By Robin Rayne

MDJ Contributor

When Virgil Mabry bought 40 tree-covered acres of northeast Cobb County land for $100 in 1904, Ford Model A cars were just emerging from a new Detroit, Michigan, assembly line.

Mabry and other settlers to the area relied on kerosene lamps for evening light since electrical service was decades away.

Today, as heavy traffic rushes past large subdivisions along Sandy Plains Road, drivers might easily miss a modest sign for “Blackberries and Apples” next to an otherwise unmarked drive. That narrow lane leads to serene orchards and pastures that still bear the Mabry name, and takes visitors back to a simpler time.

“We’re the oldest continuously working farm in Cobb County, maybe all of Georgia, but there’s a lot of area residents who still don’t know we’re here,” said Julie Stephens, Virgil Mabry’s great-granddaughter. She and her husband, Robby, live in a two story-home overlooking the sprawling farm and pastures. She manages the farm’s stables and equestrian center for her aunt, Betty Pettett, who also lives on the land.

Jim Mabry, Stephens’ father, was born and raised on the farm. He continues to work the farm but turned over the “pick-your-own” orchard to Stephens and her brother, Chris Mabry, two years ago when he turned 80, she said.

“Daddy and his sister, Betty, still own the farm Grandfather Virgil started,” Stephens said. “After Virgil married Mamie Morgan in 1906, he and his brother, Harley, formed a partnership and purchased additional farmland while raising their families. By 1914, they had acquired 180 additional acres, making a 220-acre farm. They sawed the timber and used some to build each family their own farmhouse,” she said. “Cotton was grown as the cash crop, and he also maintained a vegetable garden to feed his family.”

They raised chickens for eggs and had a Sunday dinner of fried chicken on special occasions, she said. “Honeybees were kept to provide honey to eat with biscuits at breakfast and to use as a sweetener, and Daddy still keeps bees and sells honey,” she said.

Virgil and Mamie Mabry’s century-old house with its original tin roof stood on Wesley Chapel Road until 2018, when it was razed to make room for a new subdivision. “One of the saddest days of my life was watching all the huge oak trees and homestead be bulldozed. I still remember the outhouse they had when I was a little girl,” she said.

Much of the family’s land was sold to developers over the decades, Stephens said. 26.5 acres was purchased by Cobb County in 2006 and eventually became county-owned Mabry Park. It officially opened in May and remains surrounded by family-owned pasture.

The new park has several longtime farm customers puzzled, Stephens said.

“People are sometimes confused now about where to find us because of the new park, but we’re still here. I’ve had others tell me they had no idea this hidden gem was just around the corner,” she said.

“The vineyard is a pick-your-own farm where children can see firsthand where fruit actually comes from — besides the local grocery store,” she said. The equestrian center offers riding lessons, private stalls and pasture horse boarding. A full-time trainer offers coaching in dressage, hunter and jumping, she added. “I care for all the horses like they were my own, because I grew up with horses and I’m thrilled to spend my days surrounded by horses,” says Stephens, who retired in 2015 after 30 years of teaching. “I taught in 12 schools across the state before ending my career at Mabry Middle School, named for one of Cobb County’s original settlers in the 1800s,” she said.

“Through the years, the Mabry farm has raised cattle and horses, and farmed the land for vegetables, fruits, cotton and timber,” she said.

Weeds had overtaken some of the orchard in recent years, so Stephens and her brother began restoration of the orchard in 2017.

“We wanted to make it an easy place to pick fruit. Our customers weigh the produce on a scale and pay on the honor system in a cash box,” she said. The farm grows peaches, apples and blackberries, as well as tomatoes and corn. The family grows muscadine grapes and recently began producing its own label of red muscadine wine.

Jim Mabry cherishes his family’s farming history, which he passionately shares.

“They lived a simple life, but it was also very hard physical work. There was no electricity for lighting, and all of the cows were milked by hand each morning and night. They also made butter and would haul it and the milk by wagon 30 miles to Atlanta to sell,” he said. “Virgil had a door-to-door route that he would run each week. They sold the dairy cows in 1925 and operated a sawmill, powered by a steam engine. For most of his life, his garden produced all of the vegetables they ate,” he said.

Land is ‘the only thing that lasts’

The family has steadfastly rejected offers from developers to purchase what remains of the Mabry farm.

“Every week, a real estate agent or developer is calling and trying to talk you into selling,” Jim Mabry explained. “In retrospect, I can see that I had the best upbringing a young man can have. You’re taught the value of work and the value of serving the land, and you’re taught what the land can do for you if you take care of it,” he said.

Stephens is a firm advocate for growing vegetables and fruit without harmful additives and pesticides.

“It’s better for our health, and future generations will need more food produced,” Stephens said. “Our customers love it here. They call to find out when the apples and blackberries will be ready to pick.”

“I guess Daddy’s love of the land has passed on to me,” Stephens said. “There’s this line in the film ‘Gone with the Wind,’ when Scarlett O’Hara’s father, John, tells her, ‘Land is the only thing worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dying for — because it’s the only thing that lasts.’ That’s so true, and we owe it to our children to educate them in school about the value of land and the importance of its preservation. I love this land and all the history in it.”

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