Agriculture Research and Education Center's website here.
Kevin Vailes teaches whatever they ask him at the Augustine School in Jackson, though if he had his choice he would spend his time ruminating on the intricate complexities of the classical world and trying to get his Latin students to study their vocabulary. Kevin grew up in and around Jackson and went to Union University where he met his best friend and wife Elizabeth. They live in the Jackson’s historic LANA neighborhood in a 100+ year-old bungalow with their five children. He believes that stories are what bind us together and cause us to love and care for something, and he hopes that in sharing Jackson’s stories with you, you will fall in love with Jackson and care about it too.
Photography by Kevin Vailes.