Wells-Young Homeplace Conservation Easement

The Wells/Young Homeplace on Willow Creek Road has served as home to generations of the Wells family in the Big Sandy Mush community. The John W. Wells farmhouse, built in the early 1840s for John and his second wife, Rachel Penland, stands as a testament to the generations of farmers who worked the land in this quiet community of Buncombe County. Patricia (Patsy) Young inherited the homeplace of her Wells ancestors and worked with Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy to protect 90 acres of the family farm with a new agricultural conservation easement – which closed in February 2024.

“This farm completes a missing puzzle piece in an otherwise solid pattern of agricultural conservation, fitting neatly between the Willow Creek conservation easements that SAHC holds, and the Buncombe County-held easement on Aubrey and Rieta Wells’ Homeplace,” explains SAHC Farmland Protection Director Jess Laggis.  “All told, the addition of this 90-acre easement consolidates hundreds of acres of connected, protected lands.”

“I am thrilled that Patsy decided to conserve this important part of the original family farm,” says Terri Wells, conservation landowner of the Willow Creek land. “With this part of the original Wells homeplace now conserved, a rich farming heritage will continue for future generations. This missing piece links previously conserved farmland of various Wells family members to connect several hundred acres of the original farm.  I know I am partial, but Sandy Mush is a special place that has such a rich agricultural history and beauty that I know these important conservation efforts will be appreciated by many in years to come.”

Almost a third of the recently protected acreage contains important agricultural soils, with 11.4 acres of nationally important Prime soils and 16.4 acres of locally important soils. Used for cattle, tobacco, silage, and a range of homestead crops, the land was part of a much larger farm which once totaled about 350 acres and has been divided amongst family members through the years. The protected property spreads on either side of Willow Creek and Willow Creek Road, rising to 3,375 ft elevation with 1.75 miles of streams. Permanent conservation of this land, visible from the Buncombe County Farm Heritage Trail, helps protect the scenic character of this valley.

A grant from the N.C. Department of Agriculture supported the purchase of the conservation easement, and a grant from Buncombe County helped cover the transaction costs to accomplish the project.

“Buncombe County is thrilled to continue our partnership with SAHC and their commitment to protecting our natural resources,” says Ariel Zijp, Buncombe County Soil and Water Conservation Farmland Preservation Manager.  “The Wells/Young Homeplace Farm will add to a contiguous area of bucolic farm and forestland already under easement and help to retain the Sandy Mush region’s historic agricultural community. Additionally, the water quality and scenic viewshed protection from this project is highly impactful in retaining the attributes that make this region unique. We thank the SAHC staff and Young Homeplace landowners for their dedication to this work and congratulate them on protecting more of our natural and cultural resources!”

Continuing the Family Farming Tradition

The new conservation easement at the Wells/Young Homeplace adjoins other protected land and adds an important piece of working farmland to the network of conserved farms across Big Sandy Mush. Patsy’s nephew Aubrey Wells (and wife Rieta) farm on a neighboring parcel and use part of her land for pasture and hay for their herd of Black Angus cattle. 

“I’m happy that she preserved it and that it will stay undeveloped,” says Aubrey. “I’m glad that the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy was able to raise the money to preserve the land, and that it and other parts of the original family farms are still undeveloped. The homeplace property was once much, much larger, and has been broken up over the years as the family grew – Grandaddy had 10 brothers and sisters.”

Former dairy farmers, Aubrey and Rieta transitioned their herd to Black Angus beef cattle several years ago. Aubrey notes that running a successful dairy operation requires deep knowledge of animal husbandry and constant attention – and a great deal of energy, which they had aplenty in younger years. Today, they tend their herd of heritage breed cattle, continuing long-familiar family farming traditions and selling locally sourced beef to the community. You can find contact information to purchase from Aubrey Wells Farm on Facebook or visit www.farmheritagetrail.org/aubrey-wells-farm.

“I think that farmland conservation is a good program,” continues Aubrey. “It’s not for everyone, but we have to do something to keep locally sourced food. We’ve got to set aside some acreage for farming.”

Memories of the Land

“The first time I saw Patsy Young’s Homeplace, I was walking through the empty rooms of her childhood home with Patsy, Terri Wells, and some representatives from the Historic Preservation Society,” shares Jess. “Patsy told us about her mother’s garden out front, and how she and the other children in her family grew up playing in the nearby creeks, fields, and forests.  It’s a privilege to get to work with Patsy and that love to ensure the homeplace will remain a farm forever.”

The house structure and immediate outbuildings were excluded from the conservation easement, but protecting the land preserves the surroundings of this historic homestead, the tangible connection to cherished memories of days long gone.

“This was the only home I knew, growing up,” shares Patsy. “The house was built in the 1800s by my great-grandfather and then passed down to my grandfather Charles Wells, my Aunt Gerty, my father, and then me. That’s where all the family had grown up. My dad’s parents died when he was young, and his eldest sister Gertrude brought him up. She was a teacher. Later, Mother and Daddy lived there with Aunt Gerty and raised me and my brother there, too. The land had been divided up amongst all the children, and those that moved out of the area sold their land back to Daddy or one of the other family members who stayed.”

