"My dad was born and raised in Belmont County. . . . When he first came here I think he was a waiter in a restaurant. . . . He was always a farmer . . . a backyard farmer- there was a lot of vacant lots around town and they'd tell him that you can have this lot which you raises off of. And so he put a crop on to it or put a garden in." Lawrence Simmons
Like many of the African Americans who moved to Knox County at the turn of the century, Lawrence Simmon's father came to Mount Vernon seeking work in industry and business. Perhaps because most African Americans worked on jobs in town, the history of African American farmers in Knox County has not been previously examined. Lawrence's father was not a full-time farmer but grew crops on the unused land of neighbors and community members. Best known by the town children for his hay and sleigh rides, Isabel Simmons, Lawrence's wife, remembers with fondness the snowy nights when the phone rang off the hook for sleigh ride requests. Today his sleigh bells hang over a door way in the home of his son.
"My father always said there's nothing like farming. . . .I've always had this business but I'd go down in the evenings and for a couple of years between a neighbor helping me, why we got the crops out. . . . You just enjoy seeing something that you own and you think you can look and see the things that you did- the trees you planted."
Much like his father before him, Lawrence was not a full-time farmer. In the middle of the 1930s Lawrence started a trash collecting business. He fed the excess garbage to hogs. The seventy-five acres that Lawrence still owns but longer farms once housed the hogs for his business and later chickens, horses, and a few acres of corn and oats. Lawrence farmed the land until a hip operation made it hard for him to do the labor the farm required. Through the help of neighbors, Lawrence was able to maintain the farm for the enjoyment of his daughter and granddaughter.
"I work well with white people. . . . I'm not a person that holds grudges. Everybody I'm sure has had some unpleasant experience sometime regardless what race. . . . I feel as though I wouldn't want to live any place else. . . . I'm satisfied with what I have done and it hasn't always been easy, but the community has been good to me. . . . I don't care what anybody says, you can't do it on your own."
As a member of a farming community, Lawrence looks with fondness on the friends and neighbors that have helped him over the past sixty years. As one of the few African American farmers, he has formed his friendships within both the African American community and the farming community. Like many other farmers' children, his daughter participated in the 4-H club and almost every year Lawrence has ridden his antique tractor at the county fair.
"Well the farms have gotten bigger and a lot of farmers have sold out... I don't like to see it but there is so many farms that are being sold for housing developments. Maybe I'm old fashioned.... Its strange to think of what they do out there to the land... cutting hills down".
Lawrence Simmons views the future with a mix of trepidation and resignation. After farming the land for 60 years, he is saddened by the loss of farms in the area. Yet for Lawrence, today's changes fall within a lifetime of change.
photos courtsey of Lawrence Simmons