Owned by the state of Tennessee Division of Archeology, 450-acre Williams Island is managed by the Tennessee River Gorge Trust. Twenty acres of that is “Williams Island Farm,” which Larry Roberts began in 2008 and is managed by Mary Beth Sanders. It is tended by her and Landon Blankenship. The rest of the Island is run by cattle farmers.
“The state wants it cleared so the artifacts are available if research needs to be done, keeping it from going straight to forest making the history accessible,” Mary Beth states.
Without some carefully managed agriculture, the island would become overgrown very quickly and it would be impossible to continue archaeological research.
“People have been living and farming on this island forever. They have found Spanish artifacts and prehistoric artifacts. There is not active research going on right now, but they have done enough to know that this is a significant place. There are places that we are not allowed to dig,” Mary Beth said.
Prehistoric components were horizontally separated within the flood plain deposits. Two prehistoric features and a buried A-horizon soil containing cultural deposits eroding from the river bank were identified upon examination of the riverbank soil. During 1890, George Barnes, a U.S. Marshal in Chattanooga, excavated on Moccasin Bend, Williams Island and throughout East Tennessee.
In the early part of this century Clarence Moore investigated knolls and villages along the Tennessee River Valley. He reported early Spanish contact materials from Williams Island, Citico and Hampton Place. By the 1800s, the Cherokee settlement began moving to more European style agriculture. Williams Island, Moccasin Bend and Lookout Valley came into the ownership of the Browns, a Cherokee-Anglo mixed blood family.
“The farm was named for Samuel Williams, a farmer in this area during the Civil War days,” Mary Beth conveys.
Williams Island is lavish with history.
As Chattanooga recalls its history we learn 150 years ago this April, in 1862 James J. Andrews and a band of Union Civil War spies stole the locomotive called “The General.” A few accounts read that one of the men escaped from authorities in Chattanooga and hid out on Williams Island until he was recaptured.
Mary Beth came to the farm in 2010. “I would come out once a week because I wanted to learn how to grow things. About a year ago I started working here as staff. We want to keep the farm going but we have to figure out how to do that with the few people we have on staff,” Mary Beth says.
“I put together a schedule for our crop for the year, trying to mimic what we did last year. With it being on the cusp of summer, we just aren’t able to do all that I wanted to do and we don’t have initiative funding that other farms have,” Mary Beth claims.
“I have been so bogged down with the ground itself that I haven’t gotten to research about grants yet. I will be looking into Gaining Ground’s support and even looking toward national support,” she said.
The spring crop is doing well growing kale, onion, cabbage, collards, a variety of turnips, radishes, arugula and potatoes. We also are growing blueberries and black berries and we are putting in a few tomatoes. We sell most every Wednesday at the Main Street Market. Last year we sold to the Brainerd and the Signal markets as well. We also sell to St. John’s, 212, Alleia’s, Public House and we have sold basil to Lupi’s, though we have a drastically reduced quantity this year,” Ms. Sanders says.
“We have a few volunteers who come out every week. We harvest together and wash produce together. Robin Fazio of Sonrisa Farm brings a class - an after-school gardening club. They come out usually once a week. They grow their own plants in our greenhouse. It’s a good little communal activity time,” says Mary Beth.
There is no bridge to get to the island; you have to take a boat to get there. “We have not held any type of community event here, mainly because of the logistics in getting people to cross safely; we hoped to have some sort of open house soon. We hope to get funds from The River Gorge Trust to reinforce that bank. Until it’s a safer set up, we aren’t going in that direction,” Mary Beth maintains.
Campers and kayakers who are part of the Tennessee River Blueway frequent the island. They have to register with the River Gorge Trust to get access.
The farm staff who worked the farm before Mary Beth used to stay on the farm. “There a few sleeping platforms in the woods, that is where they camped, and would come to this house and convene,” Mary Beth states. “I live close by – it’s not a far commute to come here. It’s nice to work at an urban farm and not have a long drive to get here.”
On Wednesdays and Fridays Mary Beth meets with about two or three volunteers who will come out to work. On Wednesday morning they harvest the crops for market that same day.
What is the difference growing on an island?
“The soil is different. It is alluvial like river sediment - tied in with water and laid down by water. It is real fine, sandy and loose. That’s why we grow carrots well; there aren’t a lot of huge rocks and chunky clay bits that a lot of farms have to deal with. We are well-known for root crops,” Mary Beth says.
“The easiest to grow would be radishes. They are in and out in a month’s time, while the hardest to grow would be…” she pauses, “anything the deer like to eat.”
Deer can swim and there are enough deer living on the island that they like to eat what is grown on the farm. Mary Beth has concocted a “fishing line fence” around the garden crops to scare the deer away. It seems to work really well.
“It’s nice to be here; you get the feel of being in the country, yet you don’t feel too detached because you are still close to the city.”
With little staff and very few volunteers to work the farm their plans have been scaled back temporarily. “We will most likely focus on perennials and grow fruit trees and berries, carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, garlic, and onions. Just to have something growing every year but not have to kill ourselves trying to keep up,”
What Mary Beth would like to express to the community is, “We always need funding and if anyone wants to volunteer their time to learn about or experience farming, that is a big help. We might have to disappear from the map for a little while just to get our heads together on what we are going to do. It would be a shame to see this farm die. In the long run it will be good for us to slow down a bit to see what we need to do next,” Mary Beth states.
Having a farm that is on an island proves to have unique experiences. “Things that I have to deal with that other farmers don’t is sometimes losing the boat locks, in the water or when I didn’t tie up the boat well enough and it got away from me I had to swim out to get the boat when it had drifted away. Little things like that. . . that doesn’t happen at other farms. We have lost a lot of cell phones… as we bend over and it falls in water. Just things you wouldn’t normally have to think about,” Mary Beth laughs.
“We are unique by being right here in the city, like Crabtree Farms. For us to have two urban organic farms right here in the city is amazing. It is so beautiful here and to be able to come here and experience this …and people say this place …is magical.”