“It was such a wonderful place to play and grow up, and the house had big rooms and fireplaces. There was a lovely porch outside and big boxwoods around the house that I’d make playhouses in. I roamed the mountains and hills all around with my dog and pet goat. It was just a wonderful childhood. I climbed the mulberry and persimmon trees and played in the creek and waterfalls [small cascades] above the bridge. I could take a sandwich for lunch and be gone all day, playing and climbing.”

Patsy vividly remembers days when life moved at a different pace. She recalls using a bold imagination to enjoy all kinds of adventures and to camp out and tell stories to her nephews Aubrey and Roger by the creek. However, the freedom and joy of the farmstead came with a variety of chores.

“It was fun, but it was hard work, too,” recalls Patty. “I had chores like milking the cow and filling the woodbox in the kitchen for the cookstove and fireplace. When we had a goat or calf, I’d tend to them. Another chore was to fill the reservoir on the stove with water brought in from the spring. We had a bucket for drinking water and a tin dipper – and you wanted to fill the drinking water before dark! Nights were always special times. With the fire in the fireplace, I’d love to climb up and go to sleep in Daddy’s lap, and he’d carry me up and put me in bed.”

“Mother and Daddy had beef cattle and grew tobacco,” says Patsy. “Mother always helped Dad on the farm – it was just the two of them. We grew everything we needed, and Mother pickled (canned) most everything – beets, peaches, pears, beans, even corn on the cob. When I came home from school on the bus, one of my chores was to cook supper. I’d get to pick whatever I wanted to cook from the springhouse, then wash dishes and do homework. When my friends came home with me, they loved going to the spring house to help pick what they wanted for supper. In those days, if you wanted to have a friend visit, they’d just come home with you on the school bus and stay.”

“In the summertime, our big meals were in the middle of the day – that was dinner – and we’d have a light meal for supper in the evening,” continues Patsy. “Aunt Gerty taught me how to cook. We didn’t have electricity when I was little, so we had a big wood cookstove and fireplace in the kitchen. We’d cook dinner and blow through a horn to call Mother and Daddy in to eat. We’d sit out in the yard under the shade of two maple trees and talk. Then Mother and Daddy would go back out to work, and Aunt Gerty and I would clean up and put up the leftovers, which we’d have later for supper. To go with it, we’d make oven bread – cornbread cooked in a Dutch oven with hot coals – with hot grease and cornbread batter with buttermilk – made with our own corn ground at the mill. We’d eat that with homemade butter Mother had churned.”

“When we needed corn meal, Daddy would saddle up the horse and put a bag of shelled corn behind the saddle, then set me in front of him and ride down to the mill,” recalls Patsy. “There was a Black family that lived in Sandy Mush and was loved by everyone, and that was the Boyd family. Mr. Boyd would come out of the mill and set me off the horse, then we’d grind the corn and get back on the horse, and he’d hand me back up to Daddy.”

Along with the mill, a general store with a long counter and well-stocked shelves served the farming families’ needs in Sandy Mush, selling shoes, clothes, candy, and other trade items. Patsy also helped forage and harvest goods for food and crafts.

“Aunt Gerty made a drawstring bag for me to go pick chinquapins [pronounced ‘chinky pins’],” she remembers. Chinquapins are a native, dwarf chestnut tree that produces small edible nuts. Patsy remembers boiling the nuts and stringing them for bracelets. “I’d go up the ridge and pick grapes or down at the end of the holler to pick branch lettuce. We’d eat branch lettuce cooked in bacon grease, cook hot potatoes in the ashes in the fireplace, and have hand-cranked homemade ice cream in the winter, made with snow that piled up on the north side of the house. We’d crush walnuts or open canned peaches or cherries to go with the ice cream.”

“I know the hard work that went into the land,” says Patsy. “My Mother and Daddy always loved the land. They never had a lot, but they loved being able to grow crops and be on their own. Yes, it was hard work and hard times, but also so good. They loved the land, and I love the land and all its beauty –  the trees, waterfalls, the rocks. It was just a special place. I loved all the little things that we now take for granted, like catching lightning bugs and putting them in jar (and letting them go), finding salamanders and fishing in the creek, looking at the stars and constellations when there were no lights to block them out, and taking fresh eggs down to the bridge to sell to the peddler when he came through, then buying a Pepsi to share. We had a deep enjoyment of the simpler things, and it all centered around the land.”

“My children also love the land because Mother and Daddy were alive when they were younger and we went every other weekend out to Sandy Mush to visit,” adds Patsy. “My grandchildren don’t know it as well and don’t have that same feeling and connection. I’m hoping it will stay in the family, but I’m glad that in the future it will go together as a whole. I would love to see my family go back there.  I’m also glad that other pieces that were originally part of my great-grandfather’s farm have also been protected and will stay as they are.”