Up on a shelf in the 19th-century barn, an old wooden AM radio would pop every time the milking machine’s pulsator pulled the product from the cows that kept the dairy farm going. That was back in 1968, when Tom Garrison was 10 years old. A bulletin broke in around 12:15 a.m., California time.
“I could say I probably was one of the first people on the East Coast that was my age to hear that Robert Kennedy was shot — because I was milking cows at 4 o’clock in the morning,” says Garrison, now 62, standing among the tools of his fourth-generation trade at Denver Downs in Anderson.
Times have certainly changed at the farm, which fronts what was once a dirt-packed wagon road called The General’s Highway and now shows up on GPS as Clemson Boulevard/U.S. Highway 76. In October, the Garrison family recalls all those days during the family farm’s 150th anniversary.
“They’ve seen how things have changed,” says Larry McKenzie, assistant to the president of the 75-year-old, 100,000-member South Carolina Farm Bureau Federation. “That ability to adapt and not stick with, ‘This is what we’ve done, this is what we’ll always do’ — that’s what gets people in trouble. That’s one of the great things about their farming operation.”
While Tom Garrison continues with traditional agriculture — tending 180 head of Angus-beef cattle, growing collard greens and other produce and, on a cloudy September afternoon, repairing an ancient generator — one of his four sisters, Catherine Garrison, is working on a new cash crop.
Of the property’s 350 or so acres, 40 of them have been turned into a family-friendly playground Catherine Garrison refers to as “agritourism.” The grounds feature, among other attractions, a 12-acre corn maze; a bar that looks like a miniature silo; zip lines; a stage; barns; a goat pen; and an elaborate playground with a climbing wall, ropes courses and other contraptions to exhaust the kids.
Thompson Smith, director of the farm bureau’s 13-county Piedmont District, sees such agritourism as a creative revenue stream for small family farms hungering for profitability.
Farm life is notoriously difficult. The Garrisons lost their brother, Bart Garrison, in a silo accident when he was 29. Tom Garrison talks about the 24/7/365 effort required to keep a farm going. Catherine Garrison discusses unrelenting market volatility.
“Most farms today are figuring out how to do agritourism because you gotta sell a lot of tomatoes at 29 cents a pound to make any money,” she says, “and then people beat you up on 29 cents a pound because at Publix it’s 28 cents a pound.”
Still, the Garrisons are undeniably proud of their heritage.
In 1868, W.D. Garrison returned home from the Civil War and began growing cotton. Around 1890, he built the whiteboard farmhouse, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and features Colonial Revival architecture, Victorian ornamentation and Roman Doric columns.
Years later, his grandson, T. Ed Garrison, returned from flying bombers in the Pacific theater during World War II and later began dairy farming. Ultimately, he made his name as Anderson County’s longest-serving state senator, from 1967 to 1988. As chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he created legislation whose impact on South Carolina’s agriculture is felt to this day, Smith says. Clemson University’s livestock arena bears his name.
In April 1994, when the nation’s dairy industry hit the skids, Tom Garrison sold the milk cows. Today, the former Eagle Scout says he’ll keep farming as long as he’s able — in part to keep his father’s legacy alive.
Says 47-year-old Catherine Garrison: “We’re definitely proud of the land — we love the land, and it’s special to us and we want to keep it the way it is for as long as possible.”
The family has what it takes, Smith says: “If I was a betting man, I’d bet on that Garrison crowd, that they’d be able to pull it off for another 150 years.”
Weekend events down on the farm
Opened about five years ago, Denver Downs’ entertainment grounds feature regular events, including:
Things to do at the agri-tainment complex
Along with four areas to purchase food and beverages (including beer and wine), the farm’s entertainment complex offers more than 35 activities for children, parents and farmhands of all ages. Here are just a few of them:
Barnyard Express Zipline
Giant Spider Web
Farm Ropes Course
Straw Barn Play Area
Corn Box Play Area
Farm Wall Climb
Little Farmer’s Corral
Source: Denver Downs
Generations of Garrisons are interred at the small cemetery of Welcome Baptist Church, founded in 1889 in the Garrison farmhouse’s front parlor. The church still operates.
Source: Denver Downs