A Sharecropper’s Roots
By Renea Winchester
Billy Albertson promised himself that if he ever saved enough money to buy a place of his own he would put down permanent roots. Being a sharecropper’s son meant living in someone else’s house, using someone else’s tools and tending the soil someone else owned. Sharecroppers and their children owned the clothes on their backs and a few meager possessions. The lucky ones had a cow, a mule and a gaggle of chickens. The work was hard and “a gamble,” as Billy is wont to say. Families depended on soil integrity and Mother Nature who is known for her fickle disposition. Working hard never bothered Billy, but moving bothered him a sight.
Billy Albertson was born 3-31-1931 at the Bill Etris Farm in Roswell, Georgia. “None of us kids were born in the same town. We moved twelve times before Poppa had a place of his own.” Billy remembers.
Two years later, the family moved to the Phillips farm in Alpharetta where his younger brother, Bobby, was born. In 1936, Billy’s Poppa, Egbert Albertson, moved the family to the Will Chatham farm near Providence Road on Birmingham Highway in Alpharetta. Even though Billy was only four-years-old, he wanted to help his mother. Unfortunately, he got too close to the milk cow, who kicked him resulting in a bone infection. Doctor’s visits were not an option. Billy’s mother dressed the wound and warned Billy to be careful.
During the fall of 1938, Poppa Albertson moved his family to Hall County. Word had reached the Albertson’s that there was a small farm with an apple and peach orchard. This was a welcome change from cotton. The Albertson’s unloaded their sparse possessions at the Lee Pitchford farm and got to work only to move the following year to a dairy farm. By now, many of Billy’s older siblings had settled in White or Hall County. Billy, age seven, remained with his folks.
Sharecroppers moved every two years, sometimes yearly if the growing season wasn’t productive. They typically moved after the crops were harvested. Folk settled their accounts at the hardware store and then split any profit with the landowner. Billy’s Poppa tucked away as much money as he could, hoping to buy his own place.
Billy remembers, “Those old farmhouses weren’t tight. I could look through the floorboards and see the chickens roosting under the house.” In addition to housing, sharecroppers received a personal garden spot. These vegetables weren’t split with the landowner, but preserved to feed the family through the winter. Spring began at a new farm, with new debt. Sharecroppers visited the supply store and added the necessary supplies and fertilizer to their tab. Many farmers did not use chemical fertilizer because of the expense.
“The first thing Momma always done when we planted our garden was clean out the chicken house. Cotton takes a lot of nutrients from the soil and many farms were worn out.” Billy also recalls his family leaving the Claude Westbrook farm because it was “too rocky to grow anything.”
In 1941, Billy’s older brothers: Judge, JT, and Claude enlisted in the military leaving Billy to help his folks tend the farm with the remaining siblings. “During the war and the Depression we probably had more than most. City folk didn’t have nothing. They were really hurting, but life didn’t much change for us poor folk. At least we could feed ourselves.”
While cows provided milk, chickens provided eggs which were sold. “Momma’s egg money was all the cash money we had. We never ate eggs. We might eat one of the old roosters, but eggs were valuable.”
The Albertson family continued to move from farm-to-farm using their mule-drawn wagon, even in the late 30s. It wasn’t until 1947, when Poppa Albertson purchased a Ford, that the family moved their belongings using an automobile. That year, the family moved from Hall County to Fulton County. The men wrangled the family cow, her calf, and a small horse into a pickup belonging to Mr. Harmon, a family friend, and headed to Alpharetta, settling in an area near the Liberty Baptist Church at the Cherokee/Fulton County line. “It took Poppa thirty years to save three thousand dollars. He bought twenty-five acres. The farm was wore out, and we couldn’t grow much, but we tried.”
In 1949, Egbert sold the failed farm and invested in three acres on Birmingham Highway. Billy helped build two chicken houses and the Albertson men set about raising three thousand chickens. “By then the boll weevil had destroyed all the cotton.” Billy was the only child living at home. In December of 1955, Billy Albertson married Marjorie Cornelison and they started tending house in a three room green house that still stands on Birmingham Highway.
The couple saved enough money to buy a little strip of land on Hardscrabble Road. Here Billy and Marjorie built a modest home. Neighbors told Billy he should plant a magnolia as a symbol of perseverance. He placed the small tree at the corner of his home. Billy worked for Crabapple Sausage Company and later at the A&P grocery store. He and Marjorie had two daughters who grew up with chickens, and goats, which Billy still raises today. True to his sharecropping heritage, Billy tended a large garden that produced a bounty so plentiful he began selling produce to friends and neighbors.
Today, Farmer Billy still sells produce from his roadside stand located on Hardscrabble Road. A fifty-year-old Magnolia tree stands as a symbol of Billy’s promise to himself that his roots are planted deep in the Georgia Clay